Hooked on Nixon

The other day I was taking in an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., when I experienced a profound case of synchronicity. Synchronicity is a fancy word for a connection between two things that normally seem unrelated. The official definition is “the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.”

I was walking through the gallery’s new exhibit,Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue.” Tucked under my arm was the electrifying and brilliant new novel by David Sanchez, All Day Is a Long Time. Sanchez tells the story of a Florida drug addict named David. The novel is a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, “Breaking Bad,” Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (David devours books by Melville, Milton, Dante,and Hemingway) and the Journal of Molecular Chemistry. Between blasts of meth, cocaine, booze and other intoxicants, David almost destroys his life. Books save him.

There is a powerful analog between Sanchez’s novel and the Portrait Gallery’s Watergate exhibit. The exhibit consists of items, including a lot of magazine covers, from the Richard Nixon era. Since Watergate, and especially now, the American press is much like David in All Day Is a Long Time—except rather than meth or heroin, they are addicted to scandal. Watergate was their first explosive high, and they’ve been desperate to recapture that bliss ever since.

In the book, David explains why methamphetamine is so addictive: 

Where a good meal will release about 50 units of dopamine and sex release 200, a tiny shot of crystal meth releases more than 1,000. Once the ventral tegmental area (VTA) takes on this much dopamine, the whole [nervous] system gets hijacked. Over time, the system can become accustomed to these unnatural amounts of dopamine, and satisfaction and reward sensations become harder to achieve. This is why the need for drugs takes over the need for food and other basic necessities.

Watergate was the media’s first dose of crystal meth. Called by Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee “the longest shot in the history of American journalism,” the scandal completely altered the American political and media landscape the way narcotics rewire the brain. 

Journalism became the field not of the beer-drinking working class, but the coke-snorting elite. It wasn’t acceptable to toil away covering school board meetings or, as the Post’s Bob Woodward had done, restaurant health inspections. No, the point of journalism was to deliver the head of the president. 

After Watergate, that was all that mattered. Toppling the top Republican was the blast, the high, the rush that made it all worthwhile. From the Portrait Gallery brochure: 

The break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Complex on June 17, 1972, quickly escalated to become a political and legal crisis that reached the highest levels of the United States government. Today, fifty years after the incident took place in Washington, D.C., ‘Watergate’ stands for much more than the burglary itself. It conjures the subsequent cover-up of White House complicity and President Richard M. Nixon’s use of federal agencies to obstruct justice.

Of course, “the media’s relentless, razor-sharp focus on those involved in Watergate is evidenced by the number of covers that Time magazine devoted to the scandal, many of which are on view here. Also included are some of the consequential portrayals that appeared in the Washington Post and other popular news outlets.”

The language and theme of this exhibit is similar to that in junkie memoirs like All Day Is a Long Time. Quick escalation. Razor sharpness. Speed. It’s that dizzy adrenaline spike you feel when the latest something-gate gets going, from Iran-Contra to Russiagate. It’s why this year saw the publication of Watergate: A New History, an 800-plus-page book by Garrett M. Graff. You never get over your first high. The book is dedicated to Jack Shafer, the Politico media critic who will be remembered for publishing “Monkeyfishing,” a story that was debunked as pure fiction minutes after hitting the web. 

Yet just as druggies defend their own losers, the media never fires the crooked or incompetent. Like criminals in the underworld, the worse the offense the higher up the food chain they get promoted. Remember Michael Avenatti?

Of course, over time the highs get harder to capture as the body wears down. The addict gets sloppy. The media was recently spit-balling the idea that there was a seven-hour “gap” in President Trump’s White House phone logs. Of course, Bob Woodward, the original scandal dealer, was rolled out to huff and puff and proclaim that this was, yes, “worse than Watergate.” The story turned out to be false. The Russiagate probe was a long, slow heroin ride, with Robert Mueller promising the ultimate, orgasmic, multi-drug high: impeachment. Mueller was the latest in a long line of dealers going back to the 1970s, as the headline in Reuters showed: “Explainer: Road to Mueller report paved by Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky, Waco.”

The media isn’t aware of it because they are in denial, but between Russiagate, the Kavanaugh hoax, the Nicholas Sandmann debacle, the Kyle Rittenhouse disaster, and a thousand other false highs, they have bottomed out. They are Ewan McGregor at the end of “Trainspotting.”

At one point in All Day Is a Long Time, David talks about how crack and meth provide a surge in norepinephrine, a naturally occurring chemical in the body that acts as both a stress hormone and neurotransmitter. Norepinephrine “allows you to process sensory information fast and effectively; you see the delicate patterns of the world and react to them, you organize them, you set up a system and derive meaning from it, course of action . . . you might start to pick up the spare parts of yourself and the world, to organize it into a made-up pattern that is better left unseen—a frightening structure of delusion and paranoia, full of filled-in gaps and illogical connections, a golem of mad information.”

Of course, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Despite a recent attempt at a direct intervention, the media is not even close to that.

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