Dreaming of Richard Nixon


richard_nixon_fighting_a_saber_tooth_tiger_by_sharpwriter-d6bln06I dreamt last night of my childhood.  Richard Nixon loomed large. 

Watergate is my first explicitly political memory.  I was five years old, and that summer my parents rented a huge house in Vermont.  Or huge it seemed to me at the age of five: I imagine that were I to go back now, it would seem much reduced in size, as everything does when revisited in adulthood.  It couldn’t have been that big; my father was an academic and my mother was a musician; there’s no way they could have afforded to rent a house as big as Buckingham Palace.  But, to my five-year-old eyes, that’s how it looked. 

I was too young to understand the significance of what was happening, but I remember the mood and the urgency: no matter what we were doing, we had to rush back to be in front of the television for the evening news.  For those of you too young to remember, “the news” happened at 6 p.m.  You had three options: ABC’s World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, or CBS Evening News.  Every American watched one of those shows, and they were essentially indistinguishable in ideological perspective: I suspect we were a much more unified nation for it.  Anyway, you either caught the news at 6 o’clock or you missed everything.  For the saplings among us, this is what television looked like back then:

Nixon and Watergate are what stand out in my mind when I think of that summer, along with a Mom ‘n’ Pop store that sold popsicles in the shape of bunny rabbits.  Stopping for one of those was about as good as life got.  I remember playing a game with my mother called, I think, Pick-up Sticks—I just looked it up, yes, that’s what it was called; I see that it was supposed to be educational (back then we played games with things like sticks: no one had a computer.)  And I remember being stung by a bee, which was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

But back to Nixon.  I wonder now what effect Watergate had on me?  My first memory of American political life involved seeing my parents, night after night, sucking in their breath in shock, jeering at the television—that is to say, at the President of our country and at everyone around him, mesmerized and horrified by the spectacle.  To what extent did that permanently shape my sense of politics?  How much of my abiding suspicion that politicians are not to be trusted or given too much power devolves from that?  A priori, it seems to me that no one who grew up during that time would be capable of having the attitude toward a president that, for example, my grandmother had toward Roosevelt.  She recalled listening to him on the radio and feeling incredibly reassured by his voice.  I can’t say that I remember a single American president whose voice made me confident that all would be well.

What was your first political memory?  How do you think it affected you?  How old were you when Nixon resigned? If it was a formative age, do you think it permanently shaped the way you look at politics and politicians?

In my dream, Nixon was back on television.  I was on a cruise ship with my grandmother.  There was a large banquet table, and for some reason Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was there, giving an endless noisy speech.  But I soon forgot about Nixon, because we were docking at a lovely and magical city, very far north, illuminated by sparkling Christmas lights and dusted in pristine snow.

Photo Credit: Deviat Art user SharpWriter.

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  1. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter

    Six years old; The Iran Hostage Crisis. I thought the Ayatollah was demon spawn and should be killed.

    My second grade teacher, the long haired hippie, Mrs. Stroud had Us write letters to the hostages. The letters were sent to and published by the Fort Worth Star Telegram. My Mom still has a copy in Her attic.

    I cried the day President Ronaldus Magnus was elected. What a remarkable day beginning a remarkable time.

    I remember seeing pictures everywhere of Mickey Mouse giving Khomeini “the bird.”

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  2. Kim K. Inactive
    Kim K.

    The first political thing I remember was helping my parents stuff envelopes for Wiley Mayne. My parents were what you would call true grass roots Republicans. My older sister had to do a school report on the ’68 presidential race – I think Mom even let her cut pictures out of the sacrosanct Life magazines for that one. I went to 6th grade with a “Re-elect the President” bumper sticker on my 3-ring binder. I was 13 when Nixon resigned. I’ve never dreamed about him.

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  3. doc molloy Inactive
    doc molloy

    It’s time for Dean to come clean … “Dean has actually obscured what the president knew and when he knew it rather than revealing it.”

    Dreams from my Nixon..  and I’m not big on ‘what if’ historical speculation but what if  Nixon had won the 1960 election? Would the Diem coup have been plotted within the Nixon administration?  Would Nixon have been so easily influenced by the NYT’s writings contributing to the demise of Diem 
    On Nov 2 1963 Diem and his brother were assassinated. JFK was assassinated 20 days later. Vietnam was lost.. chaos ensued. Sth Vietnam was sold out in 1975.  And now we are back at the beginning, full circle in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Smart power? I don’t think so.. Leading from way behind..
    As Joe Alsop wrote in 1971 Vietnam’s War. Who’s Guilty?
    And now Michael Medved Confessions of a one time  ‘Peace Protester’
    But back to dreams … The Old Man and the Sea.. “he dreamed of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches and the white beaches, now he lived along that coast every night in his dreams.” All a dream.. damn those lions.

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  4. ctlaw Coolidge

    Watergate and the Agnew resignation.

    I remember the “I am not a crook speech” and the final helicopter flight.

    Nixon was my President. I was 8 when he resigned. He was President when I would have first read the word “President”. I was too young to remember LBJ. Ford was a mere dunce and Carter an evil buffoon. Reagan was something else, but “the President” will always be Richard M. Nixon.

    That being said, as a kid, I could do nothing other than believe all the hype over Watergate. I made my first visit to DC during the Ford Administration and my souvenir was one of those infamous towel posters.

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  5. ctlaw Coolidge


    What is your recollection of the remainder of the 1970s?

    Ford and his “whip inflation now” campaign seemed instinctively stupid to me. But I had been subject to the myths of all those fascist Roosevelt slogans/campaigns.

    Carter seemed the fool. He and the anti-nuclear movement provided me with all the motivation to become a Republican.

    However, I bought into the myth of moderate Democrats and to the religious theocracy stuff about Reagan. I was more anti-Carter than pro-Reagan.

    In my first election year, I registered independent but voted for Reagan in 1984 (after voting for Glenn in the primary). In 1986 I registered Republican and stayed.

    Although I hope that Obama has the same effect on today’s youth that Carter had on me, I think Obama has a better propaganda machine and today’s youth are about as intelligent as the Golden Retrievers of mine (but meaner).

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  6. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer

    Claire Berlinski: What was your first political memory?

    I’ll be showing my youth here, but I think it was George H.W. Bush’s inauguration; I distinctly recall the way Reagan’s shoulders relaxed upon him no longer being president.

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  7. Flyondawall Inactive

    Army – McCarthy hearings. Great political theatre.

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  8. user_645 Editor



    What is your recollection of the remainder of the 1970s?

    Well, I have quite a few, as you might imagine. But politically, above all I remember the bicentennial and studying the American Revolution in school; and then the mock-elections we held at school, in which Ford won by a landslide. The next big memory is the hostage crisis, and a feeling of terrible humiliation when Carter tried and failed to rescue them. After that, I think, my memories become more sophisticated–by the age of 11 I was  worrying about the missile gap.

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  9. user_537146 Inactive

    I can remember my mother campaigning for McCarthy in ’68 while my father supported Kennedy. Then things became confused, if more comfortable in our household. I remember election night and the strangeness of it with a party in the house so shortly after Halloween. 

    The concatenation of Nixon, Reagan, and J. Edgar Hoover is something we don’t talk about as conservatives very often. In retrospect, Nixon was imperial, Reagan was strong, and Hoover was deliberately scary. Combined they inspired my parents to seriously consider leaving the country.  Although compared to the mixture of Obama, Brown, and Holder, they constitute a trifecta of reason and restraint…fear isn’t about what is, it’s about what you expect.

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  10. user_86050 Inactive

    I was born in 1960. I remember JFK’s funeral as a three year old because my other was crying so much. I remember Bobby Kennedy and MLK, Jr. much more vividly. 

    I remember the Watergate hearings quite well. As the hearings moved up the chain of command, the news presented each day’s hearing as if it had a new and bigger star every day. It was the Hunt for Nixon, a play worthy of literature. Nixon was Sauron and the Democrats were the Fellowship of the Ring. Finally they “got” Haldemann, who played the part of the sinister chief henchman perfectly – the grim stare, the cold, steely answers to questions. Looking back, the sheer drama of the hearings is astonishing.

    And yet, Nixon threatened to use the IRS to harass opponents; Obama and the current Democrats actually carried out the threat. The media are much more damaging to opponents than the plumbers ever were. 

    We’re living (I believe) in a time of serious corruption of American values and principles, but it isn’t presented as a drama or heroic quest for truth. It’s presented as the New Normal. Get used to it.

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  11. SlightlyLoony Inactive

    Eight years old, in 1960 – and John F. Kennedy won the election.  I remember the passion and fear surrounding his Catholicism, and a few cynics who even then claimed Joe (his father) engineered the whole election. 

    By the time Watergate rolled around, I was an enlisted computer technician in the U.S. Navy, stationed on a nuclear-powered cruiser (USS Long Beach, CGN-9) in the Pacific.  I was following the Watergate news avidly, unlike most of my shipmates who really didn’t care.  I remember my shock upon discovering, just after Nixon resigned, that the Navy brass was actually worried about the possibility of mutiny as a result!  In reality, almost nobody in the enlisted ranks gave a hoot – they were far more concerned about where their next beer was coming from, and when we’d pull into the next port with a supply of women :)

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  12. user_30416 Member

    I remember in November 1960 (at age 7) rushing to the front door and grabbing the paper to see who won the presidential election (I wanted Kennedy). The headline was inconclusive. (I guess Nixon had not yet agreed to concede.) I had earlier seen the debate on TV, and perhaps that is why. I don’t remember my parents talking about it. That was in Dallas, Texas. … In August 1974, I was spending eight weeks in London with LSU Abroad. A bunch of us were staying in a big home in Lewisham, and we waited up for Nixon’s address, knowing it would announce his resignation. (In London at that time, there was more concern about the fighting on Cyprus.) It was very weird, though much to our amazement, the next day our dollars were vastly more valuable in exchange.  … A few days later, a friend and I took off on a bike trip through the Cotswolds. Feeling rather concerned for our country, we were eager to talk to any Americans we ran into. We asked how everything was at home, and to a person the Americans we met shrugged, looking confused by our concern. Taught me a lot.

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  13. Susan in Seattle Member
    Susan in Seattle

    Like KC above, I was born in 1960 and remember Watergate vividly.  My folks were very active in Republican circles.  One of my earliest memories of politics is  attending some kind of rally or meeting for Barry Goldwater.  I still have my mother’s pin of a gold elephant with horn rimmed glasses.
    One of my starkest memories, however, is as a 17 year old, living in Sweden, discussing the waywardness of socialism with a friend’s parents.  This after having seen Shirley MacLaine chatting with Olaf Palme on television a few nights earlier – and thinking it was quite ridiculous.

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  14. Percival Thatcher

    “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president…”

    I wasn’t yet 8 years old, and LBJ was the only President I could remember, though I had vague memories of JFK’s funeral.  Within a week, RFK was in the race, and a guy named Martin Luther King Jr. got shot.  I don’t remember hearing about MLK before that, but my babysitter that night cried when it was announced on TV, and she wasn’t the kind of girl to get upset over nothing.  Two months after that, RFK was dead.  Two months after that, Chicago went crazy, including the cops.

    Does this go on every time we elect a President?  Good thing it’s only once every four years, then.

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  15. Casey Inactive

    Last night I dreamt I was playing soccer on a team with my son and all of the tee-ball parents and Claire… This is absolutely true.  Our team scored a goal.  Neither Claire nor I had anything to do with it.  I high-fived the goal scorer and then my son came running to me to celebrate.  Just then I noticed a pile of fresh, wet, dead fish on the field.  I was confused but my son had some simple explanation that seemed to satisfy me.

    My first political memory is Reagan’s second inauguration.  I was 10.  But my memory is all about the excitement I felt so he had already captured my imagination.  I’m a Peter Robinson/Alex P Keaton/born this way conservative so I think Reagan just felt right.  I guess he affected me by validating my gut.

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  16. user_75648 Thatcher

    I was five years old and was watching my kindergarten teacher crying while watching Kennedy’s funeral on a portable TV.  The TV was black and white because color TVs were something of an expensive novelty at that time.  I don’t know if this should count because I didn’t understand what had happened or what it meant. 

    I recall learning about RFK’s assassination the next morning while riding on the school bus.

    During the 1968  primaries I was in third grade and Mrs Thompson had us act-out a convention by picking out a candidate and grouping our desks together to form a “caucus”.  For some reason I settled on Gene McCarthy and the McCarthy caucus was the largest one in the class.

    I was marginally aware of Watergate, but I was mostly preoccupied with teenager-worthy antics.

    My first vote was against Carter.  I had little enthusiasm for Ford.  At the time I was working at one of my first jobs: washing dishes at a Howard Johnson’s.  My Puerto Rican manager was a gung-ho Carter fan and on a regular basis asked me if I was voting for Carter.  I always said that I was voting for Ford.  Finally he wanted to know my reasons for voting against Carter. I stated that my primary concern was national defense and (1) Ford seemed to have proven himself during the Mayaguez incident and (2) I didn’t trust the Democrats to be better at national defense.  (Subsequent events showed that I sure called that one.)  For some reason this manager never asked me to vote for Carter again. 

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  17. user_936298 Member

    I remember JFK being in town before the election and we went to his parade. I didn’t have a clue which one he was on the float.  All the family were Democrats, except my dad – he made sure I wore a Nixon button in order to annoy my uncles. I also remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and wondering if we were going to be bombed in the few hours Kennedy had  given the Russians to back down. When MLK was assassinated, the south side of town was being looted and set on fire. My dad was managing a tavern for his uncle down there and he went (with his hunting shotgun) to protect the property. Although my mom begged him not to go, he left and we spent several anxious hours before he came back, unharmed, and with the tavern still in place.
    The assassination of RFK, the riots in Chicago, racial tensions, fears of friends and relatives being drafted for cannon fodder in Viet Nam – all this confusing and frightening societal upheaval made for just a cynical response by the time we got to Watergate.

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  18. ctlaw Coolidge

    Strangely, although I remember Watergate, I do not remember the Viet Nam war. My first memory regarding that war was the Carter amnesty.

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  19. user_1938 Inactive

    My interest in politics began when the Berlin wall came down. I was nine. I suppose that might have encouraged me to view politics more as a contest of powers, and of good and evil, than as a process of law and rights. I don’t remember my dad’s explanations of what was happening, but I’m sure they had an effect.

    Before that, there was another incident that didn’t strike me as political then but seems politically relevant now: the Challenger shuttle explosion. It probably got more attention here around Houston than it did elsewhere in the country, but it was presented as a national tragedy. I remember my elementary school hanging pictures of the astronauts. It made me wonder why these particular strangers were so important to everyone. Perhaps that was my introduction to national hopes and fears.

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  20. Mark Coolidge

    I was 9 and it was the last week of the 1960 election campaign.  JFK was making a quick trip to Connecticut which at that time was a swing state (how things have changed!).  He had a rally at the Bridgeport train station on November 6.  My mother was heavily involved in Democratic politics so we were inside some ropes separating us from the rest of the crowd and right next to the stage from which JFK spoke.  I can still picture it.  Thousands of people were there and lots of teenage girls jumping and screaming.  Blue sky, not a cloud around.  The only thing I can remember about his speech was that he talked a lot about the missile gap and the need to be tough with the commies.

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  21. user_245883 Member

    Also born in 1960.  Who knew there were so many?

    First political memories are of the times my parents took me with to vote.  The big gray steel voting machine with all those rows of levers.  Wow!  Can’t wait!  My dad took me to see Nixon at a campaign stop in our town (Willingboro, NJ) in 1968.  We saw him and left.  Didn’t hang around for the speech.  I watched the election returns avidly, not so much because I cared who won, but the process was fascinating.  My parents let me stay up late.

    Watched the Watergate hearings on TV.  I had a hard time keeping all those people straight.  Who they were and their jobs.  Worse than a Russian novel.

    Remember being puzzled by Carter’s win in 76.  Why would anyone vote for him?

    I finally pulled my first lever on the big gray steel voting machine for Reagan in 1980 (Ames, IA). 
    It was worth the wait.

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  22. Eeyore Member

    There is an entire constellation of things which are of a piece with a category – The Late Sixties: Viet Nam, civil rights, the assassinations, riots, the hippie movement, etc. It actually started much earlier with the activities surrounding the Civil Rights Act and Viet Nam. And it continued after the turn of the decade.

    I was college age during the time and so was surrounded by the loudest and most intense of the swirling politics and culture.

    A bunch of us gathered to watch the Nixon speech. If memory serves, the reaction was fairly subdued, even though it was a room full of lefties. Perhaps the import of a Presidential resignation struck us. 

    As I walked out the door and down the street, I felt [choose any analogy] a bright line drawn, a door close, something. And it wasn’t a petering-out. For me, Nixon’s speech brought an abrupt, if somewhat quiet, complete end to The Late Sixties.
    By the way, Claire, I regularly lobby for replacing the link to “Claire’s Tips” on the home page. Another significant loss to the member experience occurring during transition to the morass which is R>2.0

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  23. Pilli Inactive

    Jimmy Carter:

    I cried the day President Ronaldus Magnus was elected. What a remarkable day beginning a remarkable time.

    So did your namesake!

    My  “First President” was Eisenhower.  I had an Ike & Dick bumper sticker on my bicycle and rode it all around the school that was the polling place on election day.

    Watergate was huge for me.  I was so pissed at Nixon for instituting the Wage / Price Controls that kept me from getting the raise I had been promised yet didn’t stop inflation a bit.  I wanted him to get his comeuppance. 

    I clearly remember the 1976 Republican convention.  Reagan almost took it away from Ford.  I was so disappointed.  I thought of Ford as a “Rockefeller Republican”  what we now call a RHINO.  I was even more disappointed when Carter won the election.

    My biggest disappointment followed the 1994 election.  Almost none of the major points in the  “Contract With America” were actually implemented.  The Senate Republicans  crushed them.  A huge missed opportunity.

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  24. Kim K. Inactive
    Kim K.

    Also born in ’60. I remember that the Viet Nam War was an early influence. My sister and I would play house  with dolls and our “husbands” were always explained as being away at the war.

    The farm house we lived in when I was growing up had a fruit cellar half under the basement where my mother kept the fruit she canned. So you had to go down a stairway into the basement and then down another short flight into the cellar, where you had to wave your arm around to catch the string hanging down from the single light bulb in the middle of the ceiling. For some reason my mom called this cellar “the cave”, as in “Kim, go down to the cave and get a jar of prunes.” (Which was a double whammy, going into the scary cave and then knowing we’d be having prunes for “dessert”!) I recall on many occasions worrying that there would be one of those Viet Nam guys we saw in seemingly every issue of Life magazine lurking in the cave, waiting to attack me.

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  25. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. Douglas

    My first political memories are more local. I remember my parents discussing the governor’s race in Oregon back in ’78. Vic Atiyeh was the name that came up. I remember my mother saying she would vote for him in the nomination, while my dad was voting for another candidate because he was a lot more contrary back in the day. (Actually, thinking about that, now I can see where I get that personality trait.)

    I also remember going to Newberg High School with my parents as they went to vote in the general election that year. I remember just how crowded that place was. Every time I’ve been to a polling place since, I’ve never seen it as crowded, noisy, and bustling as that first polling place.

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  26. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam

    When I was 5, while saying my bedtime prayers, I asked God to help Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter.  This was in the days before newscasts declared a national winner 2 seconds after polls closed on the East Coast.

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  27. BastiatJunior Member

    My first political memory was Lyndon Johnson announcing that he would not run again.  I was eight years old.

    Watergate happened in my early teens, and I am from a liberal family.

    Despite that, there was a President I could believe in.  Ronald Reagan, after a couple of years into his administration.  If there was something going on I didn’t like, or couldn’t understand, I could tell myself, “At least there are competent people handling it.”  Or maybe, “They must have had a good reason for doing that.”

    No other president in my remembered lifetime inspired that kind of trust.

    Well OK, that trust spilled over onto George H.W. Bush for a brief time.  When Bush announced that tax increases were on the table I thought, “He can’t really mean that.  He must have something up his sleeve!”

     And I waited for him to outsmart Congress.

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  28. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost

    Born in 1965, so Claire, I think we are very nearly contemporaries, if I understand the timeline correctly.

    I found some sort of political identity early, of necessity: our neighbors were highly active, as in host-fundraisers-in-the-yard, Democrats. Lovely people; the older boy was my best friend, and if they went to the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation down the street and we went to the conservative Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod congregation downtown, well, we were all Lutherans. Still, at one point when I was five or six, it occurred to me to ask my parents: “What are we?”

    A couple seconds of considered silence: “Well, we’re Lincoln Republicans.” Keep in mind this would have been before Watergate; whatever prompted my parents to use the modifier “Lincoln” to describe their party affiliation could only, it seems to me, have become more trenchant since then. As I came of age and watched both Ford and Carter embody the word “hapless,” Reagan seems to emanate a kind of good cheer and even joy that, being a child of the times, I never associated with politics. (cont’d)

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  29. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost

    I was ecstatic beyond all measure to see the Berlin Wall fall, partly because, having been one of six families in our congregation to host a Vietnamese boat family, I was familiar at second hand with the atrocities of global communism, but also because as a German-American Lutheran I had, and have, a soft spot for that nation and those people, who gave my grandmother and elder aunts both their native tongue and stolid common-sense/no-nonsense attitudes. Anyway, the primary reason I was happy was because, at long last, having defeated communism, the party of small government could return to its primary philosophy. Couldn’t it?

    Turns out, no, it couldn’t. Thus began the multi-year struggle, the reading in Libertarianism, especially economics. The questioning of what seemed to be the very basis of the 20th century: the Fed, the Depression, the Great Society, Stagflation, Reaganomics. Suddenly most of politics seemed to need to be seen through the lens of economics—especially after reading Rothbard.

    So here I am. If I’m a conservative at all, it’s strictly of the Ron Paul variety, and it’s due to almost the whole 20th century.

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  30. Gleeful Warrior Inactive
    Gleeful Warrior

    I have two. The 1st was in ’75 or ’76, but I recall repeating something to my parents I’d heard from a classmate (Patrick Flannigan, a ginger bully who haunts me even now). “Nixon didn’t do anything other presidents haven’t done, he just got caught.” My parents exploded at me. Yikes, that was scary. In retrospect, of course, Flannigan was only repeating what his parents, no doubt, had said and he didn’t understand it any more than I did. We were in the second grade (I think) for crying out loud. 

    The second was years later. I cried my eyes out when Carter got shellacked by Reagan. My…how times have changed.

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