This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 8 2016. Unfortunately, the final paragraphs were missing.
So much is being written about the election of Donald Trump that I have decided not to add to the verbiage at this point. I have plenty more to say about the Trump phenomenon but I will wait until some dust has settled. The idea occurred to me to write a series about mad American presidents.
Wise and Humane Rulers
Justice Davis wrote in a Supreme Court judgement in 1866, that the nation has “no right to expect that it will always have wise and humane rulers, sincerely attached to the principles of the Constitution. Wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln.” That is similar to the argument I used against the 18th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution in 2010. It is interesting to note that Richard M Nixon gave serious thought to changing the 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution in order to allow himself a third term (and more). The 25th Amendment, which deals with the succession when a sitting president is impaired, was given much study during Nixon’s presidency.
As long ago as 1973, people were seriously questioning whether the institution of the presidency could work. American journalist Max Lerner wrote: “A man with poor judgment, an impetuous man, a sick man, a power-mad man, each would be dangerous in the post. Even an able, sensitive man needs stronger safeguards around him than exist today.”
The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon by Anthony Summers was published in 2000 and provides a very detailed forensic picture of Nixon’s many failings. There have been attempts to rehabilitate Nixon. I recently read Evan Thomas’s Nixon: A Man Divided and was almost feeling sorry for the old brute. That feeling did not last until the end of the book.
When I was learning about mad presidents on my American Studies course, one of my contemporaries at Manchester University was the playwright David Edgar. He made his name with a brilliant play about the rise of fascism in Britain, Destiny, and won global fame with his work for the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, an 8½ hour-long adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel. In 1973, he imagined what Shakespeare might have made of Richard Nixon in his play Dick Deterred, the basic joke of which is to cast Nixon as the villainous Richard III.
Now is this winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this Texan bum
And all the crowds who never dodged the draft
Deserting are the bosoms of Saigon
Our brows now bound with wreaths of compromise
Our bruised armies are demobilized
Our napalm bombs are changed to Paris meetings
Our My Lai massacres to diplomatic measures
But I, that am not shaped for aught but tricks
Nor made to court an amorous CBS
I that am rudely stamped, and want capacity
To strut before a wanton East Coast liberal…
The ‘M’ in Richard M Nixon should stand for mendacity. An editorial in the London Spectator in 1973 noted that in two centuries American history had come full circle “from George Washington, who could not tell a lie, to Richard Nixon, who cannot tell the truth.” Novelist George V Higgins wrote in 1974: “He became a virtuoso of deception, a wizard as a manipulator of reality and facts, and of the nation’s trust.” Like Bill Clinton, Nixon was not bothered that people who were loyal to him suffered because of his mendacity. Because of Nixon’s lies fourteen of his associates went to prison but he was pardoned.
Tricky Dicky’s Dirty Tricks
Jerry Voorhis was a highly-respected Democrat from California who served five terms in the House of Representatives from 1937 to 1947. Nixon defeated Voorhis in 1946 in a campaign cited as an example of Nixon’s use of red-baiting during his political rise despite the fact that Voorhis “temperamentally and philosophically loathed” Communism and was described by Senator Paul Douglas as “a political saint”.
Nixon’s defeat of Voorhis was achieved under the guidance of Murray Chotiner. Chotiner explained his philosophy: “I believe in all sincerity that if you do not deflate the opposition candidate before your own campaign gets started, the odds are you are doomed to defeat.” Nixon hired Chotiner again to organise his 1950 Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas.
Chotiner distorted Douglas’s liberal voting record, printed the accusations on pink paper to hint at communist sympathy and referred to her as the “Pink Lady”.
Chotiner next managed Nixon’s 1952 vice presidential campaign and helped Nixon through allegations of antisemitism (it helped that Chotiner was a Jew) and revelations that there were privately run funds to pay Nixon’s political expenses—revelations that the candidate decisively overcame with his televised Checkers speech. (More on that later.)
Chotiner was investigated in 1956 by Congress on suspicion of influence-peddling. Under questioning by subcommittee counsel Robert F Kennedy, Chotiner disclosed that he had been retained by New Jersey mobster Marco Regnelli in an attempt to stave off a deportation order. (More on Nixon and organised crime later.) Nixon distanced himself for a while but recalled Chotiner to work on his unsuccessful 1962 campaign for Governor of California, and again for his successful 1968 presidential bid. Chotiner was able to place a “mole” on Hubert Humphrey’s campaign press plane who reported on comments made by the Democratic candidate and his staff, and made evaluations of their morale.
Chotiner was still around at the time of Watergate, but during the Nixon presidency, Donald Segretti was the main dirty tricks man and indeed coined the phrase.
The 1972 presidential campaign is remembered as one of the dirtiest in modern times. Segretti’s operatives began their attacks during the Democratic primaries. They printed fliers attacking Maine Senator Ed Muskie’s stance on Israel and put them under the windshield wipers of cars outside synagogues, making it look like John Lindsay was the culprit. They stole Citizens for Muskie stationery and sent out a letter accusing Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of fathering an illegitimate child with a teenager and falsely claiming that he had been arrested for homosexuality in the 1950s.
Paranoia Strikes Deep
The Nixon White House was paranoid. In 1969, Nixon’s staff compiled a list of two hundred politicians, actors, academics and other well-known figures who were considered enemies. http://www.enemieslist.info/list1.php. Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen and Gregory Peck are there, as is, inevitably, Jane Fonda. There was a short list of people targeted for immediate retribution. The IRS, FBI and CIA were directed by the president to harass and dig up dirt on “enemies”. Some celebrities were not listed but harassed anyway, John Lennon, for example.
Wiretaps were used without judicial warrant, not only on opponents, but on members of the government, as factions vied for prominence within the administration. Kissinger ordered wiretaps of officials suspected of leaking to the press; attorney general John Mitchell tapped John Sear, a rival for Nixon’s attention; chief of staff Alexander Haig ordered a tap on speechwriter William Safire; the Joint Chiefs of Staff set a navy ensign to spy on Kissinger at the same time that Kissinger had a spy watching Secretary of Defense Melvyn Laird.
Henry Kissinger said Nixon was the “strangest man I ever met” and aide Alexander Butterfield found him “a strange, strange fellow”. Evan Thomas sympathetically described his social awkwardness, his physical clumsiness, his tin ear for normal behaviour. As a boy, Nixon was a friendless loner but was elected to several leadership positions in high school through sheer determination. He was constantly proving himself. The dark side of all this is that he felt venomous hatred for those who succeeded easily and stylishly. He was self-pitying, jealous, vengeful and resentful. Elizabeth Drew writes: “He was often openly angry, not infrequently depressed, and more than occasionally drunk on the job, but his daughters loved him and remain fiercely loyal.”