Sunday, December 23, 2012

Friday Dance Party: From Waikiki to Watergate

My high school senior picture displays the attitude I had toward my parents at the time, who moved our family cross-country after my junior year: to prove they did not have COMPLETE power over me, I stopped cutting my hair. Clearly, I was hurting only myself. In the first year of this blog, I wrote about this move, and my senior year at Kennedy High in Los Angeles, here.
The death of a longtime politico this week caused a flood of memories for me, of so many years ago it's embarrassing.  The spring of 1973 was a period of high drama in my life.  I had been informed by my parents that our family was moving to California at the end of the school year (in fact, my father moved in February to begin his new assignment at the Burbank Lockheed, but the family remained in Atlanta so we would not be forced to transfer schools mid-year).  

I couldn't imagine a worse time to force a kid to change schools than the summer between his junior and senior year in high school, so I was having a bittersweet final semester at Riverwood High.  One of the bright spots of my day was the period during which I assisted the chair of the English Dept. 
I developed friendships with Riverwood High's English Dept
faculty, particularly with chair Gail Thompson (l) and
drama coach Peyton Potter (r).

I did this two years running, and was dubbed "Head Aide" by the English Dept faculty;  I spent fifth period every day in the small A/V room adjacent to the faculty offices, running off tests (does anybody remember mimeograph?  The smell of the ink was intoxicating) or doing other menial tasks for the English Dept..  If the TV was not otherwise engaged, I was allowed to flick it on to keep myself company;  it was thus that I became aware of the gent who inspired this week's Dance Party: 

Daniel Inouye
The Watergate hearings, during which a special Senate committee investigated and ultimately dismantled the Nixon presidency, were broadcast live on TV, and they were usually playing in the background during that tumultuous spring of 1973.  Just like everybody else, I was riveted by these hearings, which included hours and hours of drudge but always held the promise of a stunning surprise.
The Senate Select Committee on Presidential Activities convened to investigate the Watergate break-in and cover-up. The networks took turns broadcasting the daily proceedings.  Decades earlier, the McCarthy hearings had also been televised, but very few households had TVs at the time.  In 1973, the Watergate hearings turned the senators into celebrities.
The characters who appeared on the witness stand, and on the committee dais, were worthy of a theatre piece. 
"What did the President know,
 and when did he know it?"
 Sen. Howard Baker (at left) repeatedly
inquired, launching his career and a
national catchphrase.

The senators included Howard Baker, who was just beginning a stellar career in the Republican party, and cranky loon Herman Talmadge, one of my own Georgian senators.  The panel was headed by a guy right out of central casting, Sen. Sam Irvin from North Carolina, whose folksy Southern drawl masked a relentless inquisitor.  And who could forget some of the characters on the witness stand?  Mousy John Dean's revelation that Nixon had a long hit list of enemies for whom he had directed the FBI to create files rivaled the astonishment that a geeky guy like Dean could have such a glamorous wife.
Nixon chief counsel John Dean and his hot wife Maureen, who became a minor celebrity at the time.  Before their marriage, Mo Dean was linked to a high class ring of call girls in DC.
When Alexander Butterfield, another geeky clerk, revealed the existence of hours and hours of tapes of Oval Office conversations, the Nixon presidency was effectively done. 
Mouthy Martha Mitchell became famous for her
late-night, alcohol induced calls to the press.

And no one could forget the running commentary provided in the press by Martha Mitchell, the wife of Attorney General and Chief Conspirator John Mitchell;  Mrs. Mitchell would get drunk at night and call members of the press with her hilarious observations.
If they ever made a Women of Watergate memorial calendar, this gal would be on the cover. When the Nixon tapes were finally released, there was an obvious 18 minute gap in one covering a crucial meeting. Secretary Rose Mary Woods assumed responsibility for part of the "accidental" erasure, claiming she inadvertently pressed the erase button on the foot pedal of her Dictaphone while answering the telephone. This hilarious reenactment of the event, which required unlikely contortions, was dubbed "the Rose Mary Stretch."
I loved all this stuff, it was better than As The World Turns.  Since I never watched The Fugitive, it was during these hearings that I first saw a one-armed man, Sen. Daniel Inouye. 
Our hero receives the Medal Of Honor.

He was one of the most reticent of the senators on the committee, and at the time I had no idea he was already an American hero.  He lost that arm in WWII combat, and became Hawaii's first congressional representative when those islands became a state.  When he died this week, he was the sitting senator with the most seniority, and in fact he served in the Senate longer than anyone else in history except that old Byrd from West Virginia.  He served with quiet distinction as he rose in the ranks.  He chaired several prestigious committees, including the one which investigated another Republican president's ethical lapses, the Iran/Contra affair. 
At the far left is the Watergate committee minority counsel,
responsible for maintaining legal integrity for the
Republicans. He is now known as actor Fred Thompson.

This week his coffin was lying in state at the Capitol building, a very rare honor usually reserved for dead presidents. 

Inouye came from a long ago era when elected officials felt an obligation to Do Good, rather than Make Headlines;  I'm ashamed to say I did not know he was still in the Senate. But I make up for my lack of awareness with this week's Dance Party, dedicated to the man who, after Don Ho, Barack Obama, and King Kamehamehais the most famous Hawaiian ever. The star of this week's clip is another moderately famous Hawaiian, singing the song which is considered the official state song of Hawaii.  As Senator Inouye is being laid to rest in Hawaii this weekend, I imagine this gentle tune will be playing in tribute.

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