My Watergate Lesson


John Delbertson’s* voice thundered through the classroom at Wichita Heights High. U.S. History was a requirement for high school juniors. Talk of subpoenaed tapes, non-denial denials and executive privilege was in the air and in the lessons learned in the spring of 1974. 

Like all good teachers, Delbertson had a little ham in him. He wore longish hair, a beard, no necktie and positioned himself on the banks of the faculty mainstream. He’d read the daily school announcement sheet as though he was Olivier on stage.

IT SAYS HERE...” looking over his glasses, holding the piece of paper at arm’s length, “... that effective IMMEDIATELY, meetings of the Chess Club will be moved from the floor of the Commons Area to the cafeteria.”

As an editorial aside, and as a valuable lesson in human motivation, our history teacher would interpret the story behind the story.

“If you play chess on the floor, you’ll get stepped on. When you get stepped on, you get angry. Anger leads to violence. Ergo... ipso facto... THERE’LL BE NO chess played on the floor of the Commons Area. The Man solves another problem! CHECKMATE!

The highlight of his daily shtick involved a dramatic unfolding of the stapler, making his way across the classroom to a floor-to-ceiling cork bulletin board and haphazardly pounding today’s sheet atop yesterday’s. By the springtime, the cumulative accumulation (is that repetitive... or at the very least, redundant?) was impressive.

As the school year progressed, a sense of inevitability hovered near the surface. What would fall first – the announcement sheets or the President of the United States? On the last day of school in May 1974, our U.S. History teacher encouraged us to pay attention as history unfolds over the summer. 

That fall as seniors, we matriculated to a mandated semester of American Government, taught by Adam Patrick.* By now Richard Nixon had fallen, and Delbertson had started a new school announcement paper buildup with a new junior class.
Patrick assigned us to split up, organize, caucus and vote. The girls huddled quickly, calling themselves the “Ms. Magnum” Party, as if to drive home their motivation (It was 1975, after all.)

I urged my chums not to take the bait and instead carve out our own political niche, reflective of the values and traditions we held deeply as strapping young red-blooded American males. Deep-sixing our first name suggestion, “Keg” Party, consensus emerged rapidly around the less authority-threatening, more family and voter-friendly “Birthday” Party.

In the elections, the Ms. Magnum Party kicked our strapping young red-blooded American male hindquarters. Their victories were assured when a handful of erstwhile Birthday Party loyalists jumped ship and voted for the girls.

Some of us had agendas beyond mere classroom politics, thank you very much.

On August 9, 1974, the day Nixon resigned, I went to work, bussing linguine-encrusted plates off tables at Angelo’s Italian restaurant. I was saving to buy a car.

As a high school kid focused on sensory and material pursuits, U.S. History and American Government were forced in front of me an hour a day for a year-and-a-half during Watergate.

In time, I would enjoy professional success as a political journalist and later as an aide to the Governor of my home state. As I ease my way down into the precipice of middle age, I find myself grateful to have experienced teachers, who, forty years ago, recognized the power of current events as teachable moments. 

One man resigned the Presidency of the United States and the nation survived. A pathway  was introduced to a teenager.

The system works. 

* Not their real names. If they were to write a blog about me, I'd appreciate a courtesy 'heads-up' and I've neither the time nor the inclination to track 'em down (goes to motivation, your honor.