Uncle Sam’s Fan Club
S1: Hello, this is Episode 4 plus of Slow Burn, a podcast about Watergate. I’m Leon Neyfakh.
S2: Today, we’re gonna do something a little different than what we’ve done for the last three weeks. We’ve got a double feature for you.
S1: Instead of being here with Jeff Bloomer, I have assembled a little Pop-Up Watergate Book Club. We’re gonna be talking about a 1974 book by Mary McCarthy called The Mask of State. It’s a collection of dispatches that Mary McCarthy wrote from the Senate Watergate hearings during the summer of 73. But first, we have my cutting room floor interview of the week. And it’s a really good one. You might remember in this week’s episode of the show, I mentioned that there was an official fan club formed in honor of Sam Ervin, the chair of the Senate Watergate Committee. Well, I tracked down the guy who founded it and his name is Rob Coughlin. And you are going to love him.
S3: Yeah, just make sure you’re recording. Rob, where do you live?
S4: I live in San Mateo, California. Just south of San Francisco.
S5: Did you go surfing this morning? No. No, I didn’t go surfing. It was choppy. Okay. All right. Already. All right. It’s a Sunday, so I’m here by myself. So there’s no engineer to look for me. Well, we’ll take it. All right.
S1: You were one of the founders of the same Irvin Fan Club, an organization that honored and celebrated the chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin. Why do we start with you telling me whether you remember the first time when Senator Ervin made an impression on you?
S6: Oh, I guess like everybody else in the country back in 1972 was riveted by the television, the hearings, the Watergate hearings that were a bipartisan committee on TV.
S7: And it became the reality TV show of the day, kind of like the Trump situation is today, where he just didn’t want to turn off the TV because it was so exciting to see what was going on.
S8: How old how old were you at that? How a Watergate.
S9: Oh, I’m 75 now. So whatever happened?
S10: I don’t know. Let’s say I was given a 30 year, about 30, about 30, OK? That’s right.
S7: Yes. Senator Ervin was not a big hero of mine. He had voted against all the civil rights bills. And he was a, you know, conservative Democrat from North Carolina. And so and I was a, you know, a liberal activist type Democrats here in California. But I liked his which sent his bouncing eyebrows. And I just thought he was a great guy right at the beginning.
S11: Did you see his bouncing eyebrows?
S10: His bouncing eyebrows? They were fabulous. They’re like, you know, pogo’s stick eyebrows going up and down. And he’d say things like, don’t stand on the windy side of the law. Things like that and things he done here in California.
S6: And then I liked the way he was handling the hearings. He was courteous and friendly and really trying to get at the bottom of the the issues. So I had kind of a begrudging admiration for him. I had a political button collection. I’ve been involved in a lot of politics as a political junkie and had worked for a congressman. Well, Ryan, he was right. And let’s say, Congressman, that got killed down in Jonestown. So I thought, oh, yeah, I got to get to Sam Ervin button for my collection. And they said they didn’t have any that he had never had buttons or used him in his campaigns. You called his office? Yeah, I called the Senate office and just asked if I could get a button. And they said, no, he doesn’t have any buttons. So that gave me the idea that, well, some people would like to have some piece of historic memorabilia from these Watergate hearings. And I got together with his friend of mine, who was kind of an entrepreneurial guy. And he said, well, we could raise some money and print up some buttons and sell them ourselves. And then that evolved into the idea of starting a fan club for Uncle Sam, we call them. And there was me and a couple of other friends, my wife and David, O’K, and a couple of other people had this idea to start a fan club. And the key part was we said we want lots of card carrying members like, you know, the John Birch Society was always whining about the card carrying communists all over, you know?
S10: That was a big fear. Then the communists were going to take over like everybody else, afraid of terrorists these days.
S8: Uh-Huh. So you wanted you wanted card-carrying?
S6: We wanted them to be card-carrying members of the Sam Ervin Fan Club. So we thought they can just send us a self-addressed stamped envelope and we’ll print up membership cards and send them back to them. It turned into a Frankenstein of success. We went and rented a post office box at Stanford University near my office, and we asked the postmaster who said what we want to get this box, mailbox or mail. And they said, well, what’s the name of your organization? And we said the national Sam Ervin fan club.
S10: And he said, we’ll get a small box. And we had our press conference on July 3rd. You had a press conference? We set up a press conference at the Press Club in San Francisco. And we had it set up just like a Nixon press conference.
S6: What does that mean? Well, we had it set up with the bust of Abraham Lincoln and a picture of the family and an American flag behind me, just like the Nixon. oFthis type of thing, the women passed out chocolate chip cookies on red, white and blue plates and we did it on July 3rd so that the stories would be in the July 4th editions of the paper. And we don’t know if anybody. You never know if anybody is gonna show up at your press conferences or not.
S1: And you just what you called a bunch of reporters are.
S4: Yeah. You I said we’re going to announce the formation of the National Sam Ervin Fan Club on July 3rd at the Press Club at 10:00 in the morning. Come on, guys.
S6: Well, the place was packed with reporters from Reuters and New York Times and Time magazine and international reporters. There must have been 50 people there, that room home. And the next day, the press was fabulous all over the country in July for us. I was getting phone calls from radio stations all over the country.
S11: When you started getting these phone calls. Were you surprised? I mean, was the response more than you had anticipated?
S9: Oh, yeah, much more. Much bigger response. And we anticipated it. We thought we’d get a couple of local stories. We didn’t realize it would become an instant national phenomenon. If we are doing it today, it would be called going viral. Uh-Huh.
S6: Because everybody did stories about it. Because I think because we were so upbeat about everything. I mean, there was a lot of people that were angry at Sam Ervin for even having the investigation. And the Republican hardliners were going, oh, how can you dare question Richard Nixon? You know, in his this wonderful man. And one of the things that’s amazing to me is we put out a public service message at the time. And it was a statement that Adlai Stevenson had made in 1954, 20 years earlier. And Adlai Stevenson said, welcome to Nixon Land, a land of slander and smear, a sly innuendo of poison pen, the anonymous phone call and a sling pushing, shoving, the land of smash and grab, anything to win. Now it’s 20 years before Watergate.
S10: So it wasn’t surprising. Gray was asleep, at any rate, that the success was fabulous.
S11: And so would you think he was all about people being angry and Nixon? Or was it that people liked Ervin?
S9: I think it was both. I think Irvin was a perfect guy because he was so non. Liberal lefty type of guy. They could accuse him of being a liberal lefty because he wasn’t you know, he is an old senator from North Carolina. It’s an anti-civil rights attitude. He had all the credentials of a conservative. So and the committee was good. Howard Baker was the vice chairman and he was, you know, a good senator. And there were some other senators on the committee that were kind of shaky.
S1: But that doesn’t make you go viral. I mean, if you know that’s not enough to make to make, you will want buttons of you of your face.
S10: Well, I think what’s the bouncing eyebrows?
S6: I think Sam was just such a cool guy that when we did the press conference on Friday and then Saturday was a July for and then Sunday is an empty day. And we went to our post office box on Monday. There were like 500 letters about a post office box saying, send me a membership card. And we went, wow, that’s great. And then Tuesday there were 500 more and a all Wednesday there were 500 more. Then we thought, well, maybe we should go to Washington, D.C. and try and get some more press coverage, Sharon. So we hopped on a plane and went to Washington and they rolled out the red carpet for us in Washington.
S10: I mean, we didn’t buy a drink the whole week that we were there.
S6: And we were we were there with Woodward and Bernstein and Baker and Irvin.
S11: And I mean, you were there with them. You were like hanging out with them.
S6: Yeah. Yeah, we we did an interview with Connie Chung at CBS News and Senator Ervin. So office and all the guards at the Watergate things, they had our buttons underneath their lapels and and they knew who we were. So we had complete access and egress to the hearings. And we met with Senator Ervin in his office after one of the hearings, and he was bemused by the whole idea. I mean, we’re a couple of long haired hippies from California, you know, doing a fan club. So it’s kind of like, what’s this about?
S11: So what you you got to meet him?
S6: Oh, yeah. We went to his press secretary, was very nice to us and set up a meeting. And so David, mine and Sam’s talked for a while and he said, well, why are you boys doing this?
S10: You bemused?
S6: And I said, well, partly for fun and partly because we’re serious. And he said, well, I appreciate your support because we get shot at from a lot of directions. So he realized that he was it was helpful for him.
S5: Did you guys meet him in his chambers or where? Where where were you? Yeah, no, in his office.
S11: When you said to Ervin that you and you’re doing it partly to be funny and partly to be serious. What do you mean? What was the serious part? I mean, you wanted to see Nixon impeached, right? But how did this fit into that?
S6: Well, we figured we’d try to build support for Senator Ervin’s committee and for the investigation of Nixon. And the way that we approached it was we took this positive approach and said, we live in this country that’s so fabulous that even the president can have his day in court. And so that was how we approach the impeachment was, you know, saying, hey, this is a good thing for America and this isn’t bad. You shouldn’t be afraid of this. You should be positive about impeachment. It’s given the president his chance to tell his story and the membership’s kept coming and the orders and we were given Parade magazine, the military magazine did a story about it and we were getting orders from military guys all over the world. Wow. For Sam Ervin, T-shirts and stuff. And we trying to figure out how do you send a T-shirt to India? We’re hopeful that, you know, Korea. So it ended up I think we ended up selling about 10000 T-shirts. Wow. And I think we ended up with about 750 or 75000 members card carrying members that we printed up. It’s amazing. And we made enough money that we were able to give a good contribution to the ACLU and the common cause. They were the main organizations that were advocating impeachment.
S11: You gave you what? You gave the money. You gave the money of the ACLU and the common cause.
S6: Yeah, we were selling everything so cheap. It wasn’t just any amount of money, but it was everything that we could call a profit. Right. That’s great. And we had so much fun doing it. We organized the impeachment ball here in San Francisco. Oh, yeah. Tell me about that. Oh, we just sent out an invitation. We rented the Garden Court of the Sheraton Palace Hotel, fancy hotel. And we’d send out an invitation that was exactly the same as Nixon inaugural invitation, except we changed the word to impeachment. So you here are cordially invited to the impeachment instead of to the inauguration of Richard Nixon. We ended up selling out the place of 400 tickets. People came dressed up as Richard Nixon. And it was a. While a very fun evening, we ended up giving some more money to the ACLU and common cause for the impeachment battle.
S11: I feel like you. You’re. This is like a. Black mirror image of Donald Segretti and as dirty tricks. You guys were just these white haired pranksters.
S4: Yeah. Yeah, but we were we were positive and upbeat. It was like, you know, sending out letters that says in German, you’re Muskie’s wife is an alcoholic, right? Stuff like that. Sleazy stuff that the Nixon dirty tricks are getting in.
S6: Roger Stone and those guys were kind of like USC frat boy dirty tricks. We wanted our group to have political impact. We thought Nixon was a crook and he was guilty and do as we should be impeached. So there was no question about where we were coming from on it. But it wasn’t negative or nasty, right? It was upbeat and positive, pro-America, very patriotic.
S1: So you met Senator Ervin when you visited Washington, D.C. after the fan club started. Did you ever communicate with him again after that?
S6: Yeah, I met with him twice. I went to a testimonial dinner of his hometown and Morganton, North Carolina, and then the basketball court there. And he didn’t sit down until a shake and everybody’s hand the room.
S4: He and these old crinkled arthritic fingers, and they knew everybody by their first name and held their farm was doing and what their cows were named, I think. And I went to his house and met his wife. And then some years later, I right before he died. I forget when he died.
S9: But I heard on the radio that it was his birthday and inside and found a phone number form and them left a message. And pretty soon he called back and said, Oh, yeah. Well, thanks for calling and sanctuary his good wishes and thanks for starting the fan club and keep on fighting for freedom out there. And I said, Well, we will, Senator, we will. And when he died, I I they asked me to write an obituary for his hometown paper, which I did. And I was honored to do that. And that’s why I ended up the story was mine telling him that his last words to me were keep on fighting for freedom, not fear.
S1: All right. Rob Coughlin, thanks so much for being on slow burn. Was a total pleasure to talk to you.
S10: We’ll keep on fighting for freedom out there. Good luck to you.
S3: Thank you.
S1: All right. That was Rob Coughlin, founder of the Sam Irvin Fan Club. Now, if you would, please turn the record over and we’ll continue on the other side with a book club discussion of Mary McCarthy’s The Mask of State.
S8: Joining me are Katy Waldman, who writes for Slate about the Trump presidency as a spectacle and as a piece of theater. Hey, thanks for having me. And we also have Henry Goodbar, who writes about urban policy and sits next to me in the New York office. Hi, Liane. Hey, Henry. Guys, thanks for doing us. We are here to talk about a book called The Mask of State, written by Mary McCarthy. It’s a book of essays basically or somewhat reported pieces, somewhat critical pieces that Mary McCarthy wrote during the summer of 1973. These are pieces that she published in The Observer in London and The New York Review of Books. And they’re collected here almost like a series of journal entries or dispatches from from the Senate Watergate hearings. There are a lot of books about Watergate. I want to talk to you guys about this one for a few reasons. One is I had never heard it before. And there’s something magical to me about a little known book written by a very famous writer and I think is out of print. So, you know, you have to get it used. But I like discovering it in the same way that I really enjoyed discovering some of the subplots and bit players that we have featured on the show. So that’s one reason I want to talk about it. The other reason is the book is so powerfully written from sort of inside the haze. I’m like, she wrote these pieces while things were unfolding. Nixon hadn’t even resigned yet. When it came out in the summer of 74, she did know he was going to write. And so that lines up very well with the subject of slow burn, which is, you know, what was it like to live through this period, not knowing what is going to happen next or how is going to turn out. So that’s sort of that’s why I thought it would be fun to talk about the mask of state.
S12: Would you guys think the book one thing that really emphasized for me is that if you feel confused by the cast of characters now involved in Russia Gate, that will not become any clearer. As time goes on, more and more people are added to the mix. There are an astounding number of people who make their way in and out of these essays. It’s just unbelievable to imagine that America was totally rapt at the prospect of these hearings and knew every one of these characters so well.
S13: I really enjoyed the passage where Mary McCarthy remarks on how sort of keeping track of Watergate is this intellectual exercise that has consumed an entire country. And she sort of has these slightly snarky remarks about housewives who, instead of watching the soaps, are actually like glued to their TV’s into their radios. And it is interesting to think about something that’s like intellectually difficult and demanding the coming like this really hot pursuit for an entire country. You know, that spoke well of America. It did not speak well of me or my ability to grasp all of these characters. I felt like I was scrambling to catch up for a lot of it.
S8: I think it’s a it’s part of what makes the book feel like an artifact from then, which is, you know, basically like she could write these essays and have the expectation that people would be able to follow along and know who was who. And, you know, probably most of our readers had been watching these same hearings that she was commenting on this. And she didn’t really need to set up a whole lot.
S14: Right. That was something that was really striking to me, is that she basically did no table setting or contextualisation.
S12: Mm hmm. Well, she she says right here in that paragraph, you were citing Katie about the housewives. And she walks this fine line between being a foreign correspondent, writing for the London Observer London Review of Books. Who can afford to New York of your books? New York Review of Books. Who ought to have the essay for The New Yorker, your books, and you’re writing for the NYR, but you might as well be a foreign correspondent where she walks this fine line. But of course, she’s she’s American and she says what a treat to find Americans who are not professional intellectuals engrossed in what is a decidedly intellectual study requiring feats of memory, concentration or orderly procedure.
S2: Yes, she’s like super impressed that people are keeping up. And I have to agree with her. I mean, I have had enough trouble with myself as I’ve been researching this show, the idea that people could have been watching these hearings and like. Even does knowing enough to recognize when someone has said something extraordinary is quite, quite impressive, that people were were that immersed in that well versed in this very sort of baroque and involved story. Right.
S15: There’s this great moment where she suggests that there was a fad of Americans buying lie detectors that they could use at home while watching the congressional hearings on television. Yeah. And so they could perform their own lie detection tests at home to decide which of the people from Nixon’s White House they considered to be the most reliable.
S2: Yeah, I love that. Actually, it’s that detail is an episode for which maybe some of our listeners will have already heard about the time they hear this. Henry has not heard it because it’s not done. But yeah, I love that he’s it’s the idea of people sitting there in their living rooms pointing like, I don’t know what this thing looks like, a gun or or whatever or a camera at their t._v.’s. And determining who is who is lying is really, really funny.
S13: Wait, are you guys not doing that now? Yeah. I have an Apple iPhone.
S8: So, you know, I wanted to ask you guys, how much do you feel you knew about the Senate Watergate hearings when you before you started reading this? I mean, I would say probably of everything that happened during those two years, in two months, the Watergate hearings are the thing that people who lived through it remember the most vividly. We here are all under 35 and obviously weren’t around. Did you get you guys feel like you had sort of a baseline knowledge of what went on that summer? Henry No.
S13: No. I mean, I knew that it had happened and I had studied it in school, but I did not. The characters names were familiar to me, but I could not say who did what.
S16: Yeah, I mean, they were familiar to me from reading it, from watching all the president’s men. And I feel like I’ve been repeating myself on this point throughout this podcast. But there are just so many huge storylines that I was not aware of at all. I mean, I think I knew that there had been Senate Watergate hearings. I knew that there had been quite widely watched him, but I had no idea the grip that they had on the country. And I certainly didn’t know, you know, the various characters that Mary McCarthy writes about in this book. So for me, being exposed to the hearings through her eyes was was, I think, disorienting as it was for you guys. But it was also it also really made me feel like I was there in the moment because I kind of got to share in her ignorance as she sort of gaming out, you know, well, if this thing happens, then, you know, maybe this other thing will happen. And she could truly identify with her, because I really felt. I really feel that way now as I watch, you know, the news today and sort of trying to guess where it’s going. Did you guys feel that way at all? Did you see sort of any anything familiar in the way she thought about what she was watching?
S13: I mean, a part of me was sort of wondering if we could get away with that in today’s journalistic environment, just kind of like this area speculation or sort of. Well, if this the not but if this the not, I suppose that there are people who are just like big enough authorities or luminaries that they can just kind of pontificate or ask questions that they can’t answer. And I guess there are people doing that today. But it just it felt like she had a sort of a freedom that I’m not sure. Well, I certainly don’t feel it. I wonder if you fellow journalists and writers feel like you’d be at liberty to make the kind of moves that she made.
S15: Well, there’s something wonderful about. The focus here in that she is limiting what she’s looking at to what she’s living in D.C.. You know, her trips, her stay at the Watergate Hotel, the actual Senate hearings. They’re such an incredible level of detail that suffuses every tiny moment, which I feel like is somewhat the opposite of our task today, where we need to sort through 3000 tweets to try and discern what somebody is feeling about a certain political issue might be, whereas she’s really free to, I guess, you know, spin this to our testimony in two pages and pages about people’s potential motivations and to say nothing of her incredible descriptions of the way people look and behave.
S16: Yeah, there’s a great description of John Mitchell, the first turny general under Nixon as he testifies and kind of Stonewall’s the committee. There was something, Turnipseed, about Mitchell, the off-white or Kettled Hill gray face with occasional modeling of purplish pink, the watery squelching voice, the smooth bald plate, slow video of a watery voice. That’s just like refusing to tell the truth. Katie, it’s funny to me that you that you feels like she’s doing stuff that you wouldn’t be able to get away with, because I feel like if anyone at Slate, I feel like you in writing about Trump have been able to kind of be a critic, you know, more than like a news reporter and B, and describe him and people around him in these often novelistic ways that I think are obviously within the bounds of what we know. But they are nevertheless like fanciful, I guess, in a way that that that is always a pleasure to read because, you know, I think a lot of us kind of imagine what these people are like and what how they think. And I feel like you really do that in your writing.
S13: Oh, thank you so much. I could just stop and be like compliment accepted. I think I mean, what she does really beautifully here, too, I think is kind of trait archetypes and then show how the how the cast of characters, how these characters fit certain archetypes. So we have kind of athlete of evasion. I forgot who she she describes that way.
S14: But there’s kind of like the slippery guy and then the sort of nonchalant high handed guy and then the jerk and this and then this sort of idealistic, bright young McGruder. And I think that she’s really good at. I don’t know, putting a particular profile like a character profile under the microscope and then sort of psychoanalyzing that character and saying what could his motivations for lying or or participating be? And you kind of stop caring at a certain point, whether it’s real. You know, I would read this as fiction. And I think maybe the pressure that I feel talking about Trump is as people truly, deeply care about the accuracy of what we’re putting out. It’s not just, you know, color.
S15: Yes. So you don’t you don’t get to speculate. Something like saying John Mitchell is the very picture of a man who had sold his silence. Right.
S16: Yeah. She. She. She’s but she’s unafraid to land on bold conclusions that perhaps, you know, again, it’s that seems obviously true that his silence was bought at this point. Right. But at the time, maybe that was not as obvious. One section of the book that I found really transporting the right word of transporting was when she finds out or when she and the whole country finds out that Richard Nixon was taping himself and everyone who talked to him during his presidency. Do you guys remember that part where she was? Yeah, well, she’s reacting to the revelation by Alexander Butterfield, one of Nixon’s aides. He was called called upon to be a witness and was asked by Fred Thompson, one of the lawyers on the committee staff. Are you aware of any recording devices? And he had to say, yes, I am. And it just it was such a unfathomable idea that all of these conversations that had been debated and described by different parties in different ways, that there was a record of them, that maybe we would be able to listen to them and or someone would be able listen to them and find out for sure what was really said when Nixon met with H.R. Hall, the ministerial staff. You know, the day after the burglary over. She goes on a little journey once she kind of absorbs the shock and I feel like she goes from being like totally over the moon. She’s exhausted. She describes it as as a an exhilarating moment of joy, too, immediately worrying about what’s going to happen to these tapes and whether Nixon is going to destroy them. Can you guys imagine, like a piece of evidence like that, you know, being being revealed and and then having to worry about it in this way in connection with a Trump thing? I mean.
S15: I think one thing that’s stands out here is the way that she is constantly vacillating, her expectations are always going up and down. You can feel her checking herself this moment where the presence of the tapes is revealed as a good example of this, because at first I think she thinks what a bombshell. And then she says, what if Nixon is saving these and these are going to exonerate him? And this is all going to be used to discredit this whole operation and discredit the whole media congressional inquiry apparatus for decades to come. Yeah. So she. And then that occurs several times in this book where she says, wait a second, what if what if this all checks out? She says if someone’s testimony, she finds it convincing and then begins to doubt that it’s anything at all. Right.
S14: Yeah. I mean there is this kind of palpable sense of her realizing that she’s not just kind of observing a game, that the entire country is part of the game. It’s very strange to think about. And I guess we’re sort of in this situation, but I haven’t quite processed it this way. Exactly. But there is an adversary who has different objectives than the public interest, who is actively subverting the public interest or after his own ends. And you don’t know how it’s going to end and you sort of feel engaged and involved and implicated. And I think you kind of as she is sort of realizing the different implications of the tapes, you see her sort of negotiating her own her own place in this news.
S16: Yeah. Read just a passage from from from the section of the book. She refers here to Senator Ervin, who is the chair of the committee. As the days passed with no answer from the White House to Senator Urban’s request for the tapes, the bombshell began to feel more and more like an infernal machine ticking away in an executive office building cellar cupboard. Did Nixon’s holding onto the tapes mean that he knew? They confirmed Dean? Or was he saving them at the last minute? Nixonian surprise to spring on the committee. A nasty surprise like that, which would inspire headlines that say tapes exonerate Nixon might well be in the cards to support this nervous hypothesis. There came a further question why in the world was he making the tapes in the first place? This is sort of what you’re alluding to, Henry. He really allows for the possibility that all four instincts are wrong, which is something that I try to do with the Trump brushless story, because, you know, you know, you follow it closely enough. You sort of start to think, well, for all the stuff that I know about, the story can’t add up to nothing. Shirley, you sort of your instinct becomes of course, there is fire here if there’s so much smoke. But sometimes I stop and think, well, like. It’s possible that actually. This is all just sort of. Coincidence or that this is all just normal interaction that happens when a campaign, you know, is successful like that there, that they have operatives who talk to other countries. If suddenly stopped me cold, everyone’s known, I’ve imagined what it would feel like if incontrovertible evidence came out. I don’t know what I would look like that, you know, in fact, there was no collusion between Trump and Russia. And it’s it’s it’s a scary thought because I feel like we’ve invested so much, you know, so many journalists into this inquiry and and credibility. I think I think the media and also, you know, Democrats as a whole are going to really pay off if it turns out this is all going to amount to nothing.
S13: You guys are imagine I mean, one thing that was like interesting to me here is it seems one parallel as we want it to be true in both cases, like in Watergate. It sounded like and she had kind of a riff on how Watergate was actually the country atoning for the sins of Vietnam.
S14: And so like every fresh revelation was actually just like wetting the appetite for, you know, more and more a basement than atonement. And I’m not sure I’m not sure if I buy that, but I do see how people wanted the scandal to be real and in the same way that you just said it. I think that’s the case here, too. And I was sort of wondering, is there some, like, national crimes and like weird part of our psyche that we are hoping the Russia gate thing will address? Like, what is the Vietnam happening here or is it just that, like our sick culture produce?
S15: TRUMP Well, I think one extraordinary difference is that Nixon had just won this landslide re-election. And so for us, to me at least the Russia hearings and I mean, maybe this is obvious since they literally came out of this campaign that that wound up in this extremely close election is that, you know, the hearings themselves feel like a continuation of the electoral battle. And I think people on Trump side see them that way as an attempt to relitigate an election that they won in Nixon’s case. It doesn’t feel that way. And, you know, from what I can tell, from what McCarthy describes of the hearings, it was this moment of kind of a curious national unity, perhaps in part because it seemed at first to be an investigation of this goofy, ridiculous caper. And I think people did not suspect, at least initially, that that this was going to take down the president.
S16: Yeah. I mean, I think Nixon and his and his supporters definitely tried to make that argument about Watergate, that it was just an invention of the liberal press meant to undo the popular will. There is definitely a large contingent of Americans who basically just didn’t want to watch the hearings because they felt like it was just the, you know, the work of coastal elites trying to take down their guy. Do you guys remember watching sort of the closest thing we’ve had to these kinds of hearings on Russia, like the Komi testimony, some of the session’s appearances before the House and Senate? Have those felt in any way similar to what you read in this book?
S14: Well, I have a I have an analog, but it’s not the hearings. It’s I went to see the arraignment of Manafort. And it reminded me of the part where Mary McCarthy talks about the boredom that is tantamount to evil, that I think it’s Mitchell or maybe it’s Dean. I can’t remember which one unleashes on the audience. It is so kind of soporific and so soothing just to see the mechanism of the law at work that you sort of don’t think that anything is happening. You become this like a nomic and disconnected. And it’s very, very hard to sort of connect where you are and what’s going on to this sort of larger story and what it all means.
S15: You know, later on in the book, when she’s in one of her moments of self-doubt and and doubt about the importance of the whole endeavor and what results it might bring. She writes about the peculiar nature of congressional hearings and how different they are.
S17: And in some ways, for the purposes of ultimately finding out the truth about something, how they are not necessarily more effective than having somebody question it in private and under oath or say investigated by the police. And the degree to which it’s important that they were a public spectacle, even if that meant that the questions weren’t always the sharpest questions and the perfect follow up wasn’t always there. You know, she says the great service of the urban committee was to show these men to the nation as they underwent questioning. And that’s something I think about when I watch these congressional hearings, because they the format is very odd and very theatrical and the limited amount of time that each questioner has. It just strikes me as not particularly well suited to ultimately finding out what you want to find out and get some things poke through. And the discovery, the tapes, for example, comes up basically by accident. I mean, it’s a fluke, right?
S16: Yeah, we’re going to litigate that a little bit in episode five as we which we go behind the scenes of the of the in her interrogation that led to discovery of the tapes. But yes, it was it was a fluke. Would you guys recommend people read this book? Do you think it’s a book that people can enjoy if they if they don’t have a firm grasp on who Herb CommBank is and who Alexander Butterfield is?
S14: I mean, honestly, I would say it was a pleasurable read. And there were parts of it that I really enjoyed. Just sort of heard talking about Nixon as a creature of television rather than like cold, hard print.
S13: And so there were definitely moments of of bliss. But it really just made me want to read more accessible Mary McCarthy or Mary pieces that were not wedded so tightly to a particular moment or maybe someone else else’s. I don’t have it.
S15: Yeah, yeah, I would I would second Katy’s perspective. I would even say that I found it not particularly pleasurable because it was so difficult to understand who all the players were.
S17: And I spent a lot of time using Wikipedia as I was reading that said, as a work of journalism, it’s immensely appealing and it makes me think about the idea of our 24 hour news cycle and processing everything as it comes out. You know, the way that something came out yesterday afternoon feels like ancient history.
S15: And here she is synthesising. Days and sometimes weeks of testimony into these storylines. And I wonder if there’s still a place for that. And if that would be useful and or if or if the ship has just sailed. And now that people get their information so instantaneously that even for a foreign correspondent, this type of synthesis is just not necessary anymore.
S16: It’s a great question. I mean, I would love to read writing like this about Trump. But I think I think there is something to what you’re saying, Henry, that like if you do have Twitter, you know, pumping into your veins every second of the day, there’s sort of more impressionistic mode might feel unnecessary.
S8: All right. That was my book club discussion of Mary McCarthy’s The Mask of State. Thank you for listening and supporting Slate Plus. See you back here in January after the holidays.