Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Richard Nixon

Easy Lies the Head

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday February 3 2017.

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The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

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Sissela Bok

Sissela Bok is a very brainy person who is the child of two Nobel laureates and the wife of a president of Harvard who inspired the hatred of Richard Nixon. When I was the victim of some particularly egregious lies, I was inspired to re-read her wonderful book Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life. The book was published in 1978 and is still in print and available on Kindle. Everyone should read it.

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Bok argues that everyone benefits enormously by living in a world in which a great deal of trust exists – a world in which the practice of truth-telling is the norm. All the important things you want to do in life are made possible by pervasive trust. In a world without trust one would have to waste a lot of time and psychic energy finding out first-hand the truth about the simplest matters.

Lies and Lying Liars

Donald Trump is certainly not the first politician to have told lies. Ronald Reagan said he did not know about the Iran-Contra deal. Bill Clinton said he did not have sex with that woman. Novelist George V Higgins wrote in 1974 about Richard Nixon: “He became a virtuoso of deception, a wizard as a manipulator of reality and facts, and of the nation’s trust.” George W Bush, like Nixon, used smears and lies to become president. The other day, I watched Robert Redford playing the role of CBS anchorman Dan Rather in the movie Truth. Rather was ousted by CBS for allegedly presenting forged evidence on revelations in 2004 about Bush’s National Guard years. Bush, the coward, was running against war hero Senator John Kerry, but the Republicans discredited Kerry’s greatest asset to compensate for Bush’s liability. Witnesses remember Bush drunk and never going near the National Guard while Kerry was being decorated for bravery in Vietnam. CBS wanted Bush to win and branded one of its own as a liar for exposing the truth.

The Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was created in 2001 to lie overseas for the US, but after an outcry, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly announced its closure. However, he was not telling the truth when he said the US government had stopped lying. The OSI’s duties were taken over by the Information Operations Task Force

Euphemisms

There is a long history of politicians using euphemisms for telling porky pies. Churchill used the phrase “terminological inexactitude”. Alan Clark wrote in his diaries about being “economical with the actualité. Simon Hoggart did not find Clark convincing: “There’s quite a bit in the diaries which appears just a tiny bit fantastical – not in the Jeffrey Archer sense of being outright lies, but a sort of tweaking of the facts.” Journalists have been having a good deal of fun with Sean Spicer’s ludicrous attempts to inflate the size of the audience at Trump’s inauguration. Kellyanne Conway tried to explain Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts”. This was reminiscent of Nixon’s press spokesman Ron Zeigler announcing, “All previous statements are inoperative”. Trump himself used the phrase “truthful hyperbole,” a term coined by his ghost-writer.

A blatant lie is a “now-disavowed claim.” Intelligence is “discredited,” “dubious,” “disputed,” “tainted,” “flawed,” “suspect,” “questionable,” and “faulty”. Many people caught in an untruth bleat: “My remarks were taken out of context”. We are told about “misstatements,” “false pretences,” and “an assertion not approved by the CIA.” We read of “deficiencies,” “distortions,” “questions about pre-war intelligence”.

There were many euphemisms for lying during the GW Bush era. Senator Carl Levin stopped short of accusing Bush of lying about Iraq: “The key question is whether administration officials made a conscious and a very troubling decision to create a false impression about the gravity and imminence of the threat that Iraq posed to America.” Senator Chuck Hagel referred to one of Bush’s lies as “another example of a very serious inconsistency.” Senator Jay Rockefeller said that Bush’s statements were “potentially misleading”.  Al Gore spoke of a “a systematic effort to manipulate facts.” Senator John Edwards talked about the “myths perpetrated by the Bush administration.” One of Bush’s aides said that the president “is not a fact checker.”

Saddam Hussein and Scott Ritter were not so mealy-mouthed. Saddam said, “What will the liars Bush and Blair tell their people and mankind, what will the chorus of liars that backed them say, and what will they tell the world after they wove a scenario of lies against Iraq’s people and leadership?” Former UN weapons inspector Ritter said, “The entire case the Bush administration made against Iraq is a lie.”

Trump’s Lies – a Selection

Truth and Trump have long been strangers. A lot has been made of the fact that Trump won the election by appealing to white working class males who felt disempowered while Hillary Clinton ignored them in favour of harpyish rabid feminism. The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each.

Maria Konnikova wrote on Politico: “The sheer frequency, spontaneity and seeming irrelevance of his lies have no precedent. Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were protecting their reputations; Trump seems to lie for the pure joy of it. A whopping 70 percent of Trump’s statements that PolitiFact checked during the campaign were false, while only 4 percent were completely true, and 11 percent mostly true.” KONNIKOVA

He lied about the weather at his own inauguration. He lied about releasing his tax returns. He lied about making Mexico pay for his wall. He lied about losing the popular vote and about the election being rigged. He lied about opposing the invasion of Iraq. The more Trump frets about his legitimacy, the more he lies. The more he lies, the less legitimate he appears. Trump relies on the illusory truth effect -the tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure.

 

There is a method in Trump’s Twitter madness. He posts his tweets to divert attention from the real news. For example, his reaction to the polite protest to the vice president by the cast of Hamilton succeeded in making people forget about the settlement of the Trump University lawsuit.

 

Relativity and Truth

Forgive me for quoting American philosopher Richard Rorty yet again. “Language is just human beings using marks and noises to get what they want.” This seems to be how Trump operates. The doctrine that there can be no absolute truth seems to have sprung from the discovery that scientists can err and that cultural factors inevitably colour our perceptions. Other philosophers such as Mary Midgley combat this post-modernist relativism, maintaining that without a concept of absolute truth, “how, then, could we describe the world?”

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Truth Matters

In his bestselling little book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt defines lies as statements that are not germane to the enterprise of describing reality, promises unconnected with an intention to fulfil. All jurisdictions punish perjury, because justice cannot be done unless all parties adhere to the truth. The absolute language of the oath has a pragmatic purpose. Professor Bernard Williams writes about the two virtues, accuracy (doing everything we can to make our beliefs sensitive to the truth) and sincerity (expressing what one really believes without deception).

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Williams sees any person lied to as a victim of an abuse of power who has been put in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage. Trump’s lies have dire consequences.

 

Trump Triumphant Part Three

 

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This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 26 2017.

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What does the Trump presidency portend? We are looking at four years of an administration with a meagre mandate that seems likely to threaten the long-term health of our planet as well as the security, health, and safety of many Americans. Polly Toynbee met Trump in 1988 and was chilled then: “He’s sharp as a gold-plated razor-blade.” “Just wait and see what kind of deregulation, anti-working rights, anti-environmental, anti-product safety and food contamination rules he will impose”. As Keith Gessen put it, the new government looks like: “a small right-wing criminal class within the larger corrupt American political class, a mixture of white supremacists, ‘law and order’ fascists, and shutters-down of the George Washington Bridge.” Cornel West wrote: “We are witnessing the postmodern version of the full-scale gangsterization of the world.”

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What Is To Be Done?

In spite of calls to accept the reality of Trump’s presidency and stop being sore losers, it is legitimate to think about how he can be prevented from negating all the gains that have been made in the past eight years and beyond. His platform was resentment, rage and bigotry so we cannot expect him to bring healing and compromise. A number of writers have considered means whereby Trump’s plans can be challenged.

David Cole teaches constitutional law, national security, and criminal justice at Georgetown University Law Centre and recently became the National Legal Director of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). Cole wrote: “But if we now and for the next four years insist that he honour our most fundamental constitutional values, including equality, human dignity, fair process, privacy, and the rule of law, if we organize and advocate in defence of those principles, he can and will be contained.”

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Cole recalls how the abuse of power by GW Bush and Dick Cheney was countered by Americans who did not sit back and accept that the executive was above the law. In his recent book, Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law, Cole described how people protested, filed lawsuits, wrote human rights reports, lobbied foreign audiences and governments to bring pressure to bear on the US, leaked classified documents, and broadly condemned the administration’s actions as violations of fundamental constitutional and human rights. The academy, the press, and the international community all joined in the condemnation. When Bush left office in 2009, he had released more than five hundred of the detainees from Guantanamo, emptied the CIA’s secret prisons, halted the CIA interrogation programme and extraordinary renditions, and placed the NSA’s surveillance me under judicial supervision.

Nixon claimed that if the president did it it was legal. George Packer in the New Yorker reminds us that, within months of re-electing Nixon by the largest margin in history, Americans “began to gather around the consensus that their President was a crook who had to go”. The press pursued the story and the courts ruled impartially. Congress investigated in a bipartisan manner. Officials fought the infection from inside and the Washington Post’s key source, “Deep Throat” turned out to be the deputy director of the FBI.

Elite Failure

 

Hilary Mantel put it nicely: “For decades, the nice and the good have been talking to each other, chitchat in every forum going, ignoring what stews beneath: envy, anger, lust. On both sides of the ocean, the bien-pensants put their fingers in their ears and smiled and bowed at one another, like nodding dogs or painted puppets.”

 

That does not mean that we deserve him. Mantel wrote: “Mr Trump has promised a world where white men and rich men run the world their way, greed fuelled by undaunted ignorance. He must make good on his promises, for his supporters will soon be hungry. He, the ambulant id, must nurse his own offspring, and feel their teeth.”

 

Obama understands Trump’s appeal to “The middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.” Minorities are not “just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness…when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment our Founders promised.” People are already feeling nostalgic for Obama. He bequeaths to his successor an economy that is growing steadily, with large numbers of jobs being created on a regular basis, and living standards edging up. The size of the budget deficit, the level of consumer confidence, and the leverage ratios in the financial system, are also looking better.

 

Civil Society

 

Civil society needs to fight the plan to destroy the welfare and regulatory state. The battle can be waged on local, regional, and national fronts by civil society. Civil society comprises innumerable local groups, charities and associations that mediate between the individual, the government, and the market, and whose goal is promoting the common good. There are organizations working against Trump’s ugly agenda and protesters can donate their time and money.

 

ACLU executive director, Anthony D Romero, issued a statement on Trump’s election. “One thing is certain: we will be eternally vigilant every single day of your presidency and when you leave the Oval Office, we will do the same with your successor”.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center is a non-profit that combats hate, intolerance and discrimination through educational programs and litigation, and has played a significant role in monitoring the increase in hate crimes across the US following Trump’s election. OneAmerica, is an organization formed after 9/11 to respond to increased reports of hate crimes targeting Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians. Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a civil liberties group that defends and empowers American Muslims. Muslim Advocates works for freedom and justice for Americans of all faiths, helps strengthen Muslim charities, and works to counter hate. The Coalition on Homelessness works to advance solutions and works for legislation to help combat homelessness. The Anti-Defamation League, the Sierra Club are also worth joining and donating to.

 

Democrats

Some Democratic politicians are doing what they can to sustain civilised values in a Trump world. Anthony Rendon, the speaker of the California State Assembly intends to protect undocumented immigrants. “We are telling the next Administration and Congress: if you want to get to them, you have to go through us”.

Jerry Brown, California’s governor, vowed to fight any efforts by the incoming Administration to roll back efforts to tackle climate change. “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight …  If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.” Other Democrat-dominated states, such as Massachusetts and New York, are taking a lead from Republican-run states, such as Oklahoma and Texas, which have challenged many of President Obama’s initiatives in court, such as his effort to use the Clean Air Act to reduce CO2 emissions.

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Contact Congress

John Cassidy of the New Yorker still thinks it worthwhile for Americans to put pressure on elected politicians. With a Republican House and Senate one might have little faith in the legislature. However, elected officials do listen to their constituents, especially when they get in touch with them personally in large numbers, so Americans should tell their lawmakers to stand up to Trump. It will be up to legislators in both parties not to cut deals that target the weak, encroach upon civil rights, or enrich the Trumps. “The public will need to be vigilant and involved across a broad range of policy areas.”

Impeachment

Professor Allan Lichtman was one of the few professional forecasters to predict a win for Trump. He has also predicted that Trump will be impeached  by a Republican Congress that would prefer Mike Pence – “an absolutely down-the-line, conservative, controllable Republican. And I’m quite certain Trump will give someone grounds for impeachment, either by doing something that endangers national security or because it helps his pocketbook”. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “the guy will probably resign or be impeached within a year. The future is closer than you think”.

Nixon Part Five

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 5 2017

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A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.

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Nixon inspired   widespread loathing and derision; I recall a sketch on Monty Python Live at Drury Lane in the early 70s; a group of men are gathered around a bar: “Have you heard the news? Nixon’s had an arsehole transplant. The arsehole rejected him”.  We must balance this with the more positive view presented in Evan Thomas’s biography, Being Nixon: A Man Divided.

Nixon’s Good Points

Chekhov’s criterion for calling a man good was a daughter’s affection and Nixon’s daughters Tricia and Julie certainly seemed to have a genuine deep love for him, which was reciprocated.

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Thomas believes that, despite the references to ‘jigaboos’ and ‘jungle bunnies’ on the Watergate tapes, Nixon was not a racist. When Nixon was at Duke University, he made sure that a black student called William Brock was welcomed into his fraternity, at a time when almost all fraternities around the country were segregated.  Nixon spoke out about segregation in Durham, and one of his classmates recalled: “He looked upon the issue as a moral issue”.

 

One of his classmates at Duke, Fred Cady, had been disabled with polio. Every day, Nixon carried him up the steps to class. Those who worked closely with him in later years regarded him as kind and considerate. He was shy and introverted by nature and did not like confrontation. Chuck Colson said that Nixon could be “brutally cold, calculating, a manipulator of power”—but “could never bring himself to point out to a secretary her misspellings”. Nevertheless, he showed great courage facing angry mobs who were spitting and throwing rocks on his foreign tours as vice president.

 

In Thomas’s judgement, Nixon, even as a congressman and a senator, had a long-range vision that most of his congressional peers lacked. He voted for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe because he understood that the Republican Party was doomed to irrelevance if it regressed to pre–World War II isolationism.

 

China

 

There were certainly achievements. In April 1971, Nixon approved a trip to China by the US Ping-Pong team and announced a plan to ease travel and trade restrictions. At the same time, his national security advisor Henry Kissinger was making secret trips to Beijing.

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Nixon said that one of his long-term aims was the normalization of relations with China. His foreign policy was bogged down by the seemingly intractable Vietnam war and he was trying to find ways of containing the Soviet Union. Nixon saw advantages in improving relations with both China and the Soviet Union; he hoped that détente would put pressure on the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War.

Until Nixon’s 1972 visit, China was a pariah country like today’s North Korea and Nixon could claim credit for its isolation. His anti-communist stance when running for Congress against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, his support for Senator Joe McCarthy, his pursuit of Alger Hiss, helped him domestically to get away with approaching China. In 1964, he categorically stated that “it would be disastrous to the cause of freedom” for the US to recognize Red China, but he did it anyway. His record of anti-Communism gave him the credentials for making the bold move of establishing normal relations.

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In 1972, China had a reasonably educated work force of nearly a billion willing to work for low wages. China was not burdened by environmental and health and safety regulations such as those being introduced in the US by Nixon himself. The Chinese leadership   was ready to take the   opportunity offered by Nixon through opening up of Western markets. His initiative hastened China’s technological advance through western transfers and gave China the means to fend off potential unrest by employing millions in an expanding economy. China’s military progress benefited from the huge forex reserves accumulated from the massive exports of cheap Chinese products and China used those reserves to acquire the latest military technology.

Critics have questioned whether Nixon’s initiative was such a good thing either for the Chinese people or for the US economy. As of October 2016, the US debt to China is $1.115 trillion.  China’s role as America’s largest banker gives it leverage. US presidents who followed Nixon did not try to reverse his China policy. Even Bill Clinton became an enthusiastic supporter of trade with China once he took lessons in foreign policy from Nixon in early 1993. Even before he was inaugurated, Donald Trump was calling China an enemy, an “absolute abuser of the United States.”

Liberal Policies

Defenders of Nixon point out that he could have cancelled LBJ’s Great Society welfare programmes, but instead enlarged them. From 1970 to 1975, spending on human resource services exceeded spending for defence for the first time since World War II. Unemployment benefits were extended; social security benefits went up. The Nixon administration expanded the enforcement of affirmative action and signed legislation which banned sexual discrimination in education. He also supported the Constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 and abolished the draft.

Even while he was being undermined by Watergate, Nixon was proposing a comprehensive national health insurance scheme which was not significantly different from the one that Barack Obama finally pushed through. In May 1974, such a massive piece of social welfare legislation had no chance of success in Congress.

 

He set up the Environmental Protection Agency. This is an example of Nixon’s pragmatism rather than liberalism. Nixon was not interested in environmental issues and delegated them to his aides, saying at one point: “Just keep me out of trouble on environmental issues.” He called the environmental movement “crap” for “clowns.” Nixon spoke of himself as a conservative who wanted smaller government. With an activist Democratic Congress, he recognised the need for compromise.

Some commentators are cynical about Nixon and de-segregation. Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” was to appeal to racial prejudice in the South and among blue-collar workers in the North and West. Nixon told an aide: “I think if we can keep liberal writers convinced that we are doing what the Court requires, and our conservative friends we are not doing any more than what the Court requires, I think we can walk this tightrope until November, 1972.”

In two landmark decisions with Nixon’s appointees providing 4 of the 5 votes, the Supreme Court effectively held that school systems could be separate and unequal as long as this was accomplished through tax policy and the arbitrary drawing of district boundaries rather than through direct pupil assignment. Nixon instructed government agencies to go only as far as required by court orders and no further.

Project Wizard – Rehabilitation

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Elizabeth Drew referred to the inevitable process whereby historians try to find a new angle by rehabilitating a previously scorned figure. Nixon was himself at the forefront of rehabilitation attempts in what was termed Project Wizard. The plan succeeded to a great extent.

Everyone who was anyone on the New York scene wanted to be invited to the dinners (fine Chinese food served by Chinese staff) Nixon gave in his New York brownstone. He made more trips to China and travelled around the US making speeches about great leaders he had known, and wrote many books and op-eds. By late 1979, Gallup ranked him as one of the ten most-admired people in the world.

However, was deluding himself in thinking that he could return to real influence. After Reagan was re-elected, Nixon really believed that he had earned a high-level position in the administration.  Reagan aides were incredulous. Nixon threatened Bill Clinton that if he were not paid proper respect as a foreign-affairs expert he would write an op-ed in a major newspaper attacking the president’s handling of foreign policy. It never occurred to him that many found him a nuisance.

 

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Five presidents attended Nixon’s funeral—he got some respect when he was dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nixon Part Four

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 29 2016

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Hiss Case as Paradigm

Nixon was always proud of his part in pursuing allegations that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Alger Hiss (November 11, 1904 – November 15, 1996) was an American government official who was convicted of perjury in 1950. Before he was tried and convicted, he was involved in the establishment of the United Nations both as a US State Department official and as a UN official. Nixon would always consider the Hiss case a defining moment in his career and included it as the first of the “six crises” he described in his political memoir of the same name.

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Anthony Summers, in his Nixon biography The Arrogance of Power, considered that the Hiss case was a paradigm for Nixon’s later career because of several themes that it brought out.

  • Delusion: Nixon could not resist exaggerating his own role. Robert Stripling, chief HUAC investigator, called Nixon’s account “pure bullshit”.
  • Addiction to intrigue: Nixon’s journalist friend Walter Trohan believed Nixon developed “a weakness for playing cops and robbers in the Hiss case. Maybe this led him to countenance Watergate”.
  • Vengeance: Nixon questioned the competence of the judge in the first Hiss trial and wanted to prosecute the foreman of the jury.
  • Resentment of the elite: The Ivy League types that Nixon detested thought Hiss could not be guilty because he was from their class.
  • Persecution complex: Nixon thought people were out to get him because of the Hiss case whereas he was repeatedly out to get others.
  • Rage to blame others: attorneys Vazzana and Stripling who worked on the Hiss investigation said Nixon became viciously abusive with them when evidence was questioned.
  • Cracking under pressure: he drove himself beyond his limits going without food and sleep and family life. During the Hiss case Nixon started using sleeping pills.

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Vietnam

Perhaps Nixon’s greatest crime was to conspire to scuttle the Vietnam War peace talks on the eve of the 1968 presidential election. Nixon tried to project an image of himself as a peacemaker on Vietnam but had been an early adopter, disagreeing with Eisenhower, for sending in ground troops. He plotted to prolong the war for his own political advantage.

President Johnson surprised everyone by announcing a peace initiative in the form of a bombing halt. On March 31 1968, LBJ declared he would not be running for re-election. “I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing.” Peace in Vietnam was the last thing Nixon wanted at that point as it might hand the election to Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Nixon wanted to take the credit for ending the war himself.

Anna Chennault was the Republican party’s chief female fundraiser. She had friends in the South Vietnamese government and at Nixon’s bidding persuaded them not to participate in peace talks. Three days before the election the FBI sent LBJ a wiretap report that Chennault had contacted the South Vietnamese ambassador telling him “hold on We’re gonna win”. President Thieu announced that South Vietnam would not be sending a delegation to the Paris peace talks. LBJ correctly described Nixon’s scheming as treason and the Logan Act of 1799 provides severe penalties against private citizens who interfere in negotiations between the US and foreign governments.

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Humphrey lost the election. With Nixon as president the war went on for another four years; 20,763 more Americans died; 109,230 South Vietnamese soldiers died; 496,260 North Vietnamese fighters died.

Cambodia was secretly bombed without congressional approval and when the truth emerged during Watergate one congressman, Robert Drinan, described Nixon’s actions as “conduct more shocking and more unbelievable than the conduct of any president in any war in all of American history”. The bombing contributed to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime – two million Cambodians died.

Watergate

Nixon was fortunate to avoid prison for his part in the criminal activity and cover up relating to the Watergate affair. Fourteen of his associates who thought they were doing his bidding served jail sentences. Nixon avoided impeachment by resigning.

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Much has been written about Watergate and I read a great deal of it with great fascination as well as following the news as it unfurled. Briefly here is what happened. On June 17, 1972, a security guard found five men in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. FBI agents establish that the Watergate break-in was part of a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon re-election effort. On January 30, 1973, former Nixon aides G Gordon Liddy and James W McCord Jr were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate incident. Five other men pleaded guilty,

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The FBI discovered a connection between cash found on the burglars and a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP or CREEP), the official organization of Nixon’s campaign. An investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee revealed that President Nixon had a tape-recording system in his offices and that he had recorded many conversations and the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the president should release the tapes to government investigators. The tapes revealed that the president himself was directly implicated in trying to cover up activities that took place after the break-in and used federal officials to impede investigations. There has been speculation that Nixon was trying to find out what dirt the Democrats had on him about the Chennault affair, funding from the Mob or his role in Cuba. Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974. On September 8, 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him.

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Watergate led to calls for greater controls on fund raising as well as condemnation of government surveillance. The achievements of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein led to them being portrayed onscreen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffmann. Aggressive investigative journalism enjoyed a vogue.

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How do the effects of Watergate look after 40 years? The tactics covered by the term “Watergate” were used in the name of national security to attack political enemies. Could that happen today? We were already getting nostalgic about Obama before he left because we were so horrified at the prospect of Trump. Obama may have had the excuse of an obstructionist Congress for failing to achieve some of his aims. However, in matters of national security, he exercised largely unchecked powers. After 9/11, national security concerns (much as during Nixon’s formative years of the cold war) have presented a good argument for unimpeded presidential powers in all areas of national security, just as the Executive Presidency was argued to be a good thing in Sri Lanka in order to defeat the LTTE, but still remains seven years after the defeat of terrorism. I have just been watching Oliver Stone’s film Snowden. It seems that the courts, the Congress and much of the public now tend to agree with Nixon: “When the president does it, it’s not illegal.”

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During his election campaign, Donald Trump seemed to believe that if he were to be elected he could do anything he wanted. He could lock up Hillary Clinton just by telling his Supreme Court to get the job done. He could deport Mexican immigrants by diktat and build a wall to prevent more coming in and expect Mexico to pay for it. He could lock up Muslims. He could stop the press criticising him. Richard Nixon tried all that kind of stuff and ended up losing the presidency he had wanted so much.

Trump probably did not want the presidency as much as Nixon did. To Trump, the election was an advertising campaign for Trump Enterprises and the surprise bonus of the real presidency itself provides a unique marketing opportunity. Nixon was intense about politics, Trump not so much. Nixon was thwarted. Can Trump be thwarted?

Next week – did Nixon have any good points?

 

 

Nixon Part Three

This article was published in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 22 2016

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Henry Kissinger frequently referred to Nixon as a madman but said: “Can you imagine what this man could have been if somebody had loved him? He would have been a great, great man had somebody loved him”.

Oops!

Evan Thomas, in his somewhat sympathetic biography of Nixon, A Man Divided, almost makes one feel sorry for the man’s awkwardness. He was inept at anything requiring hand-eye coordination. When mounting the dais for his inauguration in January 1969 Nixon tripped and the ambassador from Ecuador noted that his last utterance before taking the oath was “Oops!” He frequently stabbed soldiers he was pinning medals on; at a treaty signing he forgot to take the cap off the pen and then dropped it, leaving aides to scramble around on the floor; he danced like a man with three left feet.

Friends

Stewart Alsop the columnist coined a new word Nixonophobia to describe the allergic reaction that many people, including Republicans, had to Nixon. When Nixon was vice-president in 1955, President Eisenhower had a heart attack. Party chairman Leonard Hall was asked what the Republicans would do if Ike died. Hall replied: “We would run him anyway. There is nothing in the Constitution that says the President must be alive”.

Nixon was generally uncomfortable with women and although he used his wife Pat to boost his career he was often cold and impatient with her in public. He would gallantly open doors for other women but march on through in front of Pat as if she were not there. Once she came into the room when he was preparing for a broadcast. He shouted: “Haven’t I told you never to bother me while I’m working?… Now get out”. There were credible allegations that he struck her in his drunken rages.

Many people commented that Nixon was lonely and friendless but he did develop a strong attachment to Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, a Florida businessman of Cuban origin who had grown rich from real estate. When he was 18 in 1931, Rebozo had followed an intense friendship with Donald Gunn by marrying Gunn’s sister Clare. The marriage was not consummated and was annulled. She married and had two children but her husband was killed in the war. Rebozo proposed to her again and she accepted but the second marriage only lasted two years. In middle age, Rebozo formalised what was described as “an antiseptic relationship” with his lawyer’s secretary. An airline steward claimed to have had a long sexual relationship with Rebozo and someone else said Rebozo had definitely been a member of Miami’s homosexual community.

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Gambling

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When he was in the Navy, Nixon showed a flair for poker which enabled him to come home from the war $10,000 richer ($132,879.21 in 2016 value). There is evidence that Nixon lost his winning streak on a trip to Cuba with Dana Smith, a lawyer who was a friend of Nixon’s and managed a fund setup by businessmen for Nixon’s expenses. As well as doing Smith a favour with the IRS, Nixon, in August 1952, had written to the State Department about a problem with a gambling debt of $4,200 ($37,486.98 in 2016 value) run up by Smith at the Sans Souci casino in Havana. To cut a long story short, it seems that it was Nixon who lost the money not Smith. Witnesses claim that Nixon lost $50,000 ($446,273.58 in 2016 value) at the Hotel Nacional in the early 50s and Rebozo bailed him out. Rebozo was friendly with the owner of the Hotel Nacional, Meyer Lansky, the mobster. Nixon was granted complimentary facilities at the hotel. When Robert Kennedy was handed documents showing that Lansky had footed Nixon’s bill he did not use them because of the Mob connections of his own father and brother.

Cuba

Nixon developed something of an obsession with the aborted attempt by the Kennedy administration to overthrow Castro with the Bay of Pigs fiasco. William Pawley was a staunch and rich right-wing Republican who had donated to Nixon’s campaigns. He had grown up in Cuba and detested Castro. His niece said that Pawley was for years “up to his eyebrows” in attempts to topple Castro and that Nixon was one of his key contacts. The last US ambassador to Cuba, Philip Bonsal, had no doubt that Nixon was “the father of the operation” to topple Castro.

Buying the President

Joe McGinniss wrote a book about the 1968 presidential campaign called The Selling of the President in which he described how Nixon was marketed with the help of the J Walter Thompson advertising agency and two television producers. His chief of staff Bob Haldeman came from the J Walter Thompson agency.

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In a previous article, I described how Nixon, in his first Congressional election campaign, used dirty tricks to defeat Jerry Voorhis. Voorhis had made himself unpopular with big business by exposing shady deals and dodgy profits. Nixon’s opponent in his bid for the Senate, Helen Gahagan Douglas, was outspokenly anti-Communist but was also in favour of limiting the power of big business including the oil industry.  Nixon was very different, having made friends in the oil industry in the 1940s. At a meeting in 1946 of 75 executives, Fred Ortman said they had found just the man to beat Voorhis. “If he makes it, he has what it takes to go all the way. He says he can’t live on a congressman’s salary. Needs a lot more than that to match what he would get in private law practice… We’re going to help”. It is interesting to note that President-elect Donald Trump has named an oil executive as his Secretary of State.

Mob Connections.

Murray Chotiner, Nixon’s dirty tricks specialist, and his brother Jack Chotiner, were partners in a law firm which handled 221 bookmaking cases in a four-year period. The betting industry was controlled by organised crime. In his very first campaign, Nixon had taken money (initially five thousand dollars – $44,127.80 in 2016 value) from Mickey Cohen, a flamboyant gangster (and former partner of Bugsy Siegel) who operated in Nixon’s constituency. Cohen was getting his orders to support Nixon from notorious mobsters Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello. Cohen arranged a payment of $75,000 ($751,668.43 in 2016 value) for the campaign against Gahagan. Rackets investigator Walter Sheridan asked, “who would you invest your money in? Some politician named Clams Linguini? Or a nice Protestant boy from Whittier, California?”

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There were allegations that Nixon accumulated vast funds with Rebozo’s help. His net worth tripled during his five years in the White House and investigative journalist Jack Anderson alleged that Rebozo and Nixon both had much more in Swiss bank accounts. A Swiss hotelier who was a fan of Nixon recalled that even during the 80s Nixon travelled to Zurich every year, sometimes with Pat, sometimes with Rebozo.  Rebozo had connections with gangsters that Nixon must have been aware of.

Howard Hughes was not known as a philanthropist but he gave Nixon a large donation, brokered by Rebozo, and his problems with the IRS vanished. Terry Lenzner, who was the chief investigator for the Senate Watergate Committee, speculated that it was Nixon’s desire to know what the Democrats knew about his dealings with Hughes that may have partially motivated the Watergate break-in. Anthony Summers in his biography of Nixon, The Arrogance of Power, presents evidence in the form of a photocopy of a neatly hand-written memo from Hughes setting out what he expected from Nixon in return for his donation to the 1968 campaign. He wanted the Vietnam war to continue so that he could recoup his losses on helicopters. He basically wanted whoever was president to be in his debt: “I Howard Hughes, can buy any man I want”.

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During Nixon’s unsuccessful bid for the governorship of California in 1962, an official of his opponent Pat Brown, visited Mickey Cohen in Alcatraz and obtained a signed statement that Nixon had received Mob money in previous campaigns. Rebozo and Nixon were still dealing with Meyer Lansky during the 1968 presidential campaign.

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Next week – Nixon’s further crimes.

 

 

 

 

 

Nixon Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 15 2016.

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Mendacity and Madness

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The Madman on the Stair

Joseph Laitin, of the Office of Management and Budget, told Anthony Summers, author of The Arrogance of Power, that he was on his way to a meeting in the West Wing with Treasury Secretary George Schultz in spring 1974. “Just as I was about to ascend the stairway, a guy came running down the stairs two at a time. He had a frantic look on his face, wild-eyed like a madman. And he bowled me over … before I could pick myself up, six athletic-looking young men leapt over me, pursuing him. I suddenly realised that they were Secret Service agents, that I’d been knocked over by the president of the United States”.

Many people speculated about Nixon’s mental health. Someone who had served with Nixon in the Navy said he had “severe ups and downs” even in the 1940s. Nixon had once “loved” JFK but soon grew to detest him, convinced, with good reason, that Kennedy had beaten him fraudulently in the 1960 presidential election. Kennedy came to regard Nixon as “mentally unsound”. Frank Sinatra, who was campaigning for JFK, wanted to get publicity for a report that Nixon was seeing a psychiatrist. Pat Brown, Nixon’s opponent in the election for governor of California said: “This is a very peculiar fellow.  … I really think he’s psychotic … an able man but he’s nuts …” BBC correspondent Charles Wheeler was Nixon’s guide to East Berlin and described him as “weird …Totally mad.”

Nixon first visited Dr Arnold Hutschnecker, a specialist in psychosomatic illnesses, in 1951, after reading the doctor’s best-selling book, The Will to Live.  Hutschnecker continued to meet Nixon sporadically until shortly before Nixon died. He visited the president twice at the White House and was the only mental health professional known to have treated a president. Although he would not talk about it while Nixon was alive, Hutschnecker had discussed the treatment in several interviews. In the 1950s, he suggested that ”mental health certificates should be required for political leaders, similar to the Wasserman test demanded by states before marriage.”

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Nixon admitted that he started using sleeping pills in the late 40s. Over a long period soon after becoming president, he also consumed, without prescription or medical supervision, large quantities of an anti-epileptic drug called Dilantin. A doctor consulted by Anthony Summers was alarmed that anyone in a position of responsibility, particularly one with access to the nuclear button, was taking Dilantin and drinking alcohol.

Lies and Ethics

Nixon’s lawyer during the Watergate affair, Fred Buzhardt, later remembered him as “the most transparent liar” he had ever met. Even during his farewell speech after he had resigned he embarked on a bizarre stream-of-consciousness in which he claimed that he was not educated and had no personal wealth in fact, he had a good law degree and was very rich. Barry Goldwater, who had long believed Nixon was insane, said when he was trying to persuade him to resign during Watergate: “The danger in this whole thing was his constant telling lies”. Nixon himself said to one of his aides before meeting Mormon elders: “Whatever I say in there, don’t you believe a word of it…” This reminds me of something Rauf Hakeem said in a 2007 interview: “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.” Like Hakeem, Nixon believed that “dissembling” and “hypocrisy” were part of political life. Kissinger thought Nixon convinced himself by his distortions.

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The tendency was already there in his student debating days when his debating coach was disturbed by his “ability to slide round an argument rather than meet it head on. There was something mean in him, mean in the way he put his questions, argued his points”.

In his first days working for the law firm Wingert and Bewley he made a blunder in court which led to the firm being sued for negligence and Judge Alfred Paonessa sternly reprimanded Nixon: “Mr Nixon, I have serious doubts about your ethical qualifications to practise law in this state of California. I am seriously thinking of turning this matter over to the Bar Association to have you disbarred”.

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Madman with a Button

Sometimes Nixon used madness as a political strategy. He told Kissinger to tell the Soviet ambassador that he had lost his senses and might use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Nixon’s Watergate nemesis Senator Sam Ervin said that the main issue was not that the president was a crook – most rational people had long accepted that: “A certain thumb moving towards a certain red button, a certain question of sanity … Query: if the man who holds the thumb over the button is mad …”. Nixon  was heard boasting that he could press a button and in 20 minutes 50 million Russians would be dead.

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When Soviet-backed Arab troops moved into Israel there was a real prospect of world war as Kissinger believed that Soviet troops would be sent in. Nixon did not attend a single meeting on the conflict during the first week. US troops and nuclear weapons were being lined up. Nixon was unavailable – drunk or sleeping. At one point, he had to be rescued from an overflowing bath tub. It was alleged that he had hit his wife. He was wandering the corridors of the White House talking to portraits of former presidents.

madman-diplomacy

Violence

Nixon’s anger sometimes tipped over into violence. At a rally in Southern California, he spotted a Democratic party activist who had plagued him. He strode over and slapped her in the face. He physically attacked the producer of a TV programme because he allowed college students to ask him difficult questions. On the same tour, he punched someone in the face. His aide Bob Haldeman recalls that, on a tour of Iowa, a military aide called Don Hughes was sitting in the car seat in front of Nixon. Nixon, frustrated by the way the tour was going, repeatedly kicked with both feet the back of the seat in front of him.  The next time the car stopped Hughes got out and silently walked away. There is film evidence of Nixon manhandling press secretary Ron Ziegler in New Orleans and he seemed drunk when he gave a speech afterwards.

 

Envy, Vengeance and Prejudices

Nixon’s aide Alexander Butterfield recalls the president shaking with anger when talking about the “Georgetown set”. “Did one of those dirty bastards ever invite me to his f***ing men’s club or his goddamn country club? Not once”. Journalist Hugh Sidey could not detect any human bond between Nixon and his wife but Gloria Steinem saw why Richard and Pat bonded although he was cold to her and beat her. “They were together in their resentment of glamorous people who had it easy…”.

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Nixon ordered the army to spy on the young veteran who exposed the massacre at My Lai and griped for hours about the negative publicity: “It’s those dirty rotten Jews from New York who are behind it”.

 

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Although he worked with Jews like Kissinger and Leonard Garment, Nixon used the word “kike” and sent an aide to investigate a “Jewish cabal” at the Bureau of Labour Statistics and complained that there were too many Jews at the IRS. Women in government were a pain in the neck; Italians were all dishonest, as were Mexicans. He often referred to African-Americans as “Jigaboos”.

 

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With Martin Luther King in 1957

 

A convicted murderer, William Gilday, claimed that he was hired by Nixon aides to carry out dirty tricks, including the ultimate dirty trick of murder. Among those Gilday  was incited to kill were Edward Kennedy and George Wallace. When Wallace was shot, he had to withdraw from the presidential race that Nixon won.

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Wallace harboured suspicions of Nixon’s involvement. Journalists Jack Anderson and Drew Pearson infuriated Nixon with their reporting of secret funding. Gordon Liddy said he was charged with finding ways of stopping them. Liddy came to the conclusion that the only way would be to kill them.

More on Nixon’s crimes  – and his connections with organised crime – next week.

 

Nixon Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 8 2016. Unfortunately, the final paragraphs were missing.

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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.

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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.

Dick Deterred

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…

dickdeterred

Mendacity

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”.

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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.

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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”.

25 Apr 1956, Beverly Hills, California, USA --- Murray M. Chotiner, campaign manager for Vice-President Richard Nixon in the 1952 campaign, looks at a subpoena requesting his presence in Washington for questioning regarding his alleged legal services for a blacklisted government contractor. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

25 Apr 1956, Beverly Hills, California, USA — Murray M. Chotiner, campaign manager for Vice-President Richard Nixon in the 1952 campaign, looks at a subpoena requesting his presence in Washington for questioning regarding his alleged legal services for a blacklisted government contractor. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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.

Donald Segretti

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.

Mental Health

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.”

Al Read

 

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My parents took me on more than one occasion to see Al Read at the Gloucester ABC Regal some time in the 1950s. My father whispered to me confidentially that Al Read was not making any serious money from his performances because he had to pay nineteen shillings and sixpence in the pound as income tax. This was because he was a very rich man, a successful businessman, as well as being a comedian. My father told me that Al Read was wealthy as a result of his successful meat processing company. Read told Michael Parkinson that he came from a long line of sausages.

 

Alfred Read was born in Broughton, Salford in 1909. His trajectory into show business was an unusual one. Because of this, he gained strength to protect his originality and had the confidence and independence to resist the received wisdom of those seasoned professionials and impresarios who were expert at telling him how it had always been done. Read wanted to do something new and was not interested in repeating the tired old formulae. As he so wisely said: “amateurs built the Ark; professionals built the Titanic.”

 

Al soon found that he had a natural gift for the patter required to win new customers: ‘It was as if I was selling myself along with the brisket, tongue and boiled ham.’

 

He discovered his gift for identifying and isolating specific social types and when he returned home, he would practise imitating their accents and gestures. Early on, he spotted and developed one of the favourite characters of his later comedy routines – Johnny Knowall. He noticed many loudmouths on the terraces at Old Trafford when his father took him to watch Manchester United.

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Some of his dry wit must have been inherited from his father. Some of the stories Al Read tells remind me of the wit and wisdom of my own father. As a child, Al overheard a friend of his father boasting about a pub in Liverpool where you could get ‘a pint of ale, a packet of Woodbines, a meat pie, and a woman and still have change out of a shilling’. Read’s father drew on his pipe and remarked, ‘couldn’t have been much meat in that pie.’

 

Al was called on to entertain his father’s friends by singing little songs like, ‘I’m a little brown mouse and I live in a house’. At North Manchester Preparatory Grammar School, he played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. His real schooling in performance was when his father sent him out ‘on the van’ with a salesman called Bennett to sell Read Brothers meat products.

 

 

The family business prospered and Alfred became a director at the age of 23. Business gave him an outlet for performing. He was invited to attend the annual dinner dance of the Grocers’ Society and asked to provide some entertainment. He performed a version of Stanley Holloway’s ‘Albert and the Lion’ monologue and it went well enough to secure some new orders for cooked meats.

 

Joining the St Annes golf club was a good career move because he was able to befriend stars such as Sid Field when they were performing in Blackpool. Al suggested a couple of sketches to Field.

 

In 1940, he tried out his performing skills on the NAAFI’s northern buyer who lunched long and well every day at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel. Read was waiting for him one day when he got back to his office a little the worse for wear at 3 p.m. Read went through a routine using a custom-made gas mask case filled with samples. He secured a deal to supply the armed forces with two tons of luncheon sausage a week.

 

Read volunteered to join up but was in a reserved occupation so had to content himself with being a section leader in the Prestwich Home Guard. He also contributed to the war effort by devising an economical canned meal called Frax Fratters – fingers of meat in a potato casing. This was successful enough for comedians to work it into their acts.

 

Over the years, he became friendly with many people in show business. While entertaining some friends in a Blackpool bar with a prototype of the Loudmouth, Read was overheard by Peter Webster, who ran a children’s show on the pier. He offered him a spot in a weekly show at Midland Towers holiday camp. This led to an approach from impresario Jack Taylor, who offered him a spot in his show at the Regal Theatre on Blackpool’s South Pier.

 

He died a death but, soon after, Joe Hill offered him a spot at the Grand Theatre, Bolton as a replacement for Frank Randle, who had let them down. He did well enough to be taken on for a week but afterwards went back to the sausage factory, which he now ran because his father had retired.

 

In 1950, at the annual reception at the Queen’s Hotel, Manchester, which Al organised for the meat company’s big customers, he decided to entertain them with a routine featuring Johnny Knowall as a decorator. This went down well and the customers gathered around congratulating him. A man in a duffel coat detached him from the group and steered him towards the bar. He introduced himself as Barker Andrews, a producer with BBC Light Entertainment. Andrews said that he had overheard the performance of “The Decorator” and had decided on the spot that he must perform it on radio’s Variety Fanfare. Barker enthused: “You are going to change the potential of comedy, not only in this country but also the world”.

 

Read believed it was his great good fortune to be assigned Ronnie Taylor as his producer and he established an instant rapport with him. Taylor worked hard with Al –three days on a script for a ten-minute sketch – but managed to retain an air of spontaneity for the finished broadcast.

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The BBC was delighted and pressed him to do more broadcasts. The problem was that Barker Andrews was thinking big. For a pilot show, other performers, including Patricia Hayes, and an orchestra were brought in. Al felt swamped and told Ronnie Taylor, “I don’t perform – I am.” The pilot was never broadcast and the BBC agreed to let him do it his way recording a monthly show, which would be broadcast in the prime Sunday lunchtime spot.

 

The introduction to his radio show was usually “Al Read: introducing us to ourselves”; and he himself described his work as “pictures of life”. He said that he never told gags and never tried to make people laugh. He drew on his own personal experience and observation of the small embarrassments and frustrations of daily life and encouraged the audience to be complicit with him by letting them draw their own conclusions by using the word “you”: “When you walk into a doctor’s surgery…”

 

Everything was achieved by suggestion and there was little need of props. Read had a pleasant speaking voice with an unobtrusive northern accent. He could switch from one character to another with a subtle change of tone. You knew when he was voicing a woman without him being exaggeratedly camp or effeminate. As he described it himself: “I was the listener and the talker, setting the scene with a few brushstrokes, some hand movements and the way I altered my stance, like a bulky woman shifting her weight from one bunioned foot to another and adjusting the delicate equilibrium of her generous bustline.”

RT

Although he did not come to show business until his 40s, he then quickly became a star with three million listeners for each show without serving the usual apprenticeship. He was a national celebrity with his catch-phrases, “Right, monkey” and “You’ll be lucky” being repeated endlessly.

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In 1950, he was asked to entertain the Royal Family and their household staff for a special Christmas concert at Windsor Castle. King George VI was particularly keen on Al’s gardening sketch and asked for a recording of it.

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Al Read meeting two queens

 

Al was wary of television even though he realised he could not ignore it. In 1956, he decided to do some research in the USA and found a ready welcome in the English colony of Hollywood. James Mason introduced him to the gossip columnist Louella Parsons who gave him a mention but misnamed him “Hal Green”. He also met Noel Coward. He performed some of his sketches for Bob Newhart, who borrowed them and incorporated them into his own monologues.

 

He was invited to a party at which the singer Billy Daniels (“That Old Black Magic” – I also saw him at the ABC Regal, Gloucester) gave his wife a pink Cadillac wrapped in red ribbons. Al turned down the offer of a film role – it later became “The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw” starring Kenneth More and Jayne Mansfield.

 

George Burns advised him on TV technique: “Don’t fight the monster, Al. Make it work for you.”

 

Al was finally persuaded to take the plunge into television by Richard Armitage, a new kind of impresario- Cambridge-educated and a friend of David Frost, media mogul and conqueror of Richard Nixon. David Frost actually appeared in a touring summer show with Al and Jimmy Clitheroe. Al paints a bizarre picture of the future Sir David playing football on the beach at Weston-super-Mare with him and Jimmy Clitheroe (a comedian of restricted growth whom I saw on many occasions at Gloucester ABC Regal. Clitheroe made a career playing the character of an obnoxious and impudent schoolboy who never grew up- catch-phrase: ‘who knitted you, woolly ‘ead?!).

 

Clitheroe

 

On stage or in the radio studio Al had felt a rapport with his audience. In the TV studio, he felt that the camera created a barrier. An article in Best of British described how Charles Chilton with “Journey into Space” managed to draw wonderful pictures in the radio audience’s mind with the most basic materials. Dylan Thomas created a world in sound with “Under Milk Wood” which was completely ruined on stage or on film. Al was canny enough to realise that his radio listeners built up their own images of his characters. He provided a framework and the audience became collaborators. Television is too literal. Al himself provided the sound of a dog for the radio show and ten different listeners would have described ten different kinds of dog. For television, a real dog had to be found and its paws had to be tied to a gate while it received instructions from an off-camera handler.

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The BBC, in a characteristic fit of vandalism or penny-pinching (they must need to find ways of paying Jonathan Ross’s huge salary) wiped many of the tapes of Al’s radio shows as they did with TV shows of Tony Hancock and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The recordings that do survive demonstrate a rare talent.

 

Long before “alternative comedy” was thought of, he specialised in observational humour. To me his acute sense of the foibles of ordinary people’s behaviour and language make him a precursor of Mike Harding, Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot, Richard Digance, Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett. Some of his monologues are positively Pinteresque.

 

The hilarious TV critic of the Guardian Weekly, Nancy Banks-Smith, is fond of quoting Al Read: “There was enough said at our Edie’s wedding.” This brilliantly and concisely conveys the kind of tight-lipped recognition of the resentment and bitterness that families try to suppress but often come out at social occasions, possibly fuelled by alcohol.

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Despite the fact that most of his humor comes from observation of the foibles of the northern English working class, there was nothing flat-cap about him. He had always been wealthy, played golf and owned a yacht. He mixed easily with royalty, Hollywood stars and the upper crust. His second wife was a glamorous model.

 

Al should have had a career as a straight actor as did many other comedy greats like Jimmy Jewell, Stan Stennett, Charlie Drake and Dave King. I am privileged to have seen a brilliant performance in Hammersmith by Max Wall in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”. According to the Internet Movie Database, Al played a DJ in one episode of “Casualty” broadcast posthumously in 1988.

 

He made a further radio series in 1976 and another in 1985 to coincide with the publication of his autobiography It’s All in the Book. Most of the information in this article is gleaned from that book, which was skilfully ghost-written by Robin Cross, who allows Al Read’s natural voice to come through. The book is out of print but copies are available from online booksellers such as Amazon or Abe Books. Also available are tapes and CDs of the remaining shows.

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Al Read died on 9th September 1987 aged 78. His genius lives on through the surviving recordings, which are still regularly repeated on BBC radio more than 50 years after they were made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Manchester Review

The Manchester Review

Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Stephen Jones: a blog

Daoism—lives—language—performance. And jokes

Minal Dalal

Spreading resources for potential living.