It was a warm summer night, back in August of 1974. My friends and I were performing in a solo recital at music camp. A handful of us had performed in past years, so it felt more like a friendly get-together than a scholarship competition. During the other students’ performances, we sat on a small porch behind the back entrance to the gymnasium stage. And we talked, quietly, on this warm summer night.
“Really, who cares what happens tonight in this little recital of ours?” a pianist friend stated softly. “The president is resigning tonight. He might be quitting the White House right now.” We nodded. We were just young teenagers, all of us, but we knew this was big. We had seen bits and pieces of the Watergate scandal as it unfolded, and whatever our level of understanding of the whole mess, we knew that our tiny little recital was meaningless in comparison to the real world beyond.
Decades later, I can look back at that night in a different way. Maybe we should have been impressed at how quiet it was; no coup, no riots, just a warm August night and a gym full of young musicians. In Washington, D.C. the power was moving smoothly from Richard Nixon to Gerald Ford, and the country would go on.
Decades later I also know that the transfer of power wasn’t happening that night as we took our turns playing for the audience and the judges. Gerald Ford was sworn in the next day around noon after Nixon formally resigned. The previous evening, while my friends and I sat backstage, the President had made the speech announcing his impending resignation. “By taking this action,” he told the country, “I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.”
I can’t help but see parallels to Watergate in the rocky start to the current administration. Wiretapping then, hacker invasions of email now. Firing the special prosecutor; firing the attorney general. Nixon wasn’t fond of journalists, either, including the two investigative reporters from the Washington Post. Many of Nixon’s lies were those of omission, not the outright falsehoods that masquerade as alternative facts today, but the atmosphere is the same: truth optional.
Decades ago, we young teenagers didn’t feel worried. We knew it was a night for the history books, but we also knew that our concerts and our lives would go on as usual. When school started, our history teachers might ask “Where were you when…?” and we would answer that it was pretty much an ordinary night at music camp. No fireworks, no danger, just a solo recital in a college gym.
Somehow, I can’t muster up that same sense of calm today.