Dealing With History

A Visit to Haldeman and Other States of Mind by Charles L. Mee, Jr. '60 M. Evans & Co., 226 pages.

ALL AMERICANS who were alive at the time have their own stories to tell about where they were on the day Camelot fell--when John Kennedy was assassinated. And likewise, all have stories about where they were the day America finally scared the buzzards out of the palace--when President Nixon resigned.

I was 17 years old--an exchange student on an archeological dig in Italy, 20 miles north of Rome. The previous summer I had sat like millions of others in a living room in the middle of suburbia and watched, like a soap opera addict, as one top Nixon aide after another came before the Senate Watergate committee to hint at the various venal sins committed by the administration still in power. Like so many others, I drew the routine conclusion that Nixon was a paranoid scum, and wondered how much longer he would cling to the Oval Office. It took them a year to flush him out.

When I finally heard the news, I was digging up ancient medieval ruins outside an historic back-water of a town in Italy--Tarquinia, which had once been a main nexus of the Etruscan civilization. The Etruscans were shepherds who set up a culture that the Romans subsequently built on. I appreciated the irony of standing on top of the roots of Western civilization when one of the Italian kids on the team came running down the path to our site waving a copy of Italy's major communist newspaper, l'Unita, with a headline proclaiming what so many have labeled the ultimate signal of the decline of the West--Nixon's reluctant farewell.

There were six other Americans digging, and after we deciphered the headline we dropped our shovels and started whooping and dancing and hugging each other and rolling in the dirt. The blight was gone. But when the elation had passed, one of us--I think it was an accountant's son from Cleveland--looked at each of the others soberly and said, "What are we celebrating? The country has fallen apart."

That evening over our pasta we watched Nixon's resignation speech on the news. There was no pity for this broken leader; he had fallen before we were born. The Italians at the table watched our reactions. We showed no shame for Nixon--this man was as politically remote from us as the distance between Tarquinia and Washington--but on the other hand we drew no elation from watching the president take responsibility for screwing the democratic system, but point the blame elsewhere.

After Nixon had said his piece we just shrugged and finished dinner. Ford became president and we didn't talk about politics much for the rest of the summer. When I came home in the fall, I asked my friends in high school what they had done when Nixon resigned, but they were not too interested in the subject and I dropped it. The malignancy had been removed. That was all that counted.

IT HAS BEEN relatively easy for people my age to deal with Nixon's duplicity, because sadly it came when we were young enough to look at high-level corruption as a fact of life. But for an older generation that had placed its faith in the integrity, if not the competence, of its public officials, the Watergate scandal was often traumatic.

Charles L. Mee's story about his own reaction to Nixon's resignation is a tale from a member of that older generation born just before World War II, and there is much more to his reaction than a shrugging off of the events of that day in the summer of 1974. In fact, except for a couple of short fantasy episodes, Nixon is rarely mentioned. His betrayal of the country is taken as a given, and the book revolves around Mee's efforts to deal with what he calls the death of the Republic, and the people who killed it. The centerpiece of the book, around which Mee weaves a host of related personal tales, is a meeting he has set up with former Nixon aide H.R. "Bob" Haldeman to discuss possible collaboration on a book about Haldeman's experiences in the White House.

Mee's actual meeting with "the old malefactor" doesn't come until the end of A Visit To Haldeman and Other States of Mind. But the anticipation of the meeting carries the reader through an otherwise rambling book that includes tales from Mee's boyhood, the story of his fight with polio, his theories on the recent death and inevitable rebirth of the republic, and imagined conversations with Nixon and "Exxon"--an archetypal business executive who informs Mee that present governments are outmoded and that multinational corporations will inevitably rule the world. They will, Exxon says, be responsive only to "the reality of economics, the reality of profit and loss statements, to the making and distribution and consuming of things."

Mee's narrative is a wild journey, frequently crossing from his personal consciousness into the national political consciousness and back again without warning. But then, that is perhaps the best way of dealing with a political phenomenon like Watergate that turned people inward, and turned many off to further political events.

At times, Mee seems self-indulgent, as when he describes at great length his battle with polio at age 14. But he inevitably goes on to link the personal with the political: his bout with polio serves both as an explanation of why he turned to writing--to apply his mind since his body wasn't working too well--and as an allegory for the condition of the country. Just as people recover from illness, Mee writes, so democratic republics will revive even if they lapse into oligarchy, as America has. The logical connection between one person's physical health and the nation's political health may seem weak, but Mee manages to make the individual-social analogy work there, as he does throughout the book.

Mee reads political events in the lives of individuals, casting his book into a nebulous category somewhere between literature, biography and history. Mee opens the book squarely in the middle of the "post-Watergate era" in the spring of 1975, by describing an encounter with a character clearly fitted to what doomsayers are fond of calling "post-Watergate morality." Mee's acquaintance Richard, who "looks like a million dollars before taxes," is a successful and influential man--a status the reader inevitably must link to the fact that he "moves in the worlds of politics and finance, of embezzlement, larceny and war, with uncommon ease." There are no Horatio Alger stories in this decade.

If Mee's acquaintance Richard provides the cynic's stereotype of an inevitably cold and ambitious road to success, it is Nixon himself who becomes a target for the blame. Mee doesn't claim that Nixon personally brought down the republic, of course, noting that it had fallen long before, but Nixon becomes a focus of his disappointment in a string of broken presidential promises that stretch back at least through Johnson's administration.

Nixon was certainly a worthy target on which to vent such feelings, and while it is highly unusual to write history in terms of personal rage, Mee somehow seems to capture an underlying anger that conventional histories of the Watergate era miss. He relates a mood with an effectiveness that no objective account could offer, but with an air of authority that a straight piece of fiction or biography would not provide. It is Mee's style that makes the book a cohesive and meaningful treatment of "the wounds that Watergate inflicted on the American psyche" (as the blurb on the jacket phrases it). Another writer might not have pulled it off. Mee writes with force and vitality, using personalities, incidents and daydreams from his own life as tools to evoke and historical mood.

Mee discharges his rage in one frenzied paragraph of violent passion in which his writing seems to be as much of a catharsis as the impeachment he writes about--"I impeached myself and exiled myself, removing myself from friends, family, and all the world, committing multiple ax murders and suicide all at the same time." And in the next paragraph Mee finally meets Haldeman, who of course turns out to be a nice guy--in fact "one of the great flat-out bores of our times."

HALDEMAN has become obsessed with all that has been written about him and the Nixon administration. When Mee meets him, Haldeman is suddenly no longer a man to be despised, a man to rage against; Haldeman is now grotesque, a man whose activity has become locked around one period in his life, when he was on hand to help twist American history. When Mee finally meets the enemy, the duplicitous villain he had expected turns out instead to be an object of pity. Watergate is an obsession for Haldeman, but Mee does not need to linger over those unpleasant details. His anti-Nixon tirade and his meeting with Haldeman have purged his pent-up anger, and he can calmly await the renewal of the republic.

After his meeting with Haldeman, his mind cleared, Mee closes the book by pulling two appropriate tales from his past. One involves a happy day of love-making sometime in the late '60s--plucked out of the past to provide a relief from the tension that had been building in the book. And the last few pages relate an encounter Mee had with Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, in the early '70s. At the meeting, Mee put forth his elaborate theories about the course of Western civilization, but Toynbee apparently dozed through the tirade and didn't catch a word. Mee certainly doesn't take himself too seriously.

Like Toynbee, the reader probably won't remember much of the theorizing Mee lays out in his new book, but the state of mind Mee evokes is quite memorable. It is a reading of the national psyche. And if Mee ends the book with an unwarranted optimism about American democracy, one cannot fault his sense of the country's mood.