Trip sparks memories of another polarized time

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President Richard Nixon resigned from office nearly 45 years ago.
AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi

By the time you read this, my wife and I should be back in Virginia after a 10-day trip to Eastern Europe.

In preparing for the trip, I tried to think of what I might need to take to cope with the weather (a sweater and rain slicker) and the language (a German phrase book).

However, I did not have a good solution for something else I might encounter: questions about U.S. politics.

Why, for example, is President Trump chummy with strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un but critical of longtime European allies?

And why is Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, still in office after being condemned by his party for admitting he once wore blackface?

“Oh, no,” I thought. “It could be like 1973 and 1974 all over again.”

In case you weren’t around then or don’t remember, those years were the climax of a tumultuous period in U.S. history. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal created deep divisions in American society. Parents could not have civil conversations with their children; Republicans and Democrats held each other in contempt; and anti-war activists treated U.S. soldiers like criminals.

When people talk about Americans being more divided today than at any time since the Civil War, I feel compelled to object. Doesn’t anybody remember the late 1960s and early ’70s?

One thing I recall vividly is my experience studying in Europe in the summers of 1973 and 1974.

Being an American among European students meant being questioned frequently about American foreign policy (seen as bullying and imperialistic) and poverty programs (miserly and racist). Canadian students took pains to avoid being identified as Americans by prominently displaying the Maple Leaf flag on their backpacks.

Ironically, while condemning the U.S. for its misdeeds, many foreign students at the time wore knockoffs of American college sweatshirts, sporting school names such as UCLA and Harvard. Their antipathy to the U.S. also did not extend to American movies or rock music.

The Watergate Senate hearings began while I was in Wales in 1973. British students I met were absolutely sure that President Richard Nixon was involved in the scandal, but they scoffed at the idea that he would be held accountable. Americans, they believed, saw the world through rose-colored glasses. Not only were we blind to our government’s crimes, but we also were naive to believe constitutional checks and balances could save the country from a corrupt president.

That skepticism persisted among most students I met the next summer in France, although signs began to emerge that Nixon was losing his grip on power. The development prompted a different concern from a group of Lebanese students . They were more worried about world stability than the ethics of America’s foreign ventures.

The Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab countries had ended in late 1973, but the Middle East remained a powder keg. In an effort to ease tensions, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger repeatedly flew back and forth between Israel, Egypt and Syria, a practice that became known as “shuttle diplomacy.”

The Lebanese students believed Nixon’s fall would lead to Kissinger’s departure, throwing the Middle East into chaos again. They feared new fighting could spread to Lebanon where many Palestinian refugees had fled.

“Americans don’t understand how your decisions affect us,” one student told me angrily. ”Many of you don’t even vote. If you don’t want to vote, then give your vote to me.”

Unfortunately, the Lebanese Civil War began less than a year later. More than 120,000 people died before the conflict ended in 1990.

When Nixon resigned Aug. 9, 1974, I didn’t hear anything about Americans’ naiveté. In fact, I didn’t talk to an English-speaking person the entire day.

On a train from Milan to Geneva, I saw newspapers in the stations with Nixon’s photo on the front page accompanied by huge headlines in Italian.

There were no seats available on the crowded train, so I stood in the passageway until an Italian family invited me to join them in their compartment. From a basket, the father produced bread and cheese, which he shared with me.

He then held up a newspaper and nodded at the photo.

“Nixon, eh?” he asked, shaking his right hand as if it was wet. I understood his message to be: “Nixon is gone. This is unbelievable, yes?”

“Yes,” I said, repeating his gesture.

Maybe that’s what I should say any time I’m asked about the president or the governor.

“Trump, Northam, eh?”

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