Carla Carlisle: ‘Nixon had a conscience. He experienced shame. I doubt if Trump does’

Carla Carlisle was a fledgling journalist when a piece of Watergate history came her way. Half a century later, she considers the parallels between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

My new job is dog-sitting for my grand-dog Merlin, a 14-month-old wire-haired vizsla who has the bone structure of a kangaroo. His parents can’t WFH, so Merlin spends his days with us. The resident Old Dog practices labradorial transcendental meditation in the presence of the charismatic Young Dog.

Providing day care for Merlin has activated feelings long overdue. When I moved to Paris in my twenties, I deposited most of my worldly goods in my parents’ basement, including all my chattels with US voltage — typewriter, stereo, coffee grinder — and boxes of photographs, old letters, diplomas, books, worn copies of the anti-war newspaper I’d edited. I also left my dog.

The decision to leave the country was impetuous. I didn’t speak French, I didn’t have a trust fund, and, despite a university degree, I lacked any ‘vital skills’. Abandoning my two-year-old Weimaraner was irresponsible. I look back on my parents’ willingness to adopt their grand-dog with late-in-life gratitude.

They were bewildered, but tolerant when I announced my decision to move to Paris when Nixon resigned. The new chapter in the history of the country felt like a good time to start a new chapter in my life.

My parents became devoted to my dog, but they were less attached to my stuff. Every trip home, my mother would urge me to edit the boxes. Over the years, I gave my typewriter and stereo to nephews, consigned the newspapers to recycling and ditched letters of doubtful historical interest. During one exorcism of stuff, I pulled out a stiff grey objet d’art 12in by 18in and put it in the bottom of my suitcase. Two decades later, I got it framed. A couple of weeks ago, I hung it on the wall above my desk.

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From a distance, it looks like Minimalist art in a shade that Farrow & Ball might call Lonesome Dove. Close up, you can make out the letters. At the top in Old Gothic font: The Washington Post. Below in bold 2in-tall letters: Nixon Resigns.

The technical word for my relic is ‘flong’, the relief impression created from the handset metal type that, for 300 years, was how newspapers were printed. I didn’t know the legendary team of Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — I was a lowly ‘stringer’ — but from my school days hanging out at the local town paper, I’d loved the sounds and smells of the print room, admired the speed and skill of printers. When Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, one of the Post’s printers presented me with the historical flong because it was my birthday. I saved it for 50 years because it felt like a piece of history: Nixon’s and mine.

If I thought the French would be aglow with admiration for the legendary Watergate reporters, I was wrong. The French thought Nixon’s resignation preposterous and petty, the saga of Watergate proof that Americans are puritanical and politically naïve.

The English had a different concept of justice. I believe they had the advantage of Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America. His broadcasts on Watergate are unmatched. With perfect pitch, clarity and detail, he records history as it unfolds. From his letter of September 17, 1972, he began his account of June 17, when five men with cameras and bugging equipment were caught burgling the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the building complex known as the Watergate. The leader of the bungled raid was a former employee of the CIA. Cooke may have been slow to pick up on the story, but he stayed with the elephantine unfolding over the next two years, making dozens of broadcasts. He didn’t stop with the one and only resignation of an American president. Twenty years later, he covered the funeral of Nixon. Last week, roaming around iPlayer, I found Cooke’s broadcast on the 25th anniversary of Watergate. I listened in amazement.

I probably sound like a ‘Watergate junkie’, obsessed with every detail of the biggest political scandal of the 20th century. I’m not. I’m bemused the word has become the moniker for every scandal — ‘partygate’, ‘beergate’ — but I haven’t wallowed in Watergate. Last week, however, I froze when I heard a familiar American voice on Radio 4’s Today. It was the anniversary of the event and the interviewee was drawing a line from the Watergate break-in of 1972 to the insurrection at the US Capitol in 2021. It was John Dean, who had been recruited from the Justice Department to the Nixon White House as a legal counsel. Mr Dean was 31 years old when he publicly turned against Nixon by testifying to the Senate Watergate committee, accusing the President of being directly involved in the cover-up. Fifty years later, I listened to him saying he has never been more concerned about US democracy than he is now because ‘the country is more polarised today than it was during Watergate and Fox News feeds that polarisation’.

Most evenings, my husband and I watch the January 6 hearings on CNN. It feels like a reincarnation of my parents watching the Watergate hearings. I can almost hear the tinkle of ice in their bourbon and water. Each night I say ‘Trump’s behaviour eclipses Nixon’s’. Each night, my husband replies: ‘The root of their sins is the same: to undermine elections in a democracy.’

For days I’ve lamented that there is no Mr Dean, no one of conscience with the courage to speak truth. Then it came: the 25- year-old former aide to Mr Trump’s Chief of Staff. Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony was as powerful and shocking as Mr Dean’s 50 years earlier. Her testimony might not change history, but with her calm, precise and courageous testimony, history rhymed.

Another thing Mr Dean said on Today. ‘Nixon had a conscience. He experienced shame. I doubt if Trump does.’ We never really know who is capable of shame, but when any man — or woman — is determined to stay in power whatever the electorate says, democracy may be given up for lost. It’s a truth worth hanging on the wall.