Carla Carlisle: “Nixon had a conscience. He knew shame. I doubt Trump will do it’


Carla Carlisle was a young journalist when a piece of Watergate history came to her. Half a century later, she wonders about the parallels between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

My new job is to guard my big dog Merlin’s dog, a 14 month old Wirehaired Vizsla who has the bony structure of a kangaroo. His parents can’t telecommute, so Merlin spends his days with us. The resident Old Dog practices Labrador Transcendental Meditation in the presence of the charismatic Young Dog.

Providing day care to Merlin activated feelings that were long overdue. When I moved to Paris in my twenties, I dumped most of my worldly belongings in my parents’ basement, including all my American-powered belongings — typewriter, stereo, coffee grinder — and boxes of photographs, old letters, diplomas, books, copies of the anti-war journal I had edited. I also left my dog.

The decision to leave the country was impetuous. I didn’t speak French, I didn’t have a trust fund and, despite having a university degree, I lacked “vital skills”. Abandoning my two-year-old Weimaraner was irresponsible. I think back to my parents’ willingness to adopt their little dog with belated gratitude.

They were confused but tolerant when I announced my decision to move to Paris after Nixon’s resignation. The new chapter in the country’s history seemed like a good time to start a new chapter in my life.

My parents were devoted to my dog, but they were less attached to my business. Every time I got home, my mother urged me to change the boxes. Over the years, I’ve given away my typewriter and stereo to nephews, consigned newspapers to recycling, and discarded letters of questionable historical interest. During a gimmick exorcism I pulled out a stiff gray piece of art 12 inches by 18 inches and put it in the bottom of my suitcase. Two decades later, I had it framed. A few weeks ago I hung it on the wall above my desk.

From a distance, it looks like minimalist art in a hue Farrow & Ball might call Lonesome Dove. Up close, you can make out the letters. Top in Old Gothic font: The Washington Post. Below in 2 inch bold letters: Nixon resigns.

The technical word for my relic is “flong”, the raised impression created from the type of handset metal that for 300 years was how newspapers were printed. I didn’t know the legendary team of Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – I was a humble “filter” – but from my school days hanging out at the local town paper, I had loved the sounds and the smells of the printing room, admired the speed and skill of the printers. When Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, one of JobThe printers of introduced me to the historical flong because it was my birthday. I kept it for 50 years because it was like a piece of history: Nixon’s and mine.

If I thought the French would be filled with admiration for the legendary Watergate reporters, I was wrong. The French found Nixon’s resignation absurd and petty, the Watergate saga proves that Americans are puritanical and politically naïve.

The English had a different conception of justice. I believe they had the Alistair Cooke advantage Letter from America. His shows on Watergate are second to none. With perfect tone, clarity and detail, it records the story as it unfolds. From his letter of September 17, 1972, he began his account of June 17, when five men with cameras and listening equipment were caught robbing the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the building complex known as of Watergate. The leader of the failed raid was a former CIA employee. Cooke may have been slow to pick up the story, but he stuck with the elephantine unfolding over the next two years, doing dozens of shows. It did not stop at the one and only resignation of an American president. Twenty years later, he covers Nixon’s funeral. Last week browsing iPlayer I found Cooke’s show on the 25th anniversary of Watergate. I listened with amazement.

I probably sound like a “Watergate junkie”, obsessed with every detail of the greatest political scandal of the 20th century. I’m not. I’m puzzled that the word has become the nickname for all scandals – ‘partygate’, ‘beergate’ – but I haven’t wallowed in Watergate. Last week, however, I froze when I heard a familiar American voice on Radio 4 Today. It was the anniversary of the event and the interviewee drew a line between the Watergate burglary of 1972 and the insurrection at the US Capitol in 2021. It was John Dean, who had been recruited from the Department of Justice in Nixon’s White House. as a legal adviser. Mr Dean was 31 when he publicly turned against Nixon while testifying before the Senate Watergate committee, accusing the president of being directly involved in the cover-up. Fifty years later, I heard him say that he had never been more concerned about American democracy than he is today because “the country is more polarized today than it was during Watergate and that Fox News is fueling that polarization.”

Most nights, my husband and I watch the January 6 hearings on CNN. It’s like a reincarnation of my parents watching the Watergate hearings. I can almost hear the clink of ice in their bourbon and water. Every night I say “Trump’s behavior eclipses Nixon’s.” Every night my husband responds, “The root of their sins is the same: undermining elections in a democracy.

For days I lamented that there was no Mr. Dean, a person of conscience with the courage to speak the truth. Then he came: the 25-year-old former aide to Mr. Trump’s chief of staff. Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony was as powerful and shocking as that of Mr. Dean 50 years earlier. His testimony may not change history, but with his calm, precise and courageous testimony, history rhymes.

Another thing Mr. Dean said about Today. “Nixon had a conscience. He knew shame. I doubt Trump will. We never really know who is capable of being ashamed, but when a man – or a woman – is determined to stay in power no matter what the electorate says, democracy can be considered lost. It is a truth worth hanging on the wall.


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