In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father taught me a life lesson that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.*
“You don’t want to end up like Chuck Colson, and go to prison in order to know Jesus. That’s why it’s important to have integrity.”
The story you’re about to read is a real account of my most memorable Fourth of July ever and how it left a nerd-shaped hole in my heart, never to be filled, no matter how many books on the Watergate scandal I may devour.
I make no bones about being a massive dork. In fact, I’m rather proud of it. I like to surprise the unsuspecting populace, often of the male variety, by saying something extremely nerd-tastic, while wearing a short dress and heels. My geekiness comes from my parents, who were older and from a generation that expected children to conform to adult standards, instead of dumbing themselves (and their media consumption) down to be “age appropriate” for minors. I showed up to kindergarten with a copy of Grease as my cinematic contribution for “bring in your favorite movie day.” It was a tough choice between that and Gone With The Wind.
Anyway, it was not unusual for my parents to speak to my sister and me like adults. We were frequently treated like Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington DC’s representative in Congress: we had a seat at the table, but we lacked voting rights or say in our future.
And this morning, at this particular table, my father decided to teach us a life lesson on the importance of having integrity. I’m not sure what we had done in our tweenage lives to warrant said lesson. Perhaps we (and by we, I obviously mean my then 13-year-old-sister) were not acting with uprightness while we fought over clothes and space in our room. Or maybe we were just not dealing honorably with our neighbor while rollerskating.
It wasn’t the first time my father decided to impart some valuable life wisdom to us. He once described how important it was to choose our friends wisely, because if one of those friends committed a crime and we were caught hanging around with them, we could be considered accomplices. He knew this to be true, because he used to be the president of a Yorkville NYC gang called The Demons. And it is advice I’ve carried throughout my life. In fact, when co-founding this blog I thought to myself “will Ryan one day commit a heinous crime, causing me to be charged as an accessory?” Then I remembered that he doesn’t like to leave his couch, for fear of roving bands of clowns. So I went for it.
This life lesson about integrity started with a complete non-sequitur: my father beginning to tell us the tale of the Watergate break-in. Going through the now-familiar (to me) timeline, he described the news reports and the confusion, shock, and dismay of the country as they increasingly realized that Richard Nixon was in on the cover-up. He recounted how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein covered the scandal and how they relied on an anonymous informant named Deep Throat (the life lesson on “deep throat” related behavior didn’t come until a year or so later, fyi). And he told us how, the Committee to Re-elect the President (what I now know was aptly named CREEP) lacked the integrity to conduct and win a fair election, so they found a way to justify breaking and entering, paying off criminals, attempting to cover up their actions and then leaving one or two men to take the fall. In my 11-year-old mind, this was so unjust! So wrong!
Sidenote: My father is not, nor ever has been a member of the Democratic party or to my knowledge has ever voted for a Democrat in his life. Except for Jimmy Carter, which we all know doesn’t really count, especially since my father is a born-again Christian pastor. So when he told us this story, it was not an example of partisan politics, although it did have the result of pushing me more left of center in terms of my ideology. Thanks Obama. Sheesh.
This leg of the life lesson lasted about an hour. An hour of both bewilderment (“why is Dad telling us this?”) and fascination (“I’m totally going to look this up in the encyclopedia when this is all over”). Then, starting off hour two, as good pastors do, he began to tie the scandal in with the importance of knowing Jesus. “You don’t want to wait until you have to go to prison in order to know Jesus,” my dad wisely stated. Although I did wait until I had several panic attacks and a quarter-life crisis, but that’s a story for another time (and probably another blog).
Besides instilling an unintended fear of Republicans and of the dire consequences of lacking integrity, my father’s breakfast table life lesson resulted in a 20-year fascination with the Nixon presidency, Watergate history, and naturally, the epicenter of the intrigue, Washington DC. Over the years, I have both read and seen All the President’s Men. I’ve also seen Dick and Nixon (and at the risk of the obligatory “that’s what she said,” Dick was better). I’ve read The Final Days, The Secret Man, and The White House Transcripts. I own copies of both the New York Times and the Newsweek that chronicle the unveiling of W. Mark Felt as Deep Throat.
And I will admit my delight that Brent Scowcroft, former Deputy Assistant to Richard Nixon and aide to Henry Kissinger, was the keynote speaker at my graduate school commencement ceremony. When my aunt took my sister and me to DC for our birthdays later on in the summer of 1992, I recall hoping that I would be able to see some historical remnants of the scandal. Sadly, I had to wait 20 years to get a look at this:
In summary, if you’re going teach your kids a lesson, you need to go big or go home. There’s the George Bluth, semi-traumatizing but downright effective lessons involving a one-armed man. Or the less dramatic, but just as effective, method my own father used of turning national scandals that are forever written in the annals of history into non-partisan wisdom for his daughters. Not only will they develop their own appreciation for life lessons, you may also spark some intellectual curiosity instead of inducing a fear–and corresponding hours of therapy–of prosthetic limbs.
Oh yeah and always have integrity. You don’t want to end up in prison.
*This turn of phrase was more famously used as the opening to F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Please reserve judgment on my use of it.