Slow Burn Podcast: Paranoia Strikes Deep

Slow Burn Podcast: Paranoia Strikes Deep

A deeply flawed, secretive man inhabits the White House. From a hellish place of bottomless paranoia, he plots against his enemies, his hatred of whom he cannot contain. People debate his sanity, first in private whispers, then in the public square. Conspiracy theories abound. Cornered and desperate, the president strikes out at those who would topple him from power.

It’s the 1970s.

Slow Burn, podcast, paranoia, Nixon

Being there

Slow Burn: A Podcast About Watergate comes to us (not coincidentally) at the very time when Americans are most primed to re-experience (or experience for the first time) the horror of watching our public institutions tested to their limits, and wondering whether those institutions can survive. I heartily recommend the podcast, but this is not so much a review as a private journal entry about the feelings it’s stirring up for me.

In the article introducing the series, which is presented by Slate, Leon Neyfakh writes that it’s not so much the obvious parallels between then and now that motivate the series. Rather, he says, “it’s that people who lived through Watergate had no idea what was going to happen from one day to the next, or how it was all going to end. I recognize that feeling.”

Him and me both.

It’s been almost fifty years since Watergate rocked the nation, but the scandal and outrage burned themselves into me and have not faded. Back then, I had friends serving in Vietnam, young men who wanted only to make it home in one piece. College students were getting mown down by National Guardsmen on campus. People said you shouldn’t trust anyone over thirty.

My friends and I watched in horror as the Saturday Night Massacre unfolded in real time. We were young and idealistic, political virgins, and the betrayal cut deep. Up until then, we had talked about “the System” and how bad it was, but we hadn’t really seen it naked and exposed yet. Now we did. Men who were supposed to be public servants–men whose salaries we paid to uphold the law–were doing everything in their power to screw us.

You’re never really the same after you figure that out.

The beginning of the end of the innocence

Watergate and Vietnam, raging concurrently and all tied up together in the national consciousness, were, I think, the beginning of the end of our collective innocence as citizens. Things had been looking up until then. We’d vanquished a monster in Europe. Men and women had come home from national service and gotten back to the business of building the economy and the society. Inspiring leaders rose up–JFK and RFK and MLK, among others.

And then came the brutal assassinations. The war in Indochina. The flag-draped caskets. The students with bullets in them, bullets put there by their own government.

And then came Watergate.

Watergate was a shock to the system, but I would argue that the allegations in the current investigation are far more serious. Maybe it takes more to shock us these days, now that we’re starting out with a national psyche more jaded and suspicious than the hopeful one we basked in back then.

Paranoia: the president’s, and ours

Episode 6 of Slow Burn, called “Rabbit Holes,” asks: “Why were so many Americans ready to believe conspiracy theories after Watergate? And how did their beliefs help trigger Nixon’s downfall?”

The answer, in part, is that when one “crazy conspiracy theory” turns out to be true, you’re more likely to ask yourself whether the next “crazy” theory is more conspiracy, or more truth. And how is a person to know, when there seems to be no one left to trust? It doesn’t take much memory-searching to come up with a list of formerly trusted individuals and institutions that have recently gone down in flames and shame. It’s not paranoia if the shit actually happened.

A soundtrack for the aftermath

Writing is an emotional journey, even when it’s something as short and sweet as a blog post. Sometimes I’ll listen to music that matches the mood I’m trying to convey. You could absolutely make a case for naming “For What It’s Worth,” by Buffalo Springfield, as the soundtrack for this blog post. It’s high on my list of Greatest Protest Songs of All Time, and it captures the requisite feeling of paranoia, for sure. Also, obviously, I made reference to it in the title of the post.

But I think I’m going with “The End of the Innocence,” by Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby. Although it didn’t come out until the 1980s, and it makes oblique reference to Reagan, not Nixon, I think it expresses the sense of betrayal and disillusionment that started, for me, with Watergate. It sums up that coming-of-age moment where you take one last, wistful look at your innocence before you say goodbye.

Don Henley seems to have removed the official, sanctioned version of this song from YouTube, which makes me sad, but here’s a commendable cover by Michael Grimm. I’ve also embedded Henley’s instrumental version of the song, as well as a link to listen to a teaser snippet of it on his own website, just because I love his voice.

The Michael Grimm version:

Henley’s instrumental version:

Here’s a short snippet of Don Henley himself singing “The End of the Innocence.”

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My current work in progress, We Still Have Us, tells the story of a seventeen-year-old girl in upstate New York who’s caught between poverty and privilege, dreams and duty, past and future. You can read more about it here. And for writerly updates, news, and commentary, subscribe below to my newsletter.

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