Saturday, June 11, 2005

Early 70's Nostlagia Time

I don't have any real deep thoughts to add to the revelation that Mark Felt, FBI Hoover loyalist, was the storied Deep Throat of the Watergate era. Nixon was a politico who, in the espionage unsavvy world of politicians, fashioned himself as a kind of worldly Big Fish dirty trickster in a pond full of Small Fish dirty tricksters. His problem was a bit reminiscent of a cliched scene from a dozen gangster movies: a thug tells the respectable citizen who'd always idolized gangsters and finally kills somebody "Now you've crossed the line. Now you're one of us, and we'll see how you do." Nixon played the tough guy who knew all the angles at the expense of people like Helen Gahagan Douglas for so many years that he seems to have convinced himself that he was a real graduate of spook culture, out of the Wild Bill Donovan School that so many tough guy wannabe's of his generation idolized. When Hoover died, he took on the Hoover loyalists at the FBI and, despite the huge institutional advantage of the presidency, they outspied him, outleaked him, out dirty-tricked him. He didn't (and doesn't) get the sympathy other politicians might, precisely because he'd eroded the fire-wall between politicians and sleuths that ultimately protects politicians. He was one of them now. Playing against the big boys.

Of course the Hoover loyalists were, if anything, an even nastier bunch. These are the people who taped Martin Luther King cheating on his wife, then threw a brick with the tape onto his front porch to try to get him to stop marching. Their fingerprints are all over the Malcom X murder. Elijah Muhammad's people were the ones looking for Malcolm to kill him, but no matter how much Malcolm tried to hide, they always seemed to know where he was, which was way beyond their espionage resources. It was Hoover with whom Robert Kennedy had to battle over the priorities of the FBI and the Justice Department. Hoover insisted on beating the dead horse of anti-Communist subversion, even as Kennedy made a credible case that the threat of organized crime was far more pressing. This is why Kennedy ultimately had to form his Justice Department team against organized crime outside the Bureau. Taylor Branch wrote in "Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years": "Like the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the FBI's clandestine political arm (called COINTELPRO for 'counterintelligence program') adopted the premise that the civil rights movement was a disguised arm of Communist conspiracy. COINTELPRO grew into active use just as the actual threat of Cold War subversion diminished, expanding into new territory against the connective alliances of the civil rights movement." Nixon was completely correct in wanting to break the grip of the Hooverites on the Bureau. In a lot of ways, they remind one of the KMT old guard. He just didn't realize that he wasn't positioned to do so, which is the kind of thing politicians have to know. In the end, Nixon had to resign, the Hoover loyalists were brought to heel, and people like Mark Felt were convicted in court for at least a bit of their illegal wiretapping. Mostly, the system worked, but it was a rough ride.

Mostly, the re-emergence of the Watergate story evoked a wave of nostlagia for me, on account of my having been raised in Washington and, at twelve in 1972, just at the age of starting to read newspapers just as that story hit big. Of course, my family didn't get the Post, much as I'd like to report that the earliest stories I read were the Woodward and Bernstein classics. No, we were loyalists of the Washington Star, the Republican-leaning paper delivered in the evening. The Star was the older and more established paper, but evening papers were going the way of the dodo, and the Star, alas, failed to adapt. It was a great writer's paper, though, and a far more worthy counterpoint to the Post in the nation's capital than today's Washington Times.

It's remarkable how evocative these old pictures can be of a certain time and place. The hairstyles, the Never-Wear-Cotton sartorial preferences, and the before-the-deluge whiteness of the world in these photos all amaze me: "I was there!" More than any of the specifics, the very texture of life that comes through the photos is recognizable to me as from the stage of development when one has first arrived at the "age of reason", but the mind still retains much of the pliancy and retention of childhood. I don't mind confessing to a bit of pride at having made the long and far journey from there to here, with enough energy left intact so that- even if I don't have quite the horsepower I used to- like Curious George, you probably don't want to leave me unattended for too long.

My dad was a civil servant in the State Department, part of the security detail for the Secretary of State. He served as a bodyguard for both Dean Rusk and William Rogers, but he said Rogers was a cold fish. Rusk he worshipped. Rusk, a protege of George Marshall, was for my father everything a statesman and a man should be. Nothing I've read about Rusk in subsequent years has lead me to believe otherwise. On winter nights, in those sleepy days before Munich woke everybody up, my dad would take a blanket and a thermos to work the midnight shift. Mrs. Rusk would bring hot drinks out to him. Among my childhood brushes with great power, I can boast of having been taken in one night to see the desk of the Secretary; we also had a weekend at Camp David, as a treat to State Department staffers. It was puzzling to me why it was so terribly important to my parents that I play nicely with a particular little boy, but it was the only son of the Camp Commandant and apparently it was a rare thing for him to have a child his own age to play with.

The Watergate stuff made me nostalgic about my teacher, Willie Studevent. I was in sixth grade that year, and I'd accumulated a singularly colorful rap sheet in the previous five years as a hell-raiser and tantrum thrower. Of a staff of about twenty at our suburban school, Willie was one of only two black teachers (the other a woman), and one of only two male teachers. He was the only teacher who sat with the kids and ate with us at lunch. He told us "They just sit in there and talk about you guys every afternoon and I don't want to hear it. When kids come into my class in September I want to form my own impressions." He had a highly ritualized way of eating - just so many chews on one side of the mouth and just so many on the other - and he shared that with us, too. When he fought with his wife on the weekend, we heard all about it on Monday morning. Called us all by our last names, which was a new one on us - "Get your anatomy over here, Carlton!", he'd bellow at demure Jenny Carlton, who'd never in her life been called anything but Jenny, much less had reference made to her anatomy. But his language was infectious. You'd hear kids out on the playground yelling "Don't give me any of that shuckin' and jivin', Davis. Throw me the ball!"

Willie went to the same college in North Carolina as Earl Monroe - I think it was Winston-Salem College - and used to hang with the Pearl back in the day. He told how he stood by the tunnel one day after a Bullets game and extended his hand and said "Hey, Earl, it's me Willie Studevent!" and the Pearl just kept on going without a glance. He misted up when he told us that and I thought he was going to lose it, but that's the way it was with Willie - he shared everything with his class, uncensored and unguarded. Willie was on the football team and told us apochryphal stories about how, for instance, his coach made them not take a bath for a week before a big game they were underdogs in, and they stunk so bad they won going away. We believed every word - the boys, at least. Forced us to diagram sentences on the board, old school. When a whole world of fathers were commuting in to town, Willie was commuting the other way every day, and I don't think the teachers in that school ever really recovered. His protection was the white male principal of the school, who loved him. When that principal died in a car crash a couple of years later, Willie was toast. They wanted diversification, and that's what they got - and most of them didn't handle it very well at all.

That was a year of great opening up for me. I started reading the paper. Willie said he always started with the back of the paper, because the editorials was where all the action was. I still read the paper that way today. He'd tell us "J. Edgar Hoover's got files on every one of those senators and congressmen. The president, too. He knows every one who stepped out, who with, and when they did it. He sends them a letter telling them that in the course of routine surveillance his agents inadvertantly came across this image of the senator with his secretary. He tells them as a friend that they need to be more discreet, because the papers might get wind of it. Then they know Hoover's got the goods on them." Nobody'd talked to us like that before - like we were equals, who should know what was really going on. I didn't read the original Woodstein articles, but I know Willie did and, believe me, we got the synopsis and the free editorials for no extra charge on a regular basis. Circa-1972 blogging, and it was like a spoonful of wasabe shooting up my nose and into my brain and it woke up things there that haven't been able to be put back to sleep ever since.