Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Writing and Watergate

It’s no secret on this blog that I’m fascinated with Richard Nixon and Watergate. Like Charlie Brown, I’m fascinated by failure.

My latest Nixon/Watergate read is Sen. Sam J. Ervin Junior’s The Whole Truth: The Watergate Conspiracy. It was published in 1980, shortly after Nixon’s own memoirs came out. Ervin sees his book as a counter to what he called Nixon’s revisionism.

I don’t know what it is, except it’s at the same time boring, confusing, and fascinating.

Boring because for most of it, it reads like a courtroom brief with stilted language, clearly identified digressions and other bits of courtroom ephemera. Confusing because it assumes a lot of familiarity on the part of the reader of the times and characters included in the story – and this is coming from a person who has read a lot of books on Nixon and Watergate and who has seen many a documentary about the times and characters. Fascinating because it’s told without novelization, without the hokey drama the likes of Woodward and Bernstein introduced into All the Presidents Men and The Final Days. It’s a contemporary, eye-witness view of the scandal, told by a person who combines a knowledge and reverence of the Constitution (“The Constitution is not a schizophrenic instrument that speaks with a forked tongue,” he writes) with a backcountry hyuck factor that would confuse even the likes of Dan Rather (“[T]he White House emulated the preacher who was fired by a backwoods church and who inquired of the chairman of its board of deacons why the church had taken such action. The preachers asked, ‘Don’t I argufy?’ The chairman answered, ‘You sure do argufy.’ The preacher asked, ‘Don’t I sputefy?’ The chairman replied, ‘You sure do sputefy.’ The preacher inquired, ‘Then why did the church fire me?’ The chairman responded, ‘Because you don’t show wherein.’”) I still don’t know what it means, and the Internet ain’t helping. I think it means that if you say or preach or claim something, it’s got to have grounds in some concrete reality that others can see, which makes sense in this context as Ervin is trying to show that Nixon’s claim of presidential separation of powers as he interpreted it isn’t as clear cut in the Constitution as Nixon claimed.

At first, the courtroom briefness of the book bothered me, but I’ve grown used to it, and appreciate Ervin’s use of the rhetorical approach he takes. He saw a lot of twisting of truth, both in the committee investigating Watergate and obviously in Nixon’s memoirs. He wanted to demonstrate someone could write about the scandal with the truth, not with rose-colored glasses or an eye towards drama. To reveal the truth in such matters calls for clear, non-prosaic writing, so I applaud the senator’s approach.

So here’s something to learn about writing on a subject on which many words have already been written: Take a different approach. One that’s perhaps unexpected. Assume a lot of familiarity on the part of the audience with the familiar characters and tropes, and don’t belabor your readers plowing ground the second time. How this might work in fiction writing rather than history, I’m not sure. But there’s got to be a way to figure that out. That may be where we get the literary novel, or attempts to write in verse. The latter might be too anachronistic a style to work these days. Unless the writer is really, really good.

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