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Still Tricky after all these years
IT WAS the 40th anniversary of vital episodes in the Watergate scandal last week; any excuse for retrospective articles with archive pictures featuring those wacky 1970s haircuts.
Uncovering the affair was undoubtedly a great piece of journalism, though its “heroes” occasionally appear just a little too smug and self-regarding.
Among the analyses there were a few goes at rehabilitating the main “villain” of the piece, disgraced president Richard Milhous Nixon. Such attempts are made occasionally, the most unusual and audacious possibly being when “Nixon” helped a certain Time Lord defeat an alien menace in an episode of Doctor Who.
But I doubt anyone will ever succeed in restoring Tricky Dicky’s reputation, not only because of what he did but because Nixon was so awkward and thoroughly uncharismatic a figure he couldn’t even make it as a tragic antihero.
But what if we took charisma out of the equation? Do that and it’s not that difficult to work up an argument against the continued pillorying of Nixon, based not so much on his doubtful virtues but the fact he shared so many of his presidential vices with other White House occupants who escaped vilification.
So Nixon’s men burgled the Democrat headquarters, he authorised the bombing of Cambodia and is suspected of various other dirty tricks.
Kennedy is strongly suspected of cheating his way into the White House (at Nixon’s expense), and he and Lyndon Johnson took America into the Vietnam mire, from which it was eventually extricated by Nixon and his henchman Henry Kissinger. It could be argued that Nixon’s bombing record pales beside those of Roosevelt and Truman, and other presidents – notably Clinton and Reagan – got into trouble at home and abroad and somehow got away with it.
Being no worse than the others is possibly not the greatest argument for history’s approval, but if we also consider competence to govern then Nixon was clearly a much better bet than such successors as Jimmy Carter or George W Bush.
Indeed, there’s an argument that the Nixon-Kissinger combination was one of the sharpest to ever run US policy, handling the aforementioned Vietnam negotiations, détente with the Soviets, the Yom Kippur War and, perhaps most remarkable of all, the reopening of US-Chinese relations. How beneficial all this has been to America in the long run, particularly the Chinese awakening, is perhaps questionable, but it seemed seriously clever at the time.
There is something that appeals to me about leaders who don’t tick the charisma boxes and who have to succeed through ability. I wonder too if certain sections of liberal America loathed Nixon so much not because of his views – there have been plenty of prominent Republicans, and arguably some Democrats, more right-wing than him – but for the good reason that he could outsmart their champions.
But there’s another reason, not related to charisma or the lack of it, why I think Nixon’s helicopter-borne departure from the White House was for the best.
This is probably based more on emotion than rationality, but I feel there was an emptiness at the heart of Nixon’s political being which posed a potential danger. His administration, even at its cleverest, seemed to lack even a pretence of idealism, or a guiding principle beyond the superpower realpolitik he and Kissinger so excelled in.
So I wonder if there was any point beyond which Nixon would not have gone in pursuit of his perception of American interests, whether into war or (perhaps more likely) into dubious compromises with Cold War rivals. The fact old tyrants like Mao and Brezhnev preferred dealing with the Nixon regime rather reinforces the latter suspicion.
Many other White House incumbents were hypocrites, but at least they paid lip service to idealism and that, you never know, may occasionally have forced them to do the right thing rather than the expedient one.
Maybe Nixon’s fate proves that in the end cleverness, like charisma, isn’t enough on its own.
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