I Can’t Recall

While walking through Arlington’s Bon Air Park and staring at the wondrous beauty of its teeming hillside of azaleas, I began to think of my Mom and how I once told her, “This must be what heaven is like,” after a similar walk through the cherry blossoms on Capitol Hill.

She was a pillar of strength among the six of us post-war kids. Her beliefs, coupled with my Dad’s, taught us that honesty, love, and service to others should be central to our lives. And when we failed at any of those, particularly honesty, we felt, not a spanking, but the shame of having let them down.

One’s honor centers on that honesty our folks taught us, yours and mine; maybe that’s why it’s saddening and maddening to see the conniving, the convenient untruths — we might have called them ‘little white lies’ — that seem to dominate the words and actions among those who have given the lie to what used to be called public service.

Thirty-five years ago, before our little family U-Hauled our way out here from Lincoln’s hometown, I came to know a man whose integrity was legend in our state. The late U.S. Senator Paul Simon had just come off his first election loss in a race for governor of Illinois, and he decided, in his last months as Lieutenant Governor, to start a graduate program in public affairs journalism — his pre-politics profession — at the local public affairs university.

Twelve of us were in that program and we became reporter-interns in the watershed year of 1973, when public officeholders did battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in Springfield and Watergate in Washington.

WETA-TV in Shirlington brought that year back into focus the other night when it broadcast “All the President’s Men, followed by a Frontline documentary, produced for the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in.

It brought back my days in the Illinois State Capitol pressroom, a cavernous hall filled with clacking typewriters, ringing phones and questioning reporters. And squashed into the middle of this awakening experience, a black and white television set blared in the background the seemingly nonstop Watergate hearings out in the media cauldron of Washington.

As I watched WETA, again transfixed with this watershed event, I heard the narrator intone that Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, had repeated variations of “‘I don’t recall’ more than 100 times.”

My God, we just saw the same performance unfold last week!

“Senator, I honestly cannot recall.”

“Believe me, I wish I could, but I just don’t remember.”

“I’ve searched my mind, Senator, but I don’t remember.”

The news programs and newspapers told us that variations of that phrase were invoked more than 70 times.

Instead of hearing a chief of staff, we were “treated” to this performance by the Attorney General of the United States of America.

It’s happening, I thought, all over again. The “I don’t recalls,” the lies, the audacity and perhaps an unfolding constitutional crisis over “executive privilege.”

What is it that instills our top public servants, the people we hire to run our government, to think they can attempt to fool us? To take power and abuse it to fit their own desires?

My Mom never wanted to believe anything bad about anyone. But she knew and practiced truth; she knew and practiced service.

This remarkable woman, with nary a negative bone in her body, would have loved that stroll we took through the azaleas. And she would have sighed in sadness to see national leaders soil the notion of service, twist the nature of truth.

Nick Penning ( is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington (Va.) Connection.

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