George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Poetry sheds light on turning points 40 years after Nixon's resignation

Tue, 08/05/2014

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.

KU in the news
The Daily MailSat, 04/25/2015
CNNMon, 04/13/2015
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@KU bschool 's KIP team includes @KU _SADP students in all-ages housing project. #KUworks
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
26 prestigious Rhodes Scholars — more than all other Kansas colleges combined
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
46 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times