In the winter of 1972-73, Larry Womack hated his job as an insurance salesman so badly that he spent most of his evenings teaching himself sculpture.
Womack, then a 29-year-old honorably discharged veteran, was very politically aware. He knew that President Richard Nixon, who had just won a second term in office, was facing the potential of a Senate investigation into his administration’s involvement in a second-rate break-in at the Democratic Party’s Watergate headquarters in Washington, D.C.
As a teaching tool for his art, Womack began sculpting a chess set of caricatures that pitted the Nixon White House against the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (a.k.a. the Watergate Committee). The likenesses were brilliant.
On the White House side of the board, a defiant king, Richard Nixon, was joined by Attorney General John Mitchell, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman (complete with buzz cut and his ever-present briefcase) and John Ehrlichman. As the Watergate hearings progressed, Womack sculpted John Dean as the rook because the piece could move from side to side as well as forward and backward. The pawns for the White House were reel-to-reel tape recorders.
Senator and frumpy country-lawyer Sam Ervin (D-NC) was the king of the Senate pieces, and copies of the United States Constitution were the pawns. Committee members and fellow senators Howard Baker (R-TN), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Herman Talmadge (D-GA) and Lowell Weicker Jr. (R-CT) joined Senator Erwin’s team.
King Nixon stands on his pedestal, arms crossed and defiant. King Ervin’s balled fist shows equal determination. When placed properly on the board, Ervin leans in and Nixon leans away.
The sets were sold commercially and became some of the classic items of Watergate kitsch. Walter Cronkite featured the set on one of his nightly newscasts. Womack gave a copy of the set to Senator Erwin that is still displayed in the senator’s personal collection in North Carolina.
Fast and Furious versus Watergate
Recently, the Obama White House invoked executive privilege to refuse to turn over documents to a congressional committee investigating Fast and Furious. As one might expect, there have been lots of comparisons with Nixon’s use of the privilege during the Watergate hearings.
Whether President Obama’s use of executive privilege hides a West Wing cover-up remains to be seen. Like the testimony of John Dean, leaked documents in Fast and Furious are pointing to a growing cancer in the Obama White House.
There is one major difference, however, between Watergate and Fast and Furious. People found humor in Watergate.
In the early ’70s, Johnny Carson started his “Tonight Show” monologue with jokes about Nixon and Watergate. National Lampoon cut an album purporting to be Nixon’s missing White House tapes. Impressionist David Frye made the circuit as Tricky Dick.
Even today, four decades later, people still find dark humor in the Nixon/Watergate legacy. To coincide with the 40th anniversary of Watergate, Larry Womack is re-releasing his iconic chess set in a high-ticket, limited edition version cast in bronze.
People made jokes about Richard Nixon and Sam Ervin while the balance of power and possibly the United States Constitution hung in the balance. There is little room to find humor in Fast and Furious.
Border Patrol agent Brian Terry is dead, killed about 10 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border by a gun supplied by the United States Justice Department.
Watergate involved smart men doing stupid things, but no one was killed in the process.
The current chess game
There is a lot of symbolism in Larry Womack’s Watergate chess set. He recently told me that he considered the entire investigation into Watergate a giant political game. And what better way to memorialize it than with a contest of strategy where each piece moves in different directions?
Such is the case in the battle over Fast and Furious. Attorney General Eric Holder moves. Congressman Darrell Issa counters. The Obama White House invokes executive privilege. Congress votes to hold Holder in contempt.
Despite the on-going jab-and-parry, no one will be making a chess set based upon Fast and Furious. Impersonator Faux-bama won’t be making any jokes.
With an American law enforcement officer dead as a result of the bone-headed naïveté of his own government, the Obama administration is trying to bury something deeper than presidential secrets. It is trying to bury a human tragedy.
And there’s nothing funny about that.
Rick Robinson is the author of political thrillers which can be purchased on Amazon and at book stores everywhere. His latest novel, Manifest Destiny, has won seven writing awards, including Best Fiction at the Paris Book Festival.