English is My Native Tongue, Too

So I’m kind of a celebrity slut.  That would explain why I almost went into a swoon at a cocktail party a few weeks ago when I noticed a man standing a few feet away.  His nametag — scrawled in ballpoint pen — said “Alexander Butterfield.”

Alexander Butterfield!  The Senate Watergate hearings!  Testimony about the secret tapes!

“Is he the Alexander Butterfield?” I panted to a friend who confirmed that yes, he was.

Which was how I found myself chatting briefly (but trying not to gush too much) with the guy whose testimony revealed the existence of the White House’s secret taping system.  All of which led to transcripts and stonewalling and a U.S. Supreme Court decision and the eventual resignation of Richard Nixon and the end of his virulent, toxic leadership (so we could eventually go on to other virulent, toxic leaders with less comic profiles than Nixon’s, but never mind).

“You must have had a fascinating life,” I said to Alexander Butterfield, which he didn’t seem to like, particularly.  Clearly, Watergate, to him was only a minor part in a long and dignified professional career.

If I’d spoken more precisely, I should have told Mr. Butterfield he helped us have a fascinating life.  Watergate!  The downfall of a dangerous, Constitution-annihilating presidency.  The hearings, the intrigues, the ominous parking garages.

My husband and I watched every news show, pored over every newspaper and newsmagazine we could find.  We were true Watergate junkies, reciting the sayings of the time like mantras:  The Big Enchilada.  Twist Slowly in the Wind.  What Did the President Know and When Did He Know It?  Wallowing in Watergate.  The President is Not a Crook.

After being dumbstruck by Barbara Jordan’s eloquence in the House hearings, our next great hero became Sam Ervin, the North Carolina senator. He was old, he was folksy, he was plainspoken, he was smart as hell. “Just an old country lawyer,” he called himself, as he chewed up and expectorated one witness after another.

But what I remember him for even better and more fondly was when he chastised one sleazy White House operative by insisting he understood what had been said. “I understand the English language,” he said — or something to that effect. “It’s my mother tongue.”

I recall that statement — and Ervin himself — on days when I feel I no longer understand that same language, my own mother tongue. Over the years, it’s been so mangled, stretched, diluted, turned inside-out, wronged, smeared and degraded. I read, for example, in The New York Times that the current White House disapproved of the Clinton administration’s efforts to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians because those efforts were “meddlesome.” As Dana Perino, the current White House spokesperson said about that administration’s reluctance to approach the problem earlier, “George W. Bush is not a gambler.”

I read statements like that and I begin to get massive migraines. Which is odd, since I don’t get migraines. Let me see, the administration that preemptively invaded and now occupies another country disapproves of peace efforts as “meddlesome”? And the leader of that same administration who ordered those preemptive attacks based on flimsy, cherry-picked or nonexistent evidence isn’t a gambler?

In the meantime, the long list of presidential wannabes circling the country and debating one another only speak something approaching the blunt-spoken truth when they’re outliers with nothing to lose — like Ron Paul. Nobody else tells us the obvious, but unspeakable: Anything we now do in Iraq — whether staying there or pulling out or some combination of the two — will be dangerous, bloody, unpredictable and potentially disastrous. All our choices are bad; it’s our lot to find the choice that’s a little better than the rest, but nowhere close to good.

What’s saddest to me is the continuing and complete failure of leadership by George W. Bush. He has now polarized the country so completely, he now enraged so many of us that we’ve become blinded to what might be the best course for our country in the future. Imagine what it would be like if he went on national TV to admit that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible mistake; nevertheless, we’re there — and, as a nation, must decide together what to do with this mess. Imagine what it would be like for this man to admit that, yes, he and his administration made a mistake of historic proportions. But we’re all one country and must go forward together.

I would posit some kind of cheap-shot sentiment that maybe it’s because men can’t apologize as well or as freely as women. God, I’d love to be able to say that and believe it. But then, there’s the specter of Hillary Clinton who can’t even admit her vote for the war was a mistake. Even now, it was somebody else’s fault.

All of which makes me pine for the early 1970s, even if I’m the kind of person who hates to fall into nostalgia and the good-old-days symdrome. (If you lived in the 1970s, you remember leisure suits, gold neckchains for men, Tony Orlando and Dawn, typewriters, carbon copies that smudged all over the place, more obvious sexism. Who on earth would ever call that the Good Old Days?)

But still, I yearn for some kind of leadership that speaks from the heart, that has a heart to begin with. Since that’s not in the near future, I want to say thank you, Sam Ervin and Alexander Butterfield (and Woodward and Bernstein, and so on), for some of the most bracing, patriotic, oddly idealistic days of my life. The thought of Richard Nixon climbing into his last helicopter ride as president still makes me happy. Maybe I’ll just focus on that.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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