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Poetry documents professor's childhood set to backdrop of Nixon scandal

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

LAWRENCE —The Watergate scandal culminated the evening of Aug. 8, 1974 — 40 years ago this week — when Richard Nixon announced he would resign the presidency at noon the next day, ending two years of bitter fighting.

For a University of Kansas English professor, the day Nixon announced his resignation — one of the most significant events in the nation's political history — is intertwined with one of the most affecting events in his personal life. Joseph Harrington's mother, Elizabeth Peoples Harrington, died that morning of breast cancer.

Harrington said the time period represented a turning point for the nation both politically and how it approached cancer.

"It's hard for me to think about those two events apart from one another because they happened at the same time," said Harrington, who wrote "Things Come On," a book of documentary poetry recently released in paperback about his mother's illness and death and Watergate.

In an opening line of the book, Harrington illustrates how he pieces together events from his memory as a child — he was 12 when his mother died — often using the historical events surrounding Watergate as markers. He recalls watching Senate hearings on Watergate in the summer of 1973 while his mother was away at a hospital: "I remember Daniel Inouye and Howard Baker better than I remember her. They left records."

However, in the next line, Harrington mentions how he uncovered records to indicate his mother wasn't in the hospital during the summer of 1973, so the hearings he remembered must have been in the summer of 1974. Then he further corrects himself after researching the 1973 hearings and remembering that he watched those hearings in the family living room with his mother.

"News of it was constantly coming over the airwaves, so it was hard for me to get away from it," Harrington said. "That soundtrack was sort of wound into that whole experience for me. Part of my reason for presenting it that way is to try to convey part of the sense of that memory mashup."

He reconstructed his memories of his mother and the events of Watergate, largely the congressional investigation into Nixon's involvement with the June 1972 break-in of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. In addition to his poetry, Harrington inserted bits of records, including photos of his mother, timelines of events, transcripts of Senate hearings and political speeches about the scandal.

Other than the major events occurring simultaneously in his own life, Harrington said there were social and political turning points for the nation in both events. In addition to the outrage surrounding the Watergate and wanting to get to the bottom of who was behind it, breast cancer awareness was not in the public forefront, like it is today, he said.

"It's hard for young people to imagine how exercised people were about the political cover-up and also to imagine how secretive people were about cancer, in particular breast cancer," Harrington said.

As far as breast cancer awareness, his mother's death coincided with several prominent women who had begun to speak out and help raise awareness, which led to increased research funding and higher survival rates.

As he researched the political effects of Watergate for the book, Harrington said it seems the American public now tends to expect political scandals or at least the political opposition to create them. For example, the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration dominated national news in the mid-1980s, roughly 10 years after Watergate.

"I don't think it has the same emotional vibe that this [Watergate] did, which was a shocker," Harrington said. "We were probably naïve, but by the same token, this was the first revelation of this kind of abuse of power of the executive branch, and it really did shock people in a way that's hard to imagine anything doing now, except skyscrapers exploding like what happened on 9/11."

He explores many connections between the two events, especially the use of lists people make in an attempt to control or organize things during chaotic times. On one page of the book, he includes a list of physical therapy exercises given his mother, and on the adjoining page, he includes Nixon's infamous "enemies list," which were actually multiple lists of labor leaders, members of Congress, reporters and celebrities who were at odds with his politics.

"Different operatives in the White House were coming up with their own lists for the president's approval, which I think he really dug because he was somebody who was very much a control freak and who had this sense of things spinning out of control," Harrington said. "I think the lists were a way for him and his outfit to exert some kind of psychological control on a situation that they perceived to be out of control, which then also led to the Plumbers and the break-ins and all of that stuff."

Harrington is now working on a manuscript that will focus on his mother's life, and with the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation he hopes "Things Come On" provokes people's curiosity to research history.

"It should give people a sense of what kind of turning point that was," he said, "and in part, what a turning point it was towards our current politics and state of affairs."

Wesleyan University Press released a paperback edition of the book this year.