History Is Only in the Rear View Mirror

With the impeachment hearings going on in the background, it’s hard to write today about other topics on my mind, like Medicare-for-all or whether the laugh track is a spawn of Satan. Comparisons have been made for days back to the 1973 Watergate hearings, although I don’t know if that will turn out to be the right comparison. Historical accounts depict those hearings as riveting coverage that all of America tuned into, day in and day out, when the reality was a little different. I remember because I was there.

Who watched Watergate in color? Only the people in the room. Photo from ABCGo.

One of the reports last night showed a picture from the first day of the hearings, with the green Senate table, splashing across the view like a movie green screen. This is misleading. In 1973, less than half the households in America had color TVs, and even though we had one, that was not the TV being watched in the middle of the day. It would be doctoring the past to describe the hearings with that kind of illustration, though several journalists have done so in recent weeks. The first time I saw that vision, all I could think of was, “Well, the hearings weren’t conducted in color.”

The Senate Select Committee on Watergate convened these public hearings in May 1973, and they continued until September. When it’s noted they were on during the summer, that means All Summer Long. It’s hard for me to imagine today’s Congress or public having the kind of stamina or interest to generate hearings for that long.

There had been precedent: the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954. Those televised hearings were on the subject of whether the fanatical anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy had misused his status in helping promote an aide. McCarthy had made a name for himself by accusing the government of being infiltrated by communists, and he was a rising star in the Republican party, which had control of the Senate. For several years, McCarthy had been pointing fingers at the Army for harboring enemies of the state, and the Army in early 1954 started pointing back. The Senate decided to investigate the counterclaims and chose to publicize the hearings. The brand new TV networks were happy to have something interesting to show.

While McCarthy’s tactics, of insinuating that every witness was either communist or homosexual or both, had been effective in Senate testimony, they didn’t work to his advantage in public. He bullied a middle-aged black clerk, Annie Lee Moss, about her work in a code room until it became clear it was a case of mistaken identity, his supporters tried to then revoke the testimony. This prompted Arkansas Democrat John McClellan to argue:

You can’t strike these statements made by counsel here as to evidence that we’re having and withholding. You cannot strike that from the press nor from the public mind once it’s planted there. That’s the – that is the – evil of it. I don’t think it’s fair to a witness, to a citizen of this country, to bring them up here and cross-examine them, then when they get through, say ‘we’ve got something, the FBI’s got something on you that condemns you.’ It is not sworn testimony. It is convicting people by rumor and hearsay and innuendo.

Senator McClellan, Army McCarthy hearings , March 1954
Codeworker Annie Lee Moss at the Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954.

The public nature of those hearings is widely credited with “bringing McCarthy down,” in other words, reducing the public’s appetite for bullying people and using innuendo to substitute for truth. It was likely the reason that Congress chose a public venue in 1973, even though they didn’t know then what they might find.

In 1973, the hearings were live on all of the networks, although by fall, the three big players chose to rotate who showed them because they were losing ratings, especially for soap operas. I remember the big “scandal” at the time that some of the networks wanted to share the load of televising. At the same time, given that there were only four networks available, having all of them devoted all day long to the hearings was annoying, especially to bored kids in the summer who wanted to at least watch some of “The Price is Right” before having to be bored again, wandering outside to see if there was something to do.

What most people saw of the Watergate hearings. Photo at imdb.com.

During the mid-summer months, when John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman were testifying, some of the discussion was fascinating, but less so as less important witnesses came on in the fall. Eventually, the networks dropped pre-empting programming, although PBS maintained a cogent recap through all 51 days of key testimony. If you’re interested, there’s an archive of some of the “gavel-to-gavel” coverage here.

At the time the hearings started, the Watergate scandal had only been reported on for a handful of months, beginning after Nixon’s election in the fall of 1972. Just after the inaugural parties ended and the Vietnam war ended with the Paris Peace Accords, the information was still unfolding. The hearings provided critical facts not well known–bombshells like the fact that the White House had tapes and testimony from John Dean about the president’s attempts to interfere with the investigation (which kept going up until the day he boarded Air Force One).

Former top aide to the president, H.R. Haldeman testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee in Washington for the second day, July 31, 1973. Behind Haldeman are his attorneys John J. Wilson, left, and Frank Strickler. (AP Photo)

Haldeman and Ehrlichman, as the twin drivers of the president’s agenda, were loyal aides to the end, although their testimony included damning details. Both were asked by Nixon to resign two weeks before the hearings started, as Nixon tried to minimize the damage by pointing fingers at his staff. Both asked for pardons as well, and Nixon refused. So much for loyalty. Haldeman testified, with reluctance, about topics including about the tapes. One tape, that had the famous 18-1/2 minute gap, was with Haldeman as was the so-called “Smoking Gun” tape, where Nixon discussed using the CIA to shift the FBI’s investigation of Watergate to other topics. Haldeman was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice and served a year and a half in jail.

But the “Smoking Gun,” the convictions, the 18-1/2 minute gap, the firing of Archibald Cox, the resignation of Spiro Agnew due to the investigation of bribery and extortion, the Nixon Impeachment hearings, and the eventual resignation of Nixon himself were all yet to come as these hearings took place. It’s easy to encapsulate all that now in five minutes but harder to see where it would turn out in May of 1973.

Nixon was re-elected in 1972 with 61% of the vote. He carried 49 states. He was reviled by Democrats and by many Republicans in his own party but had found the right time and place to take advantage of election mechanics to sweep himself into office. He didn’t leave office until a year after the hearings, and only as legal maneuvers to get to the tapes–which he knew held such damning information that even his own party couldn’t ignore–were resolved.

The devil will emerge from the details of these hearings, but there will be a lot of details, and it will be hard to spot the devil at first. Maybe they can edit him in using the Green Screen.

The Singularity Always Happens

How did the Mongols conquer Asia? Where did knights come from? Look at the feet. Photo from arstechnica.com.

Will the Singularity happen? I’m currently reading an international spy techno-thriller pot-boiler whose premise centers around the creation of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), just asTerminator: Dark Fate is raking in big bucks in theaters. Scary futures are big entertainment business. It’s a perfect time for a provocative question like the one Fandango asks today:

Do you think the singularity will occur? If so, what time frame do you think it will happen in and how will it impact humanity? Alternatively, do you think or care at all about the potential for reaching singularity?

The short answer is: World-threatening technology is perpetually created by humans. Humans then create an alternative to pull civilization back from the brink. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

My autocorrect: “You didn’t type candy corn, you typed child porn….” Your IP address has been forwarded to local law enforcement.
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Zombies, Reese’s & Candy Corn Will Live Forever

What kind of candy would zombies eat? Photo at SFFuncheap.

The Halloween holiday, Samhain, dates back centuries to Celtic festivals, and many cultures pay respect to the line between living and dead. In contrast, zombies and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are only about fifty years old, while candy corn is a little older, dating back to the 1880s. All of them reflect a fascination with blurred lines, with candy and people that cross over, which explains why candy corn, Reese’s, and zombies are so popular and will likely remain so for decades.

Love It or Hate It

A recent Monmouth University poll suggested a sharp divide in American attitudes about Halloween. 45% said that the October festivities were among their favorite holidays. Another 53% don’t particularly like it at all. That kind of polarization isn’t surprising in today’s divided populace, although who doesn’t like dressing up in costumes or eating candy? (Answer: lotsa people).

Who could do this to a child? Photo from huffpost.

Know what else divides the populace? Orange. Not the orange head you might be thinking of, but the orange and yellow corn syrup and earwax combination known as candy corn. As Lewis Black and others have pointed out, it’s neither candy nor corn.

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Go on Home (Day 17, Final Mosey)

One last sunrise left in our Left Coast Mosey. Photo by kajmeister.

“Crap, it’s hot!”

The midmorning autumn sun was lasing into the windows of the Fun Car as we loaded it one last time. It gave me an instant headache. Wasn’t it raining just yesterday? Didn’t we spend all of Oregon trying to choose between windbreaker slicker, Danish raincoat, and umbrella?

Over the Green Pass into Chaparral

We had come over the Siskiyou Pass the previous night, south from Ashland in a setting sun that kept trying to peek through a cloud bank. The Pass is the highest point on I-5 at 4310 feet, and my ears popped coming down as KK, the better driver, carefully navigated among cautious truckers manually downshifting and deathwish sports cars.

I was treated to a stunning view of rolling brown hills of the Cascade-Siskiyou Forest to the east and Klamath to the west, polka-dotted with pumpkin-colored tamaracks. Just after the California border, the trees dropped away into what looks like desert, although this is chaparral, high desert. Central California is full of rolling hills with drought-reistant thickets like manazanitas. It just looks brown compared with the green we’ve left, but this is its own kind of tough and hardy place, as much as the climate and people we’ve left in the north.

Shasta gives us the view that Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier held back. California knew we were coming home. Photo by kajmeister.
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Theater Reflects Humanity Reflects Theater (Day 16)

Author’s Note: No Shakespeares were viewed on this trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, even though Shakespeare is one of my superpowers. Hash tag Still Not About Shakespeare. See post: Queasy Endings if you want to read mostly about The Bard.

2019 season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by kajmeister.

The Melting Pot of Theater

The giveaway about what kind of season was ahead at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is in the rainbow display of show posters on the wall from the parking lot to the box office. The plays reflect the span of multicultural America in subject matter–from Cambodian Rock Band to Alice in Wonderland–and theater tradition–from All’s Well that Ends Well to the world premiere Mother Road. There was cross-gender casting in As You Like It and a bilingual version of one of Shakespeare’s oldest farces, La Comedia of Errors. Some patrons didn’t like it, although arguably there was something for everybody in a schedule that included Hairspray and Macbeth.

We have been coming up to Ashland for a few years now, more frequently as our schedules have turned more flexible, and the breadth in casting has also broadened noticeably. As with many other aspects of American life, theater had attracted a certain type of actor and director, emphasizing a certain approach to how plays should be put on, which also meant the majority of the audience was a certain type of person. OSF started to break that mold a few decades ago, mostly due to outgoing Artistic Director Bill Rauch’s vision. In his final year in Oregon, Rauch pulled out all the stops to produce a season of forward-thinking plays, including pairing casts between plays with an explicit goal:

…[to] create a remarkable dialogue about cultural connectivity in our gorgeously diverse nation…

Artistic Director Bill Rauch in the Introduction to the OSF Playbill
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