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Once upon a time, America then and now

WASHINGTON — Three landmarks in time just took place.

The Watergate break-in that led to a president resigning; Ms. magazine, chronicling the women’s movement; and the John F. Kennedy Center all turned 50.

It’s well to remember each. 1972 was full of firsts. Let’s pause to see how we’re doing, now versus then.

Fifty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon was trying to win reelection in the worst way. A burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters led two young reporters to trace a path to his campaign and “all the president’s men,” as they put it.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post stayed with the story relentlessly. Finally, the dirt path led to Nixon himself. But that took time. Nixon was reelected as the Vietnam War still raged.

It took two more agonizing years of investigations, hearings and finally, White House tapes of a crude and profane president to bring Nixon to the brink in August 1974. He was pushed out of office by Congress and popular will.

That chilling tale sounds familiar. I heard Bernstein compare Nixon and former President Donald Trump in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Cap Times Idea Fest.

“This is a different order of magnitude,” Bernstein declared. “Nixon was a criminal president. Trump was a seditious president.”

Nixon went peacefully, if unwillingly, and was greeted by somber silence when he stepped off the plane in California on a summer day. Trump summoned an armed mob to march on the Capitol on a bleak winter day.

What’s more, Bernstein said, “He (Trump) ignited a cold civil war.”

The author and journalist observed, “Republicans were the heroes of Watergate.”

Confronted with evidence, Republican senators and congressmen (yes, men) turned against their president. They did not put loyalty above duty to the truth, country and Constitution.

Conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., visited Nixon with a few other senators and bluntly delivered the news: you have few allies in Congress, not even me, or words to that effect.

Today’s Republicans in Congress are nothing like that profile in courage. They’re as craven as can be, coddling Trump even after they came under mob attack, even as he’s in bitter exile suspected of stealing national secrets. The vulgarian can’t even fill an Ohio arena these days.

They are lickspittles, to borrow a word from congressional expert Norman Ornstein. We are more fragile now as a nation as the fall election nears, shaken to the roots by Trump.

But I believe there’s room for optimism on the ground level of democracy. The people may vote — as they did in 2020 — to overcome his threats, forces and foot soldiers.

I can say for sure that women’s voices will ring in the 2022 elections, after having our human rights denied in June.

The Supreme Court’s message was simple: “Women and girls, go barefoot and pregnant, with no say over your lives, liberty or health.” That’s a radical step backward in progress.

Ms. magazine published its first issue in 1972, with Wonder Woman on the cover. When it landed on our front porch, I gazed upon it as a young girl. Editor Gloria Steinem, full of verve, was in the vanguard.

Reproductive rights were not far behind, in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case. Title IX also triumphed for women’s athletics despite fierce resistance. The Ivy League and the (state) University of Virginia finally opened doors. Women could be war correspondents, or whatever we chose.

The women’s movement told us sisterhood was powerful. Fields in academia opened to be more inclusive.

The Women’s March in 2017 felt empowering, but the protest went nowhere. There’s no leader of Steinem’s stature; she is 88 now. #MeToo addressed victims yet did not produce the cohesion a movement needs to go forward.

Sisterhood is not as powerful as it was, each rowing her own boat.

At the Kennedy Center on a sunny Sunday afternoon, a quote in marble from President John F. Kennedy struck me:

“The age of Elizabeth I was also the age of Shakespeare.”

The early ’70s had its moments, but his age — the early ’60s — burned brighter. Inspired politics, culture and arts often go together.

For now, we are picking up pieces of our democracy.

— — —

Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. Follow her on Twitter @JamieStiehm. To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit Creators.com

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