By Scott Ross
I did not start out a Nixon-hater. But as familiarity breeds contempt, the more you know about Richard Milhous Nixon, the more there is to loathe.
Admittedly, I was too young to fully comprehend the man his growing legion of enemies were wont to call “Tricky Dick” (or, to save time, as Philip Roth discovered, just plain “Tricky”) during his Presidency, and certainly prior to it. As a politically naïve pre-adolescent I had even, in sixth grade, been tasked with presenting Nixon’s candidacy in the best possible light for our classroom debate. Diligent if not exactly percipient, I attacked the project with limited gusto, which largely meant committing to memory as much of the President’s numerous campaign brochures — including the flyer that, infamously, depicted him walking the beach at San Clemente in his suit and tie; I wish I’d saved that one — as I could cram into my then infinitely more elastic, 11-year-old head and regurgitating it during the event. I threw in some jowl-wagging and Tricky’s patented “Vee” sign for good measure, along with a direct steal from Dickie Goodman’s then-current, now-forgotten, comedy 45, “Convention ’72”: Asked what I thought of my opponent, I intoned, “Well, as the song says, I don’t know how to love him.” It brought down the house.
Interestingly, the opposing statement by the boy who had been assigned McGovern seems, in retrospect, unconsciously yet almost eerily to parallel the actual candidate’s entire run. He trotted out a few, largely negative, comments, refuting me, but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. And in our class, as indeed throughout the school itself, Nixon’s win in the eventual polling was predictive; it was a slaughter.
I did become aware, from late 1972 on, of a thing called Watergate. As 1973 began and the re-election landslide receded I, like the rest of the country, heard more and more about the scandal, even as I understood less and less. And as with so many Americans of the time, the thing began to pall; would it never end? The revelations, the testimony, the hearings, the court decisions… for a largely ignorant — or at least, politically uninformed — adolescent, the weekly parade of Time magazines that littered my 7th grade social studies teacher’s back wall cabinets and whose covers were a seemingly limitless recitation of this or that aspect either of Watergate or of the President himself (those steely, unknowable eyes… that determined grimace… those unmistakable jowls) began to take on the aspect of a fad that had long since reached its zenith but that kept on going, replicating itself ad infinitum.
The end, when finally it came, felt almost anti-climactic. Even intrusive, as Nixon’s resignation interrupted my family’s annual August trek to the coast that summer. I vividly recall watching the speech on the hotel room television, but the emotional component, for me, was nearly nil. Yet even I (later, whenever the subject came up) found myself parroting my parents’ cries of, “Why can’t they leave the poor man alone?” Archie Bunker was alive and well and living in suburbia. And then like so many Americans, I tried my damnedest to forget.
Only as I became more interested in recent history, around the age of 15 or 16, did I begin to put together Nixon’s personal and political biography, and to be appalled at the absolute shoddiness of it. Watergate was as nothing, I slowly recognized, when compared to the squalid, reeking “accomplishments” of this professional serial criminal. From his earliest campaigns onward, the rehearsal of sleazy lies about his opponents (“Even Helen Gahagan Douglas’ panties are Red!”)… the hitching of his political wagon to the comet-trains of the rankest anti-democracy fascists (J. Parnell Thomas, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn)… the infamous “Checkers” speech (Pat looking to the middle distance, fervently wishing she was anywhere else) … the petulant, premature farewell (“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”)
This was the True Nixon. The New Nixon was the Old Nixon, re-packaged, re-branded, and rotten to its core. (As a well-known American magazine used, repeatedly, to ask, “Why is this man laughing?”) And the rot would spread. My, how it would spread! Dare we say, to use a metaphor Nixon would have understood, like the fall of so many Dominoes?
The self-described “Peacemaker” who would end the Vietnam conflict, spouting his risible, self-parodic mantra, “Peace with honor… Peace with honor…” like a berserk mynah bird, on attaining the White House in 1968 instead deliberately ratcheted it up.† Yet all of this, and most of what followed, was as nothing compared to what this man, aided — if not indeed cattle-prodded — by his self-adoring, overweening NSA Advisor, Henry Kissinger, would unleash in the first Nixon Administration: Nothing less than the achievement of instigating the worst genocidal madness of the post-war era. Under the nauseating, and cynical, rubric “Operation Menu,” Nixon and his happy war-mongers (a brace of whom would resurface 20 years later to present the world with “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the gift that keeps on taking) invaded, and bombed, a sovereign, neutral nation, with such ferocity that, ultimately, the mad Cambodian revolutionary Pol Pot would become completely un-hinged, brutally murdering fully one-quarter of his own countrymen and women. It is an atrocity that stands un-rivaled since the Holocaust, and one wholly, obscenely, un-punished.
What many of us forget, or never understood, was that the massacre of four students at Kent State in May, 1970, was an equally direct result of the leak of those once-secret Cambodian bombings… and that most of them were not even protesting that evil event, merely standing in a parking area where the Ohio National Guardsmen had just told them to assemble, when they were cold-bloodedly murdered, by trigger-happy paramilitary thugs, none of whom was ever convicted. (Of the nine wounded, one, Dean R. Kahle, was paralyzed from the chest down.) Tricky, of course, instantly sprang to what passed for life, inveighing against the kids and warming to his perennial theme of “Us” (the illogically-named “Silent Majority”) against “Them” (dirty, foul-mouthed, violent, privileged, ungrateful little snots who got what they asked for.) In this parade of related obscenities, Nixon’s response to Kent State, via his speechwriter Ray Price, locating sympathy only for the Guardsmen (“a bunch of scared kids with guns”), rises to the top of the stinking heap.‡
Nixon is recorded — in Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days, among other sources — as expressing complete dismay that what he deemed “a third-rate burglary” could take down a President. The break-in itself, whose locale — the Watergate Complex — inadvertently, and tiresomely, gave us a new suffix, instantly appended to all political (and even some religious) scandals, was indeed a paltry affair, engineered, with almost hilarious incompetence, by that functioning nut-case Gordon Liddy. But ’twasn’t Beauty killed the Beast this time; it was the President’s own paranoia, his form-fitted suit of impregnable personal armor and his pathological inability to tell the truth when a lie would serve. Another President, Harry S (for nothing, as Gore Vidal used, gleefully, to note) Truman, famously said of his successor, “Richard Nixon is a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.” And, as Jonathan Schell observed in his staggeringly apt treatise on the Nixon years, The Time of Illusion, by the end the man’s infamous enemies list had grown to include the entirety of the American electorate. Even without the much-speculated-upon eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in those foolishly vouchsafed reel-to-reel wonders, the evidence was there, plain and unequivocal, if to everyone else except Richard (“When the President does it, that means it is not illegal”) Nixon.
And he nearly got away with all of it, this lawyer who precipitated the gravest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War (and before the Presidential Selection of 2000.) Thanks almost entirely to the instincts, courage and dogged perseverance of “Woodstein” and the Washington Post, even “Tricky Dick” could not escape, if not the criminal court, the judgment of his peers, and of history. Even as he labored without surcease throughout the remainder of his mean, petty, resolutely un-comprehending life to re-position himself to the nation he betrayed so cynically, callously and, it would appear, reflexively, as a vaunted eminence gris, an elder statesman of incomparable worth, and even as those efforts began, against all odds and sanity, to bear fruit… even as, now, many Americans seem willing, on the one hand, to shrug and forgive and on, the other, to cheer and encase in nostalgic amber… despite the Fordian pardon… despite the annual release of yet more (and more ugly, and incriminating) tapes and transcripts… despite it all… history still accords Richard Milhous Nixon his most fitting legacy: The only sitting President in the history of the Republic to resign the office. The Nixon Library can perform its white-wash, right-wing bloviators near and far can proclaim his nobility, and his greatness. But the facts remain. In spite of all that effort on his behalf, and the complicity of an ever-shrinking national memory, that shameful, and wholly deserved, footnote, will remain, forever attached to the man, and to his Presidency. Nothing so became his office as the leaving of it.
Astonishingly, at his televised farewell to the White House staff, Richard Nixon did, in a jaw-dropping display of seemingly unconscious self-assessment, reveal more than he knew when he advised his loyalists. (This was above and beyond the tired invocation of his father’s lemon ranch and the singularly telling re-statement, “My mother was a saint.” Kissinger observed of Nixon, “Can you imagine what he could have been if he had ever been loved?” Can you further imagine what being that woman’s child did to the boy Nixon was?) His advice to the troops? “Always remember, others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” Scant wonder, then, that some regard RMN as the most Shakespearean of Presidents: Richard III, invariably, telling us the truth about himself even as he obfuscates (“Arise, dissembler”) to everyone around him. But as Shakespeare, through the mouth of another political dissembler noted, the evil that men do live after them.
To evoke Santayana is by now both wearying and a little suspect, particularly since so few ever heed his warning. Let’s say instead, “Long live the memory of that evil.”
Or should I, in deference to Nixon’s long and nearly peerless, putrid history, amend that to “those evils”?
*Robert Klein: “The Court can’t hear the tapes, the people can’t hear the tapes, the Congress can’t hear the tapes, the judge can’t hear the tapes… but John Stennis can hear the tapes. He’s got the perfect credentials; he’s a 73-year old Senator from Mississippi… he’s just spent six months in a hospital, a veritable Rip Van Winkle… He can’t hear the dinner bell!… The black servants in his house do bits: ‘Hey, Senator Stennis, you cain’t hear shit!‘… Perfect man to hear the tapes… Why couldn’t the tapes record that, when President Nixon said to Alexander Haig, ‘Al, get me a deaf senator, I’ll do the rest!'” (From “Wallowing in Watergate” on the Mind Over Matter LP. Go to 33.45.)
† This is not to mention the near-certainty that Richard “Law and Order” Nixon’s team held secret talks in Paris with the Vietnamese during the 1968 Presidential campaign, convincing them to not reach a settlement with President Johnson which might assist Hubert Humphrey, and to held out for “better terms” with Nixon after the election. Aside from their Constitutionally-defined treason (See Article III, Section 3) in so doing, Nixon’s men never meant a word of it; when the war finally ended in 1975, many thousands of pointless American and Vietnamese deaths later, the terms were remarkably unchanged from those LBJ had offered in 1968.
‡ In 1974, John Conyers proposed a fourth article of impeachment against Nixon that specifically cited the bombing of Cambodian. Although his by-passing of the Congressional power to make war made that particular Nixonian sin far graver than the business of Watergate, naturally Conyers’ proposal went down to defeat.
All other text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross