Last month the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, and of Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin’s historic moonwalk, was the subject of many hours of TV coverage and commentary, and of innumerable column-inches of articles and op-eds in what remains of American newsmagazines and the daily press – not to mention what was written and pictured online. Next weekend, when Woodstock turns 40, we’ll undoubtedly see an almost equal amount of coverage.
Back in 1969, these two events were seen by some to represent opposite, perhaps irreconcilable sides of the nation; it may be that for every mud-soaked hippie and teenager in Woodstock who was willing to grant that walking on the moon was “far out,” there were two that would have complained about all the “bread” spent on getting the astronauts to the lunar surface when there were, “like,” so many things wrong with the inner cities, and the environment that needed fixing. (“Tricia, Tell Your Daddy,” co-written in 1969 by former Phil Spector collaborator Jeff Barry and Jay And The Americans’s Marty Sanders, and recorded by the latter’s band as well as bubblegum singer Andy Kim, presents these sentiments in musical form.) But today, Woodstock and Apollo tend to be seen in the nostalgic mist of memory and idealism, two sides of the same cherished coin.
Two other, less happy anniversaries have gone more or less unnoticed. The Media Research Center’s website pointed out last month that on July 21, 1969, and in the succeeding days before and after Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins splashed down, coverage of the Apollo mission had to jostle for attention with the news coming out of Massachusetts, after it was revealed that Sen. Edward Kennedy, on the night of July 18, had driven off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island adjoining Martha’s Vineyard, and that while he had survived the accident, his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, had not.
What happened that night – and in the following days, as Sen. Kennedy tried to explain what had happened – ended the senator’s hopes for the Presidency, as became clear when he unsuccessfully challenged President Carter in 1980. But two generations now have no memory of Chappaquiddick, and, in any event, with Sen. Kennedy now gravely ill, it’s understandable that last month the anniversary of this tragedy passed with little comment. (Indeed, I only glancingly thought about Chappaquiddick in late July, and I have more reason to recall it than most: on July 25, 1969, I sat with Sen. Edmund Muskie in a hotel room in New Albany, Indiana, while he watched Kennedy give his televised speech about what had happened – a speech that, at that instant, made Muskie the Democratic front-runner in the 1972 race.)
As the Media Research Center article notes, the anniversary went unnoticed on the evening network newscasts; Bill Maher unexpectedly brought it up to his startled panelists on his HBO show Real Time, but other than that it went unmentioned on the air. Ken Rudin devoted a post to Chappaquiddick at his political blog at NPR’s site on July 21 and was deluged with angry comments. Jeff Simon, the arts editor of the Buffalo News, was the only columnist in a daily newspaper to write about the anniversary, and Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, spoke about it in his column in the magazine’s July 27 issue, which was mainly devoted to a long article by Kennedy about the need for comprehensive health-care legislation.
To turn to another event, which happened thirty-five years ago this weekend: as recently as 2004, the anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation was the subject of a fair number of articles and op-eds every five years. But in 2007, the Watergate break-in’s 35th received much less notice than before. Most likely this not only had to do with the passage of time, but with the fact that Vanity Fair’s unveiling of W. Mark Felt as “Deep Throat” in 2005 removed the mystery that was the linchpin for much of what was written about Watergate in the previous quarter-century.
And such has been the case with this year’s anniversary of RN’s resignation. So far I’ve spotted three items of much significance. One is a column by Matt Lewis in Politics Daily which also reproduces RN’s August 9 remarks in the East Room in toto. Another is a column by onetime Nixon White House speechwriter Ben Stein in the American Spectator, in which he reminisces, once more, about being present for those remarks, and notes that the resignation had the effect of introducing the first major note of uncertainty in his own life. The third is an interview with Nixon’s chief of staff at the time of the resignation, Gen. Alexander M. Haig, in the Palm Beach Post. There, Gen. Haig remarks:
“Watergate was misunderstood because people didn’t realize they had a very visionary president in Richard Nixon,” Haig said. “The only thing that kept him from office, which was his own fault probably and he’d be the first to admit it, is that he wasn’t lovable. That’s because he was preoccupied with the consequences of his acts, and he always took action only after very careful and systematic analysis.”
Haig said it was Nixon, not Ronald Reagan, who should be credited for ending the Cold War.
“He opened the door to China and that won the Cold War without a shot being fired,” Haig said. “People never understood what going to China meant.”