Posts Tagged John Mitchell

12/3/1970: Confronting Nixon 40 Years Ago

There’s a longer story to be written here, but for now I’m glad to put this off because there are contemporary heroes making immediate contributions to stopping the current wars, and we are busy defending them and digging into what’s coming out every day in the leaked US cables from Wikileaks.  So, today– the brief version of what happened to me 40 years ago, tomorrow…

Nixon Told to Get Out of War by Madison Girl

Face to face with Nixon in 1970

I was an activist in my high school years, for which I got a series of awards, leading up to receiving the Young American Medal for Service of 1970, annually given by the US President.  I learned of that in June, 1970, while I was at The Hague in Holland, attending the World Food Conference, as part of a rag-tag US youth delegation. We had just disrupted a US event there with an anti-Vietnam war protest, “embarrassing” the ambassador and getting us nearly booted.  At first I thought the letter from The White House must be a joke, but no, the Department of Justice had called my parents, and was trying to set up a date for the family to come to Washington.

My immediate response was “hell no…I won’t go!  Why would anyone take an award from a war-monger like Richard Nixon?”  I was conflicted, ambivalent, and irritated to be put in that position.  As the months went by, and the event kept being re-scheduled, I thought I might get to skip it.  But suddenly, on December 3, 1970, me, my family and friends were flown to Washington.  We were escorted into the office of the Attorney General John Mitchell where there was small talk.  In shuffled J. Edgar Hoover, and the whole strange experience got very real, very quickly.

Back into the limo and up to the door of the White House, into the Blue Room with what seemed to be the entire world press corps and a million cameras.  For the kids getting the awards?  No, because this was the first time the press had gotten to see the (well-hated) Nixon in months.   I still didn’t know what to say.  Then Richard Nixon made it easy.  He went on a rant about how these kids are the “good” ones, they’re not out protesting, they’re for America.  I thought, with my 19-year-old brain, “Oh no, you just slandered my generation.  We are about changing the world, and taking it away from people like you.”

The drill was a simple hand shake with Nixon, present the medal, pat the kid on the arm, smile for the cameras.  I was the last of 4 recipients, and it was almost over, when he grabbed my hand.  What came out of my mouth: “I can’t believe you’re sincere in giving this award for service, when you’re killing millions of people in Vietnam.”  We weren’t miked, and I spoke quietly.  Nixon, despite make-up, turned completely white, and stammered, “We’re doing the best we can.”  Then he pivoted, looked at his watch, muttered something about an appointment, and walked out.

J. Edgar Hoover, standing right behind me (another factor that oddly made me more bold than I knew), patted me on the arm, and said — I swear — “that was lovely, dear.”  Everywhere else in the room there was chaos.  The press saw Nixon’s reaction, and some caught the word, “Vietnam.”  I was interviewed for hours, the planned White House tour was cut short and we were hustled out.  Being back in the day when there was no 24-hour news cycle, this was front page and main story on the networks.

The fact that someone got right to Nixon (before he was Tricky) and, however naively, confronted the leader of the “Free World” was a confirmation that the system was vulnerable.  We got lots of mail, some just addressed to “Debra, Madison, Wisconsin” from people who were truly moved, and in a world hostile to the U.S., some of it was thanks from people in other countries.  We also got death threats, and attention from not very undercover agents who immediately rented the hotel room next door, followed us around D.C., and later investigated my wonderful, supportive, parents.

The back story: I went to high school in Madison, Wisconsin, about a mile from the University of Wisconsin, close enough that during the students’ 1967 Dow Chemical protests against the use of napalm in Vietnam, tear gas drifted into the windows.  I sought out that story, and wrote a paper at 15 against the war.  Because Freedom Riders came back to the UW from the South and built an organization, Measure for Measure, to support Fannie Lou Hamer and the struggle against Jim Crow, I had a range of freedom fighter “movement” role models, including Mrs. Hamer, who stayed at our house.  Because I knew them, and was in college near Chicago, I heeded the call to tour the shot-up apartment of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, the Black Panther leaders who were killed in their beds December 4, 1969 by Hoover’s FBI and Chicago police.  A few months later, I was part of the largest student strike ever, in response to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the killing of students by the National Guard at Kent State and by the state police at Jackson State.

All these experiences taught me about who had power, and who was oppressed, exploited, lynched and killed, and formed me further into someone who was “for the underdog.”   I sought more, and began to shape a life focused around a different future for humanity.

Nixon and J Edgar Hoover Hear the Truth

My favorite photo of J. Edgar Hoover!

Right after the Nixon experience, honestly, I was embarrassed for not having seized the moment with a brilliant speech, and for not really having risked a thing in my protest.  But as a few decades have gone by, I’ve come to realize that, through an accident of history, it was good thing that I was part of puncturing the legitimacy of the Nixon presidency, as Dan Ellsberg, Vietnam veterans and student protests, and the Watergate scandal would continue to do.

In writing this, I looked up Nixon’s daily schedule for 12/3/70, and found that immediately afterward, he met with his press secretary; then called Hoover and Mitchell.  There was turmoil in the Oval Office. The next day Hoover wrote Mitchell, saying essentially, “why the hell didn’t we investigate more carefully? She was from Madison! This will never happen again.”

Unfortunately, that kind of protest hasn’t happened enough since then. Cindy Sheehan, a TIME magazine Face of the Decade this week, stands out for challenging Emperor Bush, leaving him naked, and I don’t want to leave out the couple who streaked through the 2004 inaugural with anti-war messages; thousands have been arrested trying to deliver the antiwar political messages.

In the wake of four major WikiLeaks this year, all instructive as to the rules of engagement of these imperialist occupations, the basic injustice of the so-called “war on terror,” and all completely against the interests of humanity — provided you stop looking at everything through “American” eyes — there is no better time than now for mass, visible, protest against all this.

I so know the world can’t wait, and am so glad to be involved with the World Can’t Wait.  This is all really needed, now!

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