If you’re old enough to remember 1972 you may fondly recall the original VW Bugs, bellbottoms, and, on your tinny car radio, the strains of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin“.
But you probably didn’t notice a small newspaper item about a June 17 break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington, D.C. At a luxury apartment complex. Called The Watergate. Ring a bell?
It happened forty-five years ago today, and one person who did happen to notice the newspaper report was Jo Haldeman, wife of President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman. She noted it at the time, and thought it to be peculiar. By 1975, it had become a national conflagration, consuming lives, careers and the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Careers were made, too. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were the whiz kids who introduced what is now a deeply-entrenched practice of the media directing the political narrative.
The human narrative of the Watergate experience has been mostly overlooked, which may be why Jo Haldeman’s just-published reminiscence strikes a chord. Entitled In the Shadow of the White House: A Memoir of the Watergate Years, 1968-78, Jo begins by tracing the moment when her husband, Bob, informs her that his dedication to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign may lead to a position in the West Wing. Because we know what’s coming, the book reads almost like a thriller. The reader wants to warn her: Don’t do it, Jo! Don’t go! But, of course, she does, pluckily moving her four children and three pug dogs from a secure and staid life in Los Angeles and Newport Beach to the byzantine political rigors of Washington, D.C.
There are White House receptions and family weekends at Camp David. Casual banter with Henry Kissinger and John Erlichman, and floundering exchanges with the socially-awkward Richard Nixon. There is the ever-present phone with its endlessly long cord, the “umbilical cord” between Bob Haldeman and the President. Her classic 50’s marriage – “I don’t interfere”, Jo intones at one point – is challenged, as are her political views when an up-close encounter with Vietnam War protestors leads her to apprehend that shades of gray now color her previously black and white thinking on national issues. And then there is the crucible of Watergate. And the aftermath, where Jo faithfully prepares weekend picnic lunches to bring to her husband during his eighteen months in prison.
In one of life’s supremely unpredictable twists, Jo Haldeman is my neighbor and my friend. She sat in my living room the other day, chatting graciously about her memoir with members of my book club. My group is all over the place politically – some of them just this side of Kathy Griffin and Antifa, a number of “coastal elites” and maybe one or two alt-rights. While there is little political agreement among us, it was illuminating to see the unanimous enthusiasm for Jo’s book. All of them found it poignant and fascinating. They are a tough crowd; each of them well read and highly discerning. Yet more than one friend confessed that deep and long-held antipathy for H.R. Haldeman had shifted after reading the book. Shades of gray.
I sometimes take neighborhood walks with Jo, and while she is scrupulously circumspect about politics, she said something to me recently that I think will resonate for a long time. “You see these political figures as they are depicted by the press, and you forget that they are real people, with real lives and families.”
We do forget, all of us. I don’t have any idea who Jo Haldeman voted for in the past election, but somehow, she understood the humanity of both candidates. She knows, from personal experience that public service entails private turmoil and that the heroes and monsters served up to us on the nightly news are not quite as one-dimensional as they seem.
Shades of gray. Forty-five years after Watergate, I wonder if anyone else can see them?