Saturday, October 4, 2014

Forever Young # 37: "A Pardon of the Partisan Kind"

Song:  Campaigner
Album:  Decade
Released:  October, 1977

I’m thinking it was five October’s ago, when Peter was 11 years old.  Or maybe it was six years ago when he was 10.  Anyhow, Nancy and I took the big guy to a local department store with a large costume section to choose a Halloween outfit.  He looked over quite a variety of options, from Freddy Krueger to Blackbeard, to the Scream, and finally settled on…. a Richard Nixon mask.  I laughed, scratched my head and asked “are you kidding?”  He wasn’t kidding.  This was what he wanted to wear.  There really was no explanation for it and to this day I still can’t figure out what drew him to that mask.  I mean, Peter was (and still is) about as apolitical as they come.  But after realizing he was serious, I ran with it and over the next few days proceeded to give him a few Nixonian gestures to work on (including the two-arm extended ‘V’ victory sign, hunched shoulder, jaw extended) a few quotes (including “My fellow Americans”) and a little history lesson. 

He worked on it and got pretty good too.  I have to say it was all pretty funny, but not nearly as funny as how the actual Halloween night played out.  Our neighborhood is one of the prime places in town to trick-or-treat; being stacked with houses on cul-de-sac side streets.  And so one of Peter’s good friends, Joey, got dropped off at our home for an evening excursion out and about amongst a variety of witches goblins and parents.  When Joey stepped out of his Dad’s car, he was dressed from head to toe, as a police officer, complete with Billy club and handcuffs.  This also took me by surprise, and I must say he looked the part.  We took a few pictures of the two of them and in the process it all started to feel hilariously bizarre.  It only got funnier.  Peter was a bit faster than his buddy, so throughout the night, as they ran from door to door it appeared as if the policeman was chasing the former President.  At one home, a lady opened the door looked out and said “Ahhh, Nixon and the cop, ehhh?”  Yes, there were a few belly laughs that crisp fall night.

I know I flashed back that evening.  Back to the early 70s and the first President of the United States who I knew of at the time of his Presidency (I was just 5 years old when Lyndon Johnson declared “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term….”, and so have no recollection of the 36th President).  I guess you could say I was a bit jaded out of the gate in relation to what it took to be the executive leader of the free world.  Nixon was under siege in those earliest years of my Oval Office insights due to the Watergate scandal, and would resign by August of 1974 (half way through his second term).  For all that Bill Clinton and George Bush and Barak Obama have faced in terms of public obsession with their job performance these past decades, it all pales in comparison to the late Nixon years. 

My aunt and uncle were great defenders of Nixon.  I witnessed this first hand and found it odd.  But I also found odd the abuse hurdled the President’s way from the opposite direction.  There were imitations (Rich Little being the best) and records and comic strips and eventually…. masks.  Everyone had an opinion.  In the summer of ’74 it seemed to be all the adults talked (and argued) about.  Nixon was everywhere.  My grandmother had a parade of anti-Nixon books in her parlor.  Dad purchased an inflatable boat and dubbed it “The Watergate”.  When we went to Washington D.C. a few years after Nixon’s resignation, seeing the actual office complex where the crime that eventually took down a President took place was almost as intense as riding past the White House for the first time just up the road.

We all put up defense mechanisms when under attack, and Richard Nixon had his share of them.  This came across as Machiavellian to most, which just seemed to make matters worse for him.  It was a very uncomfortable period for the country.  Heck, I was only 12 years old, and I was uncomfortable.  Congressional hearings were all over the television.  America was laid bare; dysfunctional at best, corrupt at worst.  In the end, a President was toppled.  It was not a pretty sight, and there would be long-term ramifications.  Finger pointing intensified over the subsequent decades, both in the left and right direction.   It seems to get worse with every administration, and there appears no end in sight.  This all can be traced back to a rift that began to expand exponentially with Nixon and Watergate. 

But many of us tend to forget that a funny thing happened after Nixon’s resignation:  Most Americans started feeling sorry for him.  The image of the lonely California beach stroller took hold.  Wife Pat went ill, which added to the sympathy.  And for all his faults, it slowly seeped into the counter-culture consciousness that Nixon had some very insightful policy to hang his hat on.  The EPA was established under him.  There was the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, restrictions on trade with Japan due to their whaling practices, and the Endangered Species Act (and even more important to a younger version of me at the time, he traded a muskox for a giant panda with the Chinese). 

For an environmental-minded person like myself who focuses on these types of issues as extremely important, it’s all too hard to ignore.  The fact of the matter is that Dick Nixon did some good things, and I can’t help comparing these advancements to the current state of affairs.  I mean, can anyone imagine this type of legislation kicking in on today’s Republican agenda?  On the contrary, many of them are trying to dismantle such progress.  So I do think Nixon’s legacy has at the very least hung in there over the past few decades…at least for those of us who were (and are) on the other side of the ideological fence.

Yes, the country was caught up in all things Nixon in the mid-70s, and Neil Young was no exception.  He sang “Tin Soldiers and Nixon coming” on Ohio (see Forever Young # 27).  He included a famous newspaper headline related to Watergate on his 1974 ‘On the Beach’ cover (“Sen Buckley calls for Nixon to resign”).  And he wrote and sang Campaigner, post resignation, which – and this should be no surprise for Young aficionados - makes room for reconciliation.  Before I discuss this, there’s something I’ve been observing for some time and it is this:  For a Rock and Roller, Neil Young is unusual in his call for strong elective leadership.  He’s been doing it from the beginning of his career and has not stopped, seeing this character trait as an answer to problems that confront us all.  When Young is disappointed, he does not hesitate to let his feelings show in word and song.  He was certainly disappointed with Richard Nixon, but was almost immediately ready to do what he could to start the healing process after the fact.  Gerald Ford initiated it all with a pardon.   Neil Young was not far behind.

Campaigner ( ) is one of Neil Young’s most heartfelt songs, which is amazing considering the subject matter.   Some think it sounds like Neil Young poking fun at Nixon (“Even Richard Nixon has got soul” he sings).  But I don’t think so.  It’s just too stark, bordering on mournful, to be so.  There’s something deeper going on here.  I don’t want to call it regret, but it’s something like that.  Young recognizes there is soul in Richard Millhouse Nixon, and I believe in the process recognizes there is soul in all of us.  A moment like this can be enlightening for anyone.  Young seems to be capturing his own revelation on record, which makes it extraordinary.

I’ve been listening all week to the “Complete Joel Bernstein Tapes” (thanks C. Brady) which are classic recordings of live Neil Young from a variety of venues in 1976.  The version of Campaigner on this collection is particularly poignant, and may likely be one of the first recordings of the song.  It’s interesting that a Boston venue would have been chosen by Bernstein for inclusion of Campaigner in his collection.  Perhaps it’s because he simply has a very good ear for quality.  Given that Massachusetts was the only State that did not vote for Nixon in 1972 (along with the District of Columbia) Young may have been moved to put a little more gusto into the song while in the Hub, and Bernstein seems to have noticed (if you want a listen, go to and click on Track 1). 

So there you have.  Neil Young did his part to help exorcise the bad vibes that played out on our National stage in the early to mid-70s, in turn allowing a counter culture to soften its tone, making room for kinder, gentler (and sillier) thoughts.  Many years after the fact, seeing my son run from door to door with that exaggerated Nixon caricature over his face, that’s all I had room for.

-          Pete

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