Somehow, I’m feeling slightly nostalgic about Richard Nixon. I realize that nostalgia is one of the great rewriters of history, but what I’m doing isn’t about changing the facts. Nixon was probably one of the meanest and nastiest persons to ever call himself a Quaker. From his work with the House Un-American Activities Committee to his collaboration with that well-regarded war criminal, Henry Kissinger, Nixon was responsible for some real evil. That I feel a sense of nostalgia for Nixon is, perhaps, only because when I got my first real taste of the South, he was still the president.
I emphasize the word “still” not because it was so long ago, but because it was when the Watergate scandal was reaching the point of no return, with Nixon being on the verge of impeachment. Of course, he resigned before that could happen, but during the summer between my Junior and Senior years in high school—which I spent in Athens, Georgia—every day seemed to bring Nixon closer and closer toward his inevitable unceremonious exit from the White House.
It was 1974, and I was in Athens, on a grant from the National Science Foundation, to study chemistry at the University of Georgia. Every morning by eight I’d be at the lab in the Pharmacy school, mixing chemicals, creating compounds and studying their properties—compounds that would be used in cancer research. This was usually after staying up half the night partying with the other kids in the program who were there to study physics, math, biology, and computer science.
It probably wasn’t a good idea to be working with chemicals those mornings when I wasn’t completely awake, but nothing ever blew up in my lab—nothing I worked on, anyway. As for the adult researchers using the lab, they blew things up pretty regularly. But whenever someone’s beaker exploded, or flames shot up in the air, it didn’t mean you had to run madly out the door and evacuate the building. What you did was briefly look over to where the noise or flames came from, then look right back to you own work. And, if you were so inclined, you might say, “hmmm.” But most of the time, the cool thing to do—or perhaps even the proper thing to do—was ignore it.
Yeah, these were good times, some of the best times of my teen years, and I was having these times in the South, in Georgia, which was the farthest south I’d ever been. What stuck me first about the south was how friendly it was. I could be waiting at the bus stop outside Russell Hall, the dorm I lived in while was there, and at least half the people who walked by would nod and say “Hello” or “How’s it goin’”—people who were total strangers. It wasn’t the sort thing I, as a city kid, was used to. Back in DC when a complete stranger made eye contact with you at a bus stop they were usually cult members (the Children of God and Scientologists were the ones I’d often see) trying to recruit you.
One of my fondest memories from that summer was a night I had gone across the street from Russell Hall to Krystal for burgers. When I got to Georgia, Krystal was something new to me. The fast food joints I knew were McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and Roy Rogers. While growing up, when we ate out, it was always either fast food, the lunch counter at a store, or a Chinese restaurant. Back then, I’d yet to try Indian, Ethiopian or Thai food, and certainly not sushi. Our family couldn’t afford to be too adventurous with food, so a burger from a different fast food chain was, for me, a culinary adventure.
It sounds pathetic to say so now, but back then I thought the Krystal King burger was the best burger I’d ever had. So, whenever any of the other kids from the program got the urge to head over to Krystal, I was there.
This time it was Eli, this Jewish kid from New Jersey, who found himself getting hungry at about one in the morning. So we walked across the street, and as soon as we stepped inside Krystal we saw that things were a little different. Instead of the usual varied groups of University of Georgia students, the place was filled with young to middle-aged black men all decked out in the flashiest clothes like the Isley Brothers on the cover of 3 + 3. They were having a good time, talking loudly, laughing, with one of them playing “That Lady” by the Isley Brothers on a portable cassette player (these were the days before even the boom box was widely used).
Eli felt uncomfortable at first, but I went, “Hey, let’s get our burgers.” For him it was a “culture clash,” as he later described it, but for me it was nothing unusual. My neighborhood in DC—after the riots in 1968 and the subsequent “white flight” to the suburbs—changed from a mixed to a predominantly black neighborhood. The guys hanging out at Krystal that night were simply my neighbors having an impromptu party.
Some people, though, were scared by neighborhoods like mine, even though it wasn’t at all the rough, scary place they imagined it to be. I remember one time I had a party at my house for some of my high school friends, most of whom were from the suburbs. One girl, after walking down the porch steps when she was ready to leave, looked to her right and then her left and then panicked. She was ready to scream until she spotted her ride down the block, and then ran for dear life until she got to the car.
Another time, a friend wrote me a letter (back then, kids would actually use this quaint means of communication) and on the back of the envelope she wrote, “I hope this letter doesn’t get RAPED.” I was puzzled as to what this comment was about. Then, the next time I saw her in person, she explained that it was a joke based on my neighborhood’s bad reputation—that my neighborhood was so rough, that even the letter she sent might get assaulted on the way. All this time, I had no idea that people—including some of my friends—considered the neighborhood where I lived some kind of playground for criminals.
So at Krystal that night, I saw nothing alarming. And, in fact, for me it felt like all we’d done was crash a party—a party with some cool music. Because although I listened a bit to the things my friends listened to—like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells—what really moved me were the soul and funk records my brother was buying at the time. Since the early seventies, the music that really seemed to get to the heart of the matter were things like Curtis Mayfield’s first solo record (which included “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”) and “Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
This was, as they say, the soundtrack to my life. It was around this time when, for a number of years, I stopped listening to any pop music, except for the soul and funk I enjoyed. And, what I started to listen to more than anything else was jazz. At first it was just John Coltrane, then I added Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra to the mix. My friends weren’t into any of this, so if there was a jazz performance somewhere in town, I went by myself. And though I was still friends with my high school crowd, I was culturally, on my own. The music I listened to, and the foreign films I saw at the old Circle Theater: I experienced all these things alone. And that was OK with me.
And this is where I was, mentally, when I convinced Eli to stay at Krystal that night. To hang out, relax, and have a meal in the presence of some folks who were, he had to admit, pretty damn interesting. It wasn’t what he was used to, sure, but wasn’t that what was so cool about it? I mean, wasn’t it nice to really be away from home and on your own.
And so it was that summer, when the music I heard (sometimes only in my mind, when the actual sounds weren’t available) seemed to help bring Nixon closer and closer to his political demise. It was also a summer that somehow helped prepare me for my present life in the Shenandoah Valley. That’s not because Athens, Georgia is similar to Front Royal. Hell no, it’s nothing like Front Royal, especially not now, some thirty-five years after the summer I spent there. No, Athens is considered a rather liberal city—or, at any rate, a city with a firmly established liberal community. But, back in the fifties, the atmosphere in Front Royal and Athens was, I imagine, rather similar.
In Front Royal, the atmosphere was polluted by what was called “Massive Resistance”—the policy implemented by Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. for defying the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools. In Front Royal, this meant that Warren County High School closed rather than admit black students. In Georgia, Governor Herman Talmadge declared, “I do not believe in Negroes and whites associating with each other socially or in our school systems, and as long as I am governor, it won’t happen here.”
Not until 1970, just four years before I came to Athens, were the schools there desegregated—while Richard Nixon was president. Maybe it was the Quaker in him, but this was an area where Nixon actually did something good and helped move desegregation forward. Which, I guess, is one the reasons why I’m feeling kind of nostalgic about him.
Back then, at least some of the bad guys seemed to have some complexity about them—smart people with tragic flaws, human beings who, aside from their evil, paranoid deeds, were at least in some weird way, trying. Nowadays, more often than not, the bad guys are just idiots—or else fanatics obsessed by one thing, be it money, religion, guns, or government. But it’s also hard to tell what, if anything, they really believe in.
On the other hand, their aversion to policies that they say are moving us toward socialism feels a lot like the red scare of the fifties—just swap one ism for another and then use it to frighten those hard working families into thinking that the government is out to control every aspect of their lives, that they won’t even be able to take a piss without getting permission.
Above all, the key method to this madness is never let facts get in the way, as when South Carolina’s Joe Wilson shouted out, “You Lie,” when Obama, during his recent speech to Congress, stated that health-care reform wouldn’t provide benefits for undocumented immigrants. The truth is that no legislation being put on the table includes language about providing benefits to “illegal aliens,” as people like Joe Wilson like to call them.
As for Nixon, I can even imagine meeting him back then and having a real, albeit awkward, conversation. That’s not something I can imagine having today with someone like Joe Wilson, George W. Bush, or Dick Cheney, much less the parade of right wing radio hosts who seem to have taken over the Republican Party that Nixon was once part of. And it’s definitely not something I could have with someone who exhibits his disagreement with the government’s tax policies by carrying a sign on which Adolph Hitler’s moustache has been superimposed on Barack Obama’s face or who thinks it’s funny to send an email with a picture of the White House where the front lawn has been turned into a watermelon patch.
Yeah, I’m missing those days when you could reason with the opposition. When talking to them wasn’t, as Barney Frank said, like talking to the dining room table. When it seemed like you had at least some chance of convincing them that the world isn’t flat.