Monday, October 04, 2004

A Meditation on Richard Nixon



Events like 9/11, and the War on Terror which it has spawned, have assumed such importance in our imaginations that we find it difficult to believe how we could ever have got so excited about the many other happenings which had consumed us over the previous years – like Watergate. And it is difficult to believe that thirty years has passed since Richard Nixon, as a result of Watergate, resigned in disgrace as president on August 9th 1974.

The Nixon resignation was an event - like the Kennedy assassination, or 9/11 - whose enormity was such, that we, all of us, above a Certain Age, remember where we were and what we were doing when, on that day, Tricky Dick - sweat pouring from upper lip, jowls heaving with suppressed sobs, with ashen-faced family hovering behind - bid a rambling farewell to his small band of noisily weeping staff and supporters gathered in the White House press room.

I had watched, transfixed, almost every minute of the senate Watergate hearings shown live on TV. The cast of characters - senators Howard Baker ("what did the President know, and when did he know it?") and courtly Sam Ervine; silver-tongued prosecuting attorney Arthur Leiman; burglars J Gordon Liddy and E Howard Hunt; Nixon cohorts John Dean ("there is a cancer on the presidency"), Jeb Stuart Magruder, Alexander Butterfield, John Mitchell et al, as well as faithful gate-keepers Haldemann and Ehrlichmann (or was it Ehrlichmann and Haldemann?) - had become as familiar to me as my own family. And over them all hovered the-man-who-wasn't-there, the Godfather, Richard Nixon himself.

***

Please, come now, back to that August day in 1974 – a day burnished irreparably in my soul – as I watch the TV newscasts of Dick, who, with Pat, is waving a final farewell before boarding the plane which will fly him to exile in California. I am so overcome by the magnitude of what has happened over the past few hours that I can no longer work this day. I have to be alone with my churning emotions.

I get in my car, to drive to a restaurant to eat enchiladas for supper. While I listen to my car’s tires humming on the tarmac, I squint at the slanting rays of the late-afternoon sun as it prepares to descend behind the mountains, setting off in shadows the arboreal terrain for as far as I can see. But I don't take it in. In the restaurant I eat my enchiladas. But I don't taste them, for I have gone elsewhere, down a time-tunnel to the Eisenhower 'fifties, when, as a boy, I saw at the movies one Saturday afternoon, a newsreel of Vice President Nixon crossing swords with the feared Nikita Khrushchev in the "Kitchen Debate".

At this juncture I’m unable to go further back down the tunnel because I’m at a place in it where I’m not old enough to remember what happened before this. So I must rely on the printed word and the recollections of others about the years 1946 to 1952, when, following war-time service in the Pacific, and then practising as a lawyer in small town California, Nixon went to Washington to become a commie-hunting congressman and spear-carrier for "Tail Gunner" Joe McCarthy. Then came Nixon’s ascent to the senate where he was brought to the notice of Ike, who, aspiring to be president, was persuaded that Nixon should be his running mate. So it came to pass that Senator Nixon became Vice President Nixon, but only after having convinced the nation in the "Checkers" speech that he wasn't the crook everyone thought he was.

Now, in the time-tunnel, I change direction, forward to 1960 where I watch Nixon, now candidate for president, matching wits with John F Kennedy in the first ever televised presidential debate, a debate which buried Nixon - his unshaven jowls and patent unease a poor contrast to the cool and poise of Classy Jack. Now forward again to 1962 when, at a news-conference, defeated California gubernatorial candidate Nixon declares to assembled reporters that they "........won't have Nixon to kick around any more, for, gentlemen, this is my last press conference".

On again along the tunnel, and on, and............nothing. But wait, yes, now I see. Nixon has exited the public stage, has gone back to being the lawyer he once was, only now he's working out of corporate offices in New York City. However it is merely an interlude, albeit a six year one, during which Dick continues to shake hands and schmooze with cigar-chomping Republican king-makers doing deals in smoke-filled rooms in all the gin-joints throughout the land.

I arrive at the dawn of 1968 when Nixon, the New Nixon - who has wrestled the demons from his youth and early adulthood, and sent them packing - is seeking once again to be president. This is his moment, for the America of Mother, Home, and Apple Pie, is no more, is in agony. Thousands of America's boys are returning from Vietnam in body-bags, those who live in the ghettos are burning them down, students on campuses are tearing up draft cards, tuning in, dropping out, and otherwise fanning the flames of nation-wide dissent. Nixon promises to "bring us together", and is elected.

I continue forward along the tunnel through Nixon's presidential years, seeing him triumphantly visiting Russia and China, signing epoch-shaping treaties with their leaders and, at home, finally abolishing the military draft. It appears that Nixon, the quondam Cold War warrior, is escaping his political past.

But Nixon can't ultimately escape himself, for the demons in his psyche, which he thought he'd banished for ever, show signs of having merely hidden. They creep out of their closets as the pressures of presidential office grow, to manifest themselves in paranoia, causing Nixon to see all his opponents as enemies, ready to plunge their knives in his back and twist them with relish. He compiles a list of enemies whose telephones are tapped, and their homes watched by black-hatted, shade-wearing spooks. His gets his men to burgle the offices of those he doesn't like. A guard catches the burglars one night in the Watergate Complex in downtown Washington DC. Nixon's carefully wrought world begins to collapse..............

***

Suddenly I'm back in the Now, August 9th 1974, in the restaurant. While in the time-tunnel I had, unbeknownst to me, finished my enchiladas, and the waiter had brought me coffee. Through the window beside my table I see the sun has finally set. I hear softly from somewhere in the restaurant - probably from its piped music system - Linda Ronstadt singing "Heart Like a Wheel". Otherwise all has become quiet, as if, everywhere, people are still too stunned to speak of what has happened this day.........................

Could the young man I was then, ever have imagined that Nixon, seemingly banished for ever in obloquy, would, a few years later, rise from the ashes to write acclaimed books, be listened to respectfully by a younger generation, be received reverently by world leaders, and, at his funeral, be eulogized by all the prominent former and present leaders of the land?

***

It is ten years now since Richard Nixon left for ever in April 1994. Since then, I have never ceased to feel that a part of me is missing. For a long time I couldn't figure out why. Then I understood. It is because for the first fifty years of my life, Richard Nixon was there, in public life in some way or other. He had become a part of me, and when he died, that part of me died too.

Richard Nixon lies buried in the grounds of his presidential library, next to the house where he was born, in Yorba Linda, California. He is indeed gone, but a part of him will always live on in the hearts and minds of those of us who were shaped by the times in which he held sway.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this trip back in time in your time tunnel. I had forgotten so many details of Nixon's life. Your detailed blog post brought them back.

    I love the detail here (even your remembering that you were eating enchiladas...)

    You are right; Americans are quite forgiving as evidenced by the eulogies at his funeral.

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  2. I think I was eating enchiladas. But it could have been tostadas.

    Memories play funny tricks......

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