Sunday, April 18, 2010

Watergate on My Mind: Martha Was Right

Watergate’s been on my mind lately.  At the time the break-in and eventual unraveling of the cover-up took place, I didn’t have a television.  My partner Steve and I had met not long previously, and we were living with two other students (and, for a good part of one year, with a homeless alcoholic man we’d offered shelter)—all of us either just out of college or just finishing—in a community of work and prayer. 

No t.v., because we wanted to focus on prayer and outreach to people in need.  In addition to attending daily liturgy, we gathered to pray several times a day.  And we served as the “legs” for a tiny Catholic nun who was one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever met.

Rosemary taught pre-seminarians in her workaday life, but in her other life, managed through a far-flung network of magical, mystical connections to receive word of people in need of immediate assistance, as they fell through the rips in a welfare system already coming apart at the seams.  Children left to live alone in a housing project, while their mother had sex for pay in an apartment across the city; people whose water would be cut off tomorrow, or who would be evicted next week, unless someone helped them immediately.

Rosemary would gather information about people in need, would match the needs with someone who had the wherewithal to help, and we became her legs, because she didn’t drive: we’d pick up the donation—money, food, furniture—and then bring it to whoever needed it.  As this ad hoc ministry developed, we were offered the use of a Catholic school that had closed to collect, sort, and repair items given as donations, so that whatever time we had free, apart from being Rosemary’s legs and gathering to pray, we used in this donation center.

And so no t.v.: these were good days, days of learning that complemented what we had learned, all of us, as students of philosophy, theology, art, and literature at Loyola in New Orleans.  Days of real learning that made the theory we’d learned in class real in a way the classes could never have done.  No textbook lesson on the effects of poverty in urban children’s lives equals the effect of bringing groceries to an apartment full of children whose hooker mother has abandoned them, opening the refrigerator to put away the perishable goods, and finding roaches crawling inside it.

This was our community’s livelihood, too, since Rosemary paid our rent and utilities, and gave us a bit for our basic necessities out of the money she gathered for her poor ministry.  The Jesuit whom the church in its wisdom appointed to give spiritual direction to our community and to oversee the wild and dangerous work of tiny Sr. Rosemary without a car or a license to drive one—well, let’s just say that he was too busy studying and talking about theology to do it in Rosemary’s hands-on way that paid attention to rent, utilities, or children with hooker mothers and roaches crawling through their refrigerator.  Rosemary, from whom we learned a world of theology beyond what our Jesuit supervisor taught us, with his head-in-the-clouds abstraction and can’t-be-bothered-with-people approach to theological reflection . . . .

What I know of Watergate from the years in which it happened, then, I know almost exclusively from what people with access to the news told me.  I have, of course, filled this gap in my education by reading in later years.

But at the time, my primary source of information was an aunt who lived in the same city in Arkansas, Pine Bluff, from which Martha Mitchell, the Watergate whistle-blower, came.  My aunt Pauline was, to put it bluntly, a Watergate fanatic.

Like Rosemary, she taught, but when her teaching day was over, she rushed home to undertake a different set of duties than those that preoccupied Rosemary.  My aunt was a self-appointed Watergate monitor.

She was determined to keep the conversation honest, to keep the spotlight firmly where it needed to be—on President Nixon himself—through all the twists and turns down which Nixon’s protectors tried to take the investigation to divert our attention from the man at the center of it all.

My aunt believed she could affect these twists and turns merely by watching.  Nothing—not one scintilla of what happened—escaped her vigilance.  Ask her any question about even the most incidental aspect of the case, and she’d set you right immediately: yes, he said precisely that, and he was wearing big old black brogans when he said it.  With a red tie that had horizontal white stripes.

She could not believe—she would not endure—the diversionary attempts of the old boys’ cover-up network that tried to take Martha and her down one silly garden path after another.  When we all knew better, and had known from the get-go that Martha was right.   She was telling the gospel truth.

Ah, but the facts! she heard them say daily, as they spun, spun, spun.  And the numbers!  Look at the signatures on this petition: they disprove that Nixon could have been involved!  See the dates!  View the timelines!  He wasn’t there!  He didn’t do it!  Poor, poor president.  Poor, poor Mr. Nixon.  Have you no pity?  No shame?

That memo never reached his desk, and even if it did, it was written in a code he did not understand.  In vanishing ink.

The scorn my aunt felt for such trifling attempts to divert us from the glaring problem at the center of it all—the problem she was convinced the whole world could see as clearly as she and Martha did—was white-hot.  Let that scorn outside the kitchen with the rocking chair where she sat glued to her television monitoring, scribbling notes, keeping score, and who knows what conflagration might have ensued.

Certainly the halls of power where politicians, media gurus, and the captains of industry swapped “facts” and “data” and “the numbers” would have felt her scorch.  The places where the old boys gathered to analyze, weigh, defuse and divert—spin, spin, spin—would have burnt to the ground if my aunt’s scorn could have found those places out.     

I don’t think my aunt was the person who sent a wreath to Martha’s funeral with white carnations spelling, “Martha was right.”  I don’t think she sent that tribute because I understand that it still appears on Martha’s grave every year now, on the anniversary of her death—and my Watergate-obsessed aunt is long since buried herself. 

But my aunt knew that Martha knew.  And she trusted that countless others knew and, like her, had eyes to see the futility of the cover-up.  And the vacuity at the center that the cover-up sought to conceal.  And the moral emptiness of those who occupied the vacuous center that the cover-up sought to protect.

And she was convinced that, if she only stayed in front of her television set, monitoring and silently calling the old boys to accountability, they would not get away with their dirty work.

As I’m convinced that my church would be a very different kind of church if the Rosemarys and Paulines of the world had more of a say in running it.  As Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times also suggests.