Sunday 3 April 2011

The man who never quit

I recently said in discussion that Richard Nixon was a great and troubled man whose story could only have been written by Shakespeare. I am certainly no Shakespeare, so you need not expect The Tragedy of King Richard I any time soon! But I admire Nixon as a man and as a politician, along with Ronald Reagan the most outstanding president, in my estimation, of the post-war years.

Are you surprised? How can anyone admire Tricky Dickey, Watergate man, the only president to be forced out of office under threat of impeachment? It can’t be denied there is a lot to deplore in aspects of his career, something of the night, something of Caesare Borgia in a character which often verged on the unscrupulous. In the end, as he himself admitted, he let his country down. Still, he was a man of outstanding intellect and ability, a man of vision and imagination, a man courageous enough to make the bold moves, the moves that make history; a man who rose and fell and rose again, time after time.

Who would have believed that Nixon, who made an early reputation as a red baiter, would be the president to normalise relations with Mao’s China? Because of this he now stands in the same pantheon as Don Giovanni and Falstaff, the only chief executive ever to have inspired an opera!

There is indeed something of the Shakespearean prototype about him - a tragic hero, flawed as all such figures are, flawed in such a way that brought about his own downfall. Consider, though, what he achieved in the area of foreign policy alone, not just opening relations with China but at the same time managing a balancing act with the Soviet Union, which included an important strategic arms limitation treaty, the first major thaw in the Cold War.

He brought American involvement in the war in South-East Asia to an end, though it was to lead to the extinction of the Republic of Vietnam two years later, something he said would not have happened if he had remained in office. It was certainly through his prompt action that Israel was able to recover from its early reverses in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

There is also much in his domestic programme to admire, the way in which he was able to bring America back from the economic and social chaos of the latter part of the Johnson presidency, the closest, perhaps, the country came to tearing itself apart since the early 1860s. In the end it was all for nothing; all for Watergate, that stupid, unnecessary burglary, followed by an even more stupid and inept cover-up that saw the Nixon presidency die by slow and humiliating degrees.

Yes, it would need someone with the talent of Shakespeare to capture the full irony of Nixon’s fate, but Oliver Stone made a credible attempt in Nixon, the 1995 biopic starring Anthony Hopkins. Here we see the man, a life beset with uncertainty and paranoia, with feelings of rejection, but always, always that drive that was to take him from a log cabin, well, a California grocery store, to the Whitehouse. The climb was hard, the fall harder – “To be outdone by a third rate burglary is a fate of biblical proportions.” It is indeed.

What followed was the presidency reduced to its nadir, through the Ford and Carter years, only recovering with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. By this time Nixon had also made his own recovery, showing, even in retirement, that he had lost none of the drive that had taken him so far in life. As a writer and elder statesman he was to gain many new admirers. His television interview with David Frost, the subject of Frost Nixon, a wholly engrossing movie, became the most watched encounter of its kind in broadcast history.

Iago, Hamlet, Macbeth – Nixon managed to combine elements of all three in his own complex and flawed personality. “A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits”, he once said. Nixon never quit. Is there any better accolade, any better obituary?


  1. Don't forget Nixon's contribution to environmental issues: the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and Clean Air Act, among others. He also began the strategic weapons reduction talks that eventually led to limits on nukes in the US & USSR. Much vilified in the press, Nixon was a Washington outsider, and even little-loved in his own party. He chose solutions none of his contemporaries favoured, and cut across the grain of dogma for both parties.

    I have wondered about Watergate - was the notorious 'bungled burglary' really a quiet coup against Nixon conducted by the secret state operatives who feared he would rein in the CIA? Had he threatened to reveal their involvement in the deaths of JFK and MLK? You may have heard Howard Hunt claimed on his deathbed to have killed Jack Kennedy . . .

    The media and the political establishment both ganged up on Nixon and forced his resignation over what now seems a trivial matter - he did not order the break-in remember, he simply failed to disown the burglars quickly enough to avoid scandal. But he must have offended so many in the political and business establishment unlike Clinton or the Bush gang. Still, at least he escaped being murdered by his enemies . . .

  2. is this...very high level irony?

  3. Hmm...I have neither the expertise for historical analysis nor an in-depth (historical) knowledge of Nixon. What I do have are some increasingly vague memories of a generally dour faced, American President (no where near as dashing as JFK, Reagan, Clinton or Obama - go on, tell me how pathetically superficial I am - uh, don't bother, I just told myself) who did a really dumb thing and an even dumber thing by refusing to admit it.

    I think you're saying he did some pretty remarkable things too. Perhaps he did. My impressions of him, however, are of a man who was prepared to do anything to stay in power and that's a man who is a danger to himself and others. Wouldn't give him my vote.

  4. thanks ana! what a intriguing writing about a politician!
    all i know about him was watergate scandal and his recovering relationship between china and usa. i don't know what good this international relationship (china and america) brought to america but china certainly benefited from this.
    i am hooked. will watch movie (i love anthony hopkins!)
    thanks again for the wonderful introduction of "The Tragedy of King Richard I"!

  5. Probably the worst thing Tricky Dick did in office was initiate the "War on Drugs" in 1971. Pursuit of that insane project over 40 years has wreaked havoc on liberty and the Constitution - not to mention the deep corruption it has generated and the lives it has damaged or destroyed.

  6. Calvin, that's an intriguing spin on Watergate. No, I had not heard about Hunt's confession. There is so much about this murky business that we still do not know. It may take another hundred years before all the facts are uncovered. The whole concept of a 'war' on drugs is insane. One might as well make war on moonlight.

  7. TB, yes, he was no glamour boy, no JFK; but he was a heck of a lot more effective as a president. You are not at all superficial. :-)

  8. Yun Yi, thanks. Do let me know what you think of Nixon. I think Hopkins is super in the lead.

  9. I had a long talk with my wife about Nixon and Watergate after posting, and she had some interesting things to say about watching closely as the whole affair unraveled and how each of the personalities behaved. I was in the UK at the time, so my perspective was different. There are many interesting stories still to emerge from those days.

  10. Pity he is more often remembered by his mistakes rather than by his acomplishments.

  11. The CIA ,Lyndon Johnson, Herbert Hoover, Many military chiefs of staff, Cuban Exiles , The Mafia and others despised the Kennedys, Hail Cesar! Bang! Bang! Bang!

  12. Calvin, if she can recommend any reading on the subject I would be most grateful

  13. Anthony, not another goddam Cuban. :-))

  14. But you do dance to the music? Ricky Martin is a total waste of manhood, and that was (Caesar)like the salad.

  15. Anthony, what I dance to is salsa, which I fell in love with when I first visited Cuba. I'm good at it.

  16. Here's a selection of Watergate-related stuff. Ancient history to you, I suppose . . .

    All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

    Blind ambition by John W Dean

    Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation by Ken Gormley

    The Ends of Power by H.R. Haldeman

    Witness to Power: The Nixon Years by John Ehrlichman (also The Company - a barely disguised fictional account)

    An American Life: One Man's Road to Watergate by Jeb Stuart Magruder

    Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy ( for light relief?)

    The Presidential Transcripts by Bob Woodward

  17. Thank you so much, Calvin; I really appreciate this. :-)