Sidelines: 40 years since the scandal that made me grow up

It was 40 years ago this week. Aug. 9, to be exact.

I got up one hot morning and, without telling anyone, drove to Galesburg, the birthplace of Carl Sandburg, one of my favorite poets.

But that wasn’t the reason for my trip. A teenage friend of mine had run away from home. He hadn't run away to join the circus, he went to join a movie theater. Actually, he left to join friends who were managing the movie theater in Galesburg.

I can still see the look on my friend's face when I walked into the theater and told him he had stayed away long enough. Instead of the fight I was expecting, he quietly packed his bags and got in my car. He was ready to go home.

We heard the news on WLS radio on the long drive back. Breaking into the latest hit from Elton John, we heard Richard Nixon announce he was resigning the presidency, the first – so far, the only – president to ever do so.

Being sarcastic teenagers, my friend and I chuckled, saying he got what he deserved. Inwardly, though, it was troubling. Like many others, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.

At the time, Nixon was my favorite president, for purely selfish reasons. He had ended the Vietnam War, which few of us really understood, and the military draft while I was still in high school. Rather than getting town-wide welcome-home parades like they do today, returning soldiers were spit on or called “baby killers.” It happened to two of my cousins. I knew many others who came back from the service bitter or hooked on drugs, sometimes both.

Maybe I was naive, or maybe I simply didn't want to, but I couldn't believe all of the allegations about our 37th president.

Watergate didn't make any sense, and the whole thing conflicted with everything I had been raised to believe – to put blind faith in our leaders, because they had our best interests at heart. At that time, I still thought the president was always the best and brightest person this country had to offer. And wasn't the U.S. the greatest country in the world, the good guys in the white hats, the country like John Wayne, who never caused trouble but could be counted on to finish it?

If the most powerful man in the world was a simple crook, what did that mean for the rest of us, the mere mortals who put him in office? Who were you supposed to believe? Who could you trust? And was everything you ever read, what you were taught in school, in church, at home, wrong? Was any of it true, or was it all propaganda?

Despite the mounting evidence against him, I kept expecting Nixon to prove it was all a big misunderstanding, that he wasn't guilty of anything, that it was a political ploy to embarrass him.

In the end, of course, he didn't, because he couldn't.

It wasn't until years later, when I could look at it more maturely, that I recognized Watergate as a defining moment in our country's history. The scandal didn't ruin us. The country didn't collapse; neither did the courts or our banking system. No one tried to take us over or tell us how to run things. If anything, Watergate made the country stronger, showing the world democracy could withstand anything. To paraphrase William Faulkner, "we learned to endure."

Like a lot of people, Watergate opened my eyes to some of the harsher realities of the world. It made me cynical and cautious and taught me lessons before I was really ready for them. Perhaps the biggest is that as long as people are human, we'll always have scandals. Whether it's politics, religion or sports, it doesn't matter. Realistically, it's who we are; sadly, we can't seem to help it.

Watergate made me grow up.

I’ve read the stock market rose 35 points the day Nixon resigned. Today, the market goes up that much when the wind blows the wrong way. If a president resigned today under similar circumstances, the market would go up 3,500 points.

But that was 40 years ago.

And my friend hasn't tried to run away since.

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