Convergence/Opinion

The way we are

What we remember, and what we forget, says a lot about our historical understanding, as we plunge into the latest chapter of the coronavirus pandemic brought about by the willful acts of the unvaccinated and the unmasked

Photo by Richard Asinof, document courtesy of Richard Asinof

The invitation to the 1978 party to celebrate the resignation of Richard Nixon

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/9/21
There is a need to celebrate important days in American history when the nation lurched away from fascism – including the resignation of President Nixon.
What local news outlet in Rhode Island would be willing to broadcast the pirate video of Nixon’s resignation speech? In what ways do the anti-vaccine and anti-mask political movements intersect with the efforts to restrict voting and to restrict access to abortion? Where does the poisoning of children for profit rank on the scales of violent crime indices?
On Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 10, Gov. Dan McKee, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health, and Tom McCarthy, the executive director of the state’s COVID-19 response, are scheduled to provide an update on the Delta variant in Rhode Island.
Will the government officials be wearing masks? Will the news reporters and camera operators be wearing masks? What new guidelines, if any, will be issued in advance of the opening of schools regarding vaccinations and the wearing of masks?
It was fascinating to see Brown University put out a news release promoting the fact that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had used research by Brown University Professor Emily Oster for his executive order permitting parents to defy mask mandates in Florida, then deleted it.

PROVIDENCE – In the course of human events, the invitation began, underneath the image of the Presidential seal borrowed from a document from the 1977 inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, “it becomes necessary to signify certain dates of the year on which the forces of history stopped, pivoted, and lurched in a path away from fascism.”

The invitation was to a party held on Aug. 8, 1978, to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Nixon, an annual event I had created, because I believed that some historic dates were important to remember and to commemorate.

If I had the personal energy and the financial wherewithal, I would have considered holding a party this year to celebrate the 47th anniversary of the President Nixon’s resignation, given how perilously close we are to the rise of a new fascistic order here in the U.S.

The three-fold invite on card stock was designed by George Mack, who was then director of advertising production at The Valley Advocate, a weekly alternative newspaper in western Massachusetts, where I had served as managing editor the year before.

The invite featured an amazing image taken by photographer Neil Benson, then the staff photographer for The Drummer, an alternative weekly in Philadelphia [where I had worked as a staff writer], at the announcement of a federal revenue-sharing program in October of 1972, showing President Richard Nixon wiping his brow as Vice President Spiro Agnew spoke. Benson had been warned that if any camera was raised up above the crowd it would be shot out by federal sharpshooters. Still, he persisted.

The photograph captured the underlying angst of the Nixon-Agnew presidential ticket, a political team about to win re-election in an electoral landslide. Which, of course, led to the infamous bumper sticker, “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.”

The invitation had continued: “And so the Eighth Day of August should be inscribed in this consciousness of this nation and her children as a national celebration, a joyous holiday where we can ask all our brothers and sisters throughout the world to join us in rejoicing: The Demise of Richard Milhous Nixon.”

The resignation party was held at a bar known as the Quonset Hut off Route 9 in Hadley, Mass., which I had rented for the extraordinarily low price of $25, because it made money from a cash bar. The entertainment for the evening featured, as detailed in the invite, “the inimitable Doctor of Beebop and Good Incantations, Professor Dee Grease.” [In real life, Dee Grease was David Letters, who in the summer of 1974 had been roller skating across the U.S., to help raise money for a Dick Gregory project.]

The party had also featured a showing of a pirate video of the actual Nixon resignation speech, which included eight minutes of candid video of Nixon before he spoke, beginning with a stern admonishment to “Shut off those cameras,” which the camera operator from one of the major news networks refused to follow, leaving his camera running. The pirate video captured Nixon in the midst of a conversation with himself in full psychotic breakdown mode, including his promise not to worry, that he would not pick his nose in front of the American people. [Yes, I still have a VHS copy of the video.]

The RSVP requested that people only send regrets, sharing where they were when they had heard that Nixon resigned.

Improvisation
What had began as an improvisational whim in 1975, when I was living in Washington, D.C. on Monroe Street in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood became somewhat of annual tradition when I lived in Montague Center, Mass.

The origins of the resignation party had a lot to do with my own personal circumstances. On Aug. 8. 1974, I had flown from Seattle, Wash., to Los Angeles, to begin a stint as a television scriptwriter in Hollywood, working for “The Rockford Files.”

I had driven onto the lot of Universal Studios, parked my rented Pinto at Public Arts Productions building, and walked into a full story conference where the plot of the first script I was to write, “Aura Lee Farewell,” was dictated. Then a big Sony Triniton TV was wheeled in and we watched Nixon give his resignation speech.

Somebody please pinch me. I had a hard time believing that it was all really happening. The day before, I had left my job as a short-order cook rolling enchiladas on the lunch shift the Guadalajara Café, a Mexican restaurant located just off Skid Row in downtown Seattle. I had planned to work on a salmon fishing boat bound for Alaska, earning a stake larger enough to finish a novel I had begun, only to badly sprain my ankle on the docks and get bumped from my job.

In desperation, having run out of money, I found a job making $2.75 an hour on the lunch shift. After the story conference and the viewing of the resignation speech ended, the head writer for “The Rockford Files,” Steve Cannell, asked me what I had been doing before I arrived in L.A., and when I told him, honestly that I had been working as a cook in a Mexican restaurant. Cannell laughed, slapped me on the back, and told me he liked my sense of humor, and that we would get along.

I was soon ensconced in a basement office in the Universal Studios commissary, banging away at my portable Smith Corona, trying to sculpt the dialogue of an adventure of Jim Rockford, portrayed by Jim Garner.

And yes, the unfinished novel, about a middle-aged woman in a plastics factory, was the reason why I was hired. The novel is still unfinished.

Things to remember
On Monday, Aug. 9, the state of Rhode Island will celebrate the end of World War II with Japan, an official state holiday. The International Olympic Committee refused to honor the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima during the current Olympic games, to hold a moment of silence, even though the competition was being hosted by Japan, which speaks volumes about the willing denial of our history and about what really happened. [More than the story of Jesse Owens winning in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, there is the untold story of how Olympic officials prevented Marty Glickman, a Jewish athlete from Syracuse, from competing.]

The history of World War II often leaves out the story about those who were willing collaborators with the forces of fascism in Europe, including dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Henry Ford was a virulent anti-Semite, and Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator, was an avid apologist for Hitler. So, too, were numerous corporations and law firms, including Sullivan and Cromwell, whose managing partner was John Foster Dulles, a future Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1933, Chicago renamed a downtown street in honor of Italian aviator Italo Balbo, as part of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, a fascist thug in league with German aviator Hermann Goring and Nazis. Teach your children well.

How many American history courses in Rhode Island teach the story of Billie Holiday’s signature song, “Strange Fruit,” about lynching? Would teaching such musical history run afoul of the Puritans who seek to control how we teach our kids about racism and slavery and hatred?

The threat of fascism still looms large
The anniversary of the resignation of President Nixon will probably receive scant notice, no doubt, in the news coverage. But, these days, as the threat of fascism once again looms large on the American landscape, fed by the lies and misinformation emanating from the former President, it is worthy to remember what actually happened. [Fox’s anchor, Tucker Carlson, and his goo goo-eyed interview with Hungary’s despot, promoting a fascist future for America, not withstanding.]

The crimes of the Watergate break-in and cover-up had been ordered by President Nixon, paid for by large corporate campaign contributions, and orchestrated by a number of former CIA operatives, crimes then covered up by both the FBI and the CIA.

The same operatives were involved in numerous dirty tricks, including breaking in to the offices of the psychiatrist treating Daniel Ellsberg, the source of the Pentagon Papers. Nixon’s presidential aides – H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman, as well as Attorney General John Mitchell – lied repeatedly to Congress, for which they were found guilty and went to jail. And, right up until the day Nixon resigned, many in Congress were his staunch, loyal defenders. Sound familiar?

And, let us not forget about Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was busy taking cash in bribes while he was serving in the White House, detailed anew in Rachel Maddow’s book, Bag Man. This time around, the financing for the planned coup on Jan. 6 came from right-wing dark money sources.

What do I remember?
In the summer of 1978, I had just finished up a stint as an adjunct at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, teaching two sections of rhetoric. I was also pursing a story about the attempts by the federal government to infiltrate and subvert the anti-nuclear movement, which would soon take me to Michigan and a conference that featured Victory Navasky. [From his book, Naming Names, I learned how the top two executives at Public Arts Productions, Roy Huggins and Meta Rosenberg, had been prominent in naming names of alleged communists in Hollywood in the 1950s.]

I was waiting for my story about the impact of mercury poisoning to be published by The New York Times magazine – but the story ended up being held after two Popes died, and then the newspaper went on strike. The story eventually ran in October of 1979, more than a year later.

I was also working as the communications consultant for Jonathan Souweine, an attorney who was running to become district attorney. He won the primary and lost the election. But that is a much longer tale. [I had been urged to take on this task by No Nukes activist Sam Lovejoy. He had showed up unannounced, inviting himself to dinner at my house, refusing to leave until I had agreed.]

I was also serving as a consultant to a start-up alternative weekly, Fresh Ink, and providing some editing advice to Anna Gyorgy on her book, No Nukes.

Many of my evenings that summer were spent playing softball in the Montague Men’s Fast Pitch league, for the team sponsored by Chapin and Sadler, a local heating oil and school bus firm. It was a league composed of teams from Bourbeau’s Package Store, Miller Falls Paper, St. Stansilaus, and St. Kazimer’s, where beer on tap was still a quarter.

I was 26 years old, attempting to define a writing career in journalism played out on a national stage, while at the same time living in a small rural town, in a rented home that had been built in 1900 to house workers from the Montague Boot and Shoe Co. Within the next year I would launch a new television production company, Western Mass. Media Workshop, WMMW, attempting to make the transition to video production, focused on a documentary on the separatist conflict in Québec.

The resignation party drew more than 150 folks, without any media coverage or advertising. It was strictly word of mouth and by invitation. My future wife would attend the party.

The context
Today, we are once again at an inflection point in the history of our nation when it comes to fascism. On Jan. 6, there was an attempted coup against the U.S. government, aided and abetted by former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress, who attempted to stop the Electoral College from certifying that President Joe Biden had won the 2020 Presidential election.

The big lie is still being perpetuated, even as we struggle to contain the latest COVID variant, even after more than 600,000 Americans have perished.

In numerous cities, including Providence, there are efforts to stoke anxiety about crime on the street, echoing Adolph Hitler’s language about law and order in 1933 – with the illusion that more police would crack down on the alleged criminal element in out society.

As the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus explodes in a contagion of new cases and rising hospitalizations, the metaphor I would use to describe the situation is this: we are driving along Route 95, it is late at night, and we are staying within 10 miles per hour of the posted speed limit, traveling in the middle lane, while a number of reckless drivers are weaving in and out of traffic, at high speeds, convinced in a delusional fashion that they somehow do not need to follow the rules, because that impinges on their freedom to risk their lives – and the lives of others, for the thrill of speed.

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