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It was 1973. I had already been arrested protesting the Vietnam War and survived a bad case of mono. With nothing better to do during the break before my senior year of college, I decided to tag along with my best friend and her dog to Winston Salem, where she was taking a dance program at North Carolina School for the Arts.

Every television set in the country was tuned to the Watergate Hearings that summer. While my friend went to classes every day, I found a job as a rec ‘n parks camp counselor and spent my free time hanging around the campus, where you could always find an empty student lounge with a TV and air conditioning. I spent many a cool afternoon loafing on a Naugahyde sofa in a dim room lit only by the flickering light of a big old console television, taking part in the new national pastime.

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It was the first time I can remember being gripped by a public spectacle and sharing the experience with millions of others through the medium of a screen. There would be many more — the horror of Columbine, the terror of 9/11, the devastation of Katrina. Today of course, we can hold the screen in the palm of our hands and watch in solitude even when we are surrounded by others who are also plugged in to their phones, connected through the ether but not with each other.

The Watergate scandal of the 1970s is one of the most well-known political scandals in history. When the Democratic National Committee headquarters were borken into, then-U.S. president Richard Nixon tried to cover up his administrations alleged involvements. Their pushback when approached by the U.S. Congress came off as fishy, and Nixon resigned in 1974 to avoid impeachment. Here, John Dean III, a former White House aide to Nixon, is sworn in by the Senate Watergate Committee before testifying on June 25, 1973.
The Watergate scandal of the 1970s is one of the most well-known political scandals in history. When the Democratic National Committee headquarters were borken into, then-U.S. president Richard Nixon tried to cover up his administrations alleged involvements. Their pushback when approached by the U.S. Congress came off as fishy, and Nixon resigned in 1974 to avoid impeachment. Here, John Dean III, a former White House aide to Nixon, is sworn in by the Senate Watergate Committee before testifying on June 25, 1973. (AP)

Watergate, though, was where I lost my video virginity and became a TV slut. I found I could watch all day long for hours and hours and never get bored. I was gripped by the suspense, the Shakespearian drama, the who-done-it storyline. All the players knew their lines, the script seemed to write itself, and I couldn’t wait for the final denouement. Politics was a drug, and TV was the needle.

Meanwhile, in the manner of dog people the world over, we befriended a guy who also had a dog (because that’s what dog people do). After we got to know him, we noticed that his car was littered with empty dog food cans and candy wrappers. We gradually realized that all his earthly possessions resided therein, and that he was living out of his station wagon, which overflowed with dirty clothes, random shoes, pots and pans. Once we even spied an ax poking out of the detritus that propagated in the hatch of his car.

This all went well until I went to work one day and heard through the camp grapevine that a girl had been raped with a hatchet, which was terrifying and honestly almost impossible to imagine. It didn’t take long for my friend and me to connect the dots and presume who the perpetrator must be, which we dutifully reported to the police. Incredibly, they believed us and asked us to go under cover and take the guy down — two 5-foot-tall, 20-year-old co-eds, and they wanted us to play Charlie’s Angels! Terrified, we packed up and left town the next morning in the proverbial cloud of dust.

Perfect call
(Walt Handelsman)

For a long time, I thought the most exciting thing that happened to me that summer was that we befriended a guy who became known (in our personal lore, at least) as The Hatchet Man, and lived to tell the tale. But now, 46 years later, I can see that the most important thing that happened to me that summer was watching what was taking place 300 miles away in Washington, D.C. — an experience that shaped me far more profoundly than our fleeting brush with tragedy. After that summer, I became a lifelong community activist, a perennial do-gooder, an agitator for acts of kindness.

Two weeks ago, I was reminded of all this as I sat glued once again to the glowing TV monitor, during the momentous first hearing to take place after the official announcement of an impeachment inquiry by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I felt the languor of those muggy afternoons, the adrenalin rush of each new scintillating revelation, the awareness that something was shifting in our national narrative.

I thought of the new generation of activists who are being forged in the crucible of our current national drama — and who their Hatchet Man might be. Mine might not have been real, but the bogeyman in the White House is. This time, I hope we’re all paying attention.

Ruth Goldstein is a freelance writer. Her email is ruthgoldstein@comcast.net.

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