Dear Younger Person:
I’ll celebrate my 71st birthday later this month. While there’s much about getting old that I’d love to explain to you, I’ll stick to one thing in this letter.
It’s hard for me to process that you and so many other adults now living don’t remember the key events in history that I remember. You have read about them. You may have seen video clips of them. But you’ll never understand what living through them was like. Books, articles and video clips don’t add up to genuine institutional memory.
You can probably guess why that’s on my mind this week, but please indulge me as I start earlier.
- On June 9, 1954, even though I was only 8 years old, I somehow understood the impact of lawyer Joseph Welch’s words when I watched him, during a televised Senate hearing, turn to Senator Joseph McCarthy and say: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?” The mood of the nation changed in that moment. The tide had turned against McCarthyism.
- On November 22, 1963, two months before my graduation, I heard as I left high school that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and soon after watched as Walter Cronkite removed his glasses and announced that he had died.
- I was working for a Philadelphia newspaper on April 4, 1968, when the news broke that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed.
- Two months later, on the evening of June 6, 1968, I was working at the newspaper when a reporter who was already home called and told us to turn on the TV. Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot. He died the following day.
- I had a day off on May 4, 1970, when I heard on my car radio that members of the Ohio National Guard had opened fire on Kent State students protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War, killing four of them.
Of course, I realized in each of those instances that something of enormous import had happened. That was not the case on Sunday, June 18, 1972. I had moved to New York City to work for a paper there, but I was back visiting friends and reading the Philadelphia Inquirer. On the front page of the second section was a story about a break-in the previous day at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate Complex. Seemed like a fluke to me, of no lasting importance.
It was more than two years later before Richard Nixon resigned. I don’t remember when during that period I became convinced that he indeed had been at the center of a criminal conspiracy. It took lots of investigative reporting, most of it in the Washington Post. And it took scores of individual acts by folks I might call POPs (Persons of Principle) like John Dean, Alexander Butterfield, Archibald Cox, the other victims of the Saturday Night Massacre, Mark Felt (Deep Throat), and many more.
Now history seems to be repeating itself with a President even weirder than Nixon and probably less principled, in a climate that seems more polarized. But the POPs are coming forth. As long as there are POPs, we’ll eventually get the answers we need.
So, Younger Person, do your best to be a POP and realize the road to clarity may be a long one.
— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine