Dr. David Shevin photograph

Mugabe Without the Morals

August 15, 2002

We got Spring Quarter rolling, and in the Informative Writing class, I was usually up and down from the front desk, pacing the classroom. One very demonstrative student decided that he liked being very close to the front of the room, so he positioned himself at the teacher's desk in the front of the room. I played along, and the body dynamics became that teacher and student both daily faced the class for discussions from the same desk together.

Today, the physical dynamics shifted just a bit. We were editing on the papers coming due, and I was seated in the middle of the classroom, conferring with some of my scholars on their papers. For the first time in this classroom, I was looking at the front desk from the same eye level and perspective as the students.

This is when I first saw the sticker that students in Wesley 218 look at every day. "IMPEACH NIXON." It's printed in all capitals, New Roman type, and cocked upward at a two-o'clock angle. The sticker must have been pasted to the sturdy metal in about 1973, and only one corner of the sign has been peeled at all over the past 29 years. I started laughing. The students asked what the joke was, and they had little to relate concerning the misdeeds of our most paranoid and tortured executive. "Man, is that like Watergate or something!?" The youngsters from Togo were curious regarding why Nixon was under that kind of pressure.

"We were discussing Mugabe's rule in Zimbabwe, and the pressure he brought on his minister," I said. Imagine a Mugabe without the morals." "Ooooh," they chorused in recognition.

Suppose our educations were all colored by reference three decades removed from the realities we knew. I pictured myself as an undergraduate and attending a classroom where the theme was "Free the Scottsboro Boys!" or "Sacco and Vanzetti must not die." It's a useful idea for perspective, and an oddity given the culture of this generation, too young to remember what the flap was when Dan Quayle assailed the fictitious Murphy Brown. They are too young even to appreciate the sardonic depths of Brown's analysis of the vice-president: "Why doesn't someone give that man a 'Where's Waldo?' book and watch his head explode?"

There it sits, out of its moment. The floating act of political necessity, still decorating the desk of Wesley 218. IMPEACH NIXON. That's my religion, right there. I still want to impeach the guy. But I am not the only one. After all, this label has sat in the same place for decade after decade, and no one has been inspired to remove it. This is remarkable in and of itself. The reason can't be lassitude alone.

No, we had something genuinely special in Nixon. He created a secrecy, a paranoia, a disunity on us/them dichotomies that - even if we've seen its kind since - we had not witnessed to that time. He managed to combine every detestable trait conjurable. He was a brute, a Red-baiter, an anti-Semite, a murderer of civilian populations, a malignancy, a pimp, a sponge and a fool. It is a testament to our spirit that the body politic ejected such a foreign element to the healthy workings of democracy. May such occur whenever power is abused. I placed Nixon's presidential portrait over my toilet in graduate school days, and it has remained there ever since. It's a natural association; when I think of Nixon, I think of my toilet.

Did I mention that the sticker has a drawing of a skull? It has decorated that desk since I was a college senior. It should educate many generations to come.

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