“On June 17, 1976, on the fourth anniversary of the Watergate break-in, seven students at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School re-enacted the operation by bungling a break-in at the principal’s office. I was one of them….”
You can read JB’s piece to find out what happened to us when the vice-principal caught us.
Now, JB contends that in many ways, times were more innocent in the 1970s. There’s some truth in that contention. For example, while many of today’s high schools have armed cops patrolling the hallways, all we had was a couple of unarmed undercover narcotics agents. On the other hand, there was that race riot at our high school in our senior year (an event I want to write about some day, when I can find the time to research it more fully). Or if you were gay, as one of my close friends was, that high school could get ugly.
But more to the point, it may be that time has blurred our memories of the utter venality of Richard Nixon and his henchmen. Yes, the Watergate break-in was less violent than the armed insurrection at the Capitol building on Jan. 6. But if you really think about it, the extent of Nixon’s criminality, and his naked desire for raw power, still have the capacity to astonish us.
Long-time friend JB (no, not that JB, this JB) just reminded me that on June 17, 1972, 50 years ago this Saturday, undercover police arrived at the Watergate Complex to investigate a possible break-in. The police arrested five guys wiretapping and burglarizing the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee there. These five hapless idiots actually had a lookout across the street who was supposed to keep an eye out for police, but he got hooked watching a B-movie, “The Attack of the Puppet People.” Ultimately, it turned out the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, had authorized the break-in, and the subsequent cover-up. Nixon would famously declare on national television, “I Am Not a Crook.” Very few people believed him.
Please do not draw unhealthy parallels between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Trump had nothing to do with the storming of the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Nor has Trump tried to cover up his involvement in that armed insurgency. The big difference between Trump and Nixon is that Trump is actually in fact and really truly the lawfully elected president of the United States. He won the 2020 election. Trump is not a loser like Nixon. He is a winner. Therefore, everything he does is lawful, by definition. Donald Trump Is Not a Crook. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way (no parallels between Nixon and Trump! none!), let us continue.
I was in middle school when the Watergate break-in happened. The subsequent Watergate scandal and the eventual melt-down of the Nixon administration had a big impact on people in my age cohort. I was in high school on the fourth anniversary of Watergate Day, and six of my friends and I decided to engage in some political theatre: we would “break in” to the main office of the high school, and plant some bugs (dead insects we found lying around school somewhere). Then we would ask the secretary to sign a document we prepared in advance, attesting that we had “bugged” the office.
We were all about 14 or 16 years old, and both disgusted and fascinated by the spectre of the American political system as it unraveled before our eyes. We could barely keep from giggling as we carried out our plan. As the secretary willingly signed our “Certificate of Veracity,” the assistant principal, the man in charge of discipline at the high school, walked in. He barely restrained his own laughter, and at the bottom of our “Certificate” wrote: “I caught these buggers,” then signed his name.
This story of political theatre is primarily aimed at today’s middle school and high school students. Perhaps it will serve as inspiration for you on the fourth anniversary of the storming of the Capitol building.
A friend from high school reminded me that yesterday was Watergate Day. On Saturday, June 17, 1972, five burglars paid by CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President) broke into the Democratic National Convention headquarters at 2600 Virginia Avenue, Washington, D.C., in the same building as the Watergate Hotel. They placed hidden microphones — bugs — and took photos of sensitive material. It eventually turned out that then-President Richard (“I Am Not A Crook”) Nixon authorized and had direct knowledge of the burglary; he resigned rather than face impeachment proceedings.
The Watergate scandal shaped the political consciousness of my immediate age cohort. People a few years older than my age cohort talk about the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X as defining moments in their political awareness, but for us the defining moment was criminal activity by the President of the United States.
A few years after the Watergate scandal, I think in 1977, some friends of mine and I re-enacted the Watergate break-in in our high school: we walked in to the office of one of the principals, dumped dead insects on his desk, and informed him that we were bugging his office. I don’t remember suffering any punishment for this act of street theatre. At least we weren’t selling drugs, one of the things our high school was known for (the school had its own undercover narcotics agents), and at least we showed that we knew something about U.S. history.
I have never commemorated Watergate Day since then. But maybe I should, under the theory that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. The current presidential election campaign has already descended to mud-slinging and name-calling, and outright criminal acts may be following close behind.