Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Watergate

Nixon Part Five

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 5 2017

Colman's Column3

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.

tricia-and-julie

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

Colman's Column3

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.”

Trumpery

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 Two

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

Colman's Column3

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.

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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.

 

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