[The nearly-always excellent obituary writers at The New York Times have written one for Jimmy Breslin that is worth your time. The obit corrects his age to eighty-eight.]
Twitter informs us that writer and raconteur Jimmy Breslin has died at the age of eighty-eight. His passing is doubtless a grief to those who actually knew him, but to those of us who merely read his work, his death is one of the last occasions to praise his well-lived and useful life.
Those of you–and there are many–who were not around in your prime to live through the scandal of the Watergate Era as I was do not recall what a gloomy period in our politics that actually was. Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968 after Lyndon Johnson realized his planned program of “guns and butter”–warfare in Vietnam plus social progress at home–could not be sustained; and after the country decided that the Democratic nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey–a man of immense personal integrity–was nonetheless a bit too liberal. Nixon came into office triumphantly, but he held a great deal of personal bitterness against the press and the Democrats for his defeats in the 1950s and in 1960 against JFK. He had scores to settle, and even his domestic successes, including federal block grants to the states to solve local problems, grants that the Trump administration now wishes to abandon, were not enough to curb his inclination to vindictiveness. By 1972’s reelection campaign, Nixon felt completely comfortable in his use of power, but he overreached to an extraordinary degree. His operatives burglarized the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. and then spent weeks stonewalling the investigation and covering up the authorization for the activity that Nixon had given. Even I, as a raw, inexperienced sixteen-year-old kid, knew it was a monumentally-stupid and completely unnecessary exercise in what we all later learned was called “ratfucking,” Nixon’s term for simply getting in the way of his enemies and messing with them even if he couldn’t bring them down.
To this day, it still amazes me. Nixon had a huge lead in the polls on George McGovern, who was spinning his wheels after his forced abandonment of his Vice-Presidential running-mate Thomas Eagleton because of the revelation of Eagleton’s treatment for mental illness. The publication of Eagleton’s personal travails may also be laid at Nixon’s feet, but it doesn’t change the fact–any more than the burglary does–that what was done did not have to be done. Nixon would have won in 1972 easily. But he authorized these acts anyway.
What Breslin did for all of us in his book The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight was impossible: he made us laugh at the absurdity of it all, and the buffoonery of Nixon’s men. All The President’s Men, by Woodward and Bernstein, is a wonderful book; a great detective story about two reporters who refused to give up in their efforts to expose what was done; but it is perhaps a little too self-congratulatory about its own nobility and the nobility of the press. Breslin’s book strikes a middle ground. Without in the least denigrating the efforts of Sam Ervin or anybody else to bring Nixon and his men to account for what they had done, Breslin shows how all-fired human they were in the commission of the crime and in the prosecution of it. The image that remains with me is that of investigator John Doar working all week without food, then indulging himself with a huge steak (and a long nap) on the weekend to make up for it.
We all know, but it bears repeating: it is not merely the crime which merits punishment. The cover-up, if there is one, may also do great harm. It certainly did in this case, given the persons who were doing the covering and the lengths to which they went to maintain that cover. The harm was in the immense, unconscionable exercise of an absolute power that the Presidency of the United States does not possess, and in the length of time that illegitimate power was exercised, from June 17, 1972 to August 8, 1974. The wounds inflicted on people during that period, and upon the prestige of the Presidency itself and our willingness as a country to support that Presidency, remain with us to this day. Even President Ford’s later pardon of Nixon for crimes he may have committed in office, an act regarded by many on both sides of the aisle as yet another wound, did not help. We no longer look upon the Presidency with the level of trust, respect, and admiration we once had. Nixon’s unceremonious resignation and exit from office ushered in four more years of unremitting, turn-down-the-thermostat gloom from the Jimmy Carter administration before the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 restored some hope and some optimism to the country.
We needed Jimmy Breslin to get us through those times. We need him now, too. The vindictive attacks, the constant, bitter, personal war of words we engage in every day in the press, on television, and on social media takes its license from the behavior of the politicians and the press of the Watergate era. Breslin observed them all, nobles and scoundrels, from that time to this with an Irish toughness which protected a puckish sense of humor. He knew we’d survive Watergate, and he probably knew we’ll survive the next four years, too. But at what cost? What will be the number of missed opportunities to do good for the country simply because we wish to be mean and petty? As Puck himself said in Shakespeare’s play, and as Breslin himself could only agree, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”