Tuesday 21 November 2017

Chasing power to nihilistic despair

Politics: Richard Nixon: The Life, John A Farrell, Doubleday, hardback, 558 pages, €28.99

Downfall: Nixon's major flaw was that he failed to understand liberal America, the enemy within
Downfall: Nixon's major flaw was that he failed to understand liberal America, the enemy within
Richard Nixon: The Life

JP O'Malley

This biography of Richard Nixon makes good use of the availability of new tape recordings to give fresh insights into the former US president's pathological nature.

On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon left office in disgrace. The White House became a maelstrom of theatrical drama. The  departing president's closing comments were typically Nixonian: brutally honest in spirit, awkward in tone and delivery.

"Always remember," Nixon warned his friends and foes, "others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

Nixon became the only president in the history of the United States ever to resign.

He left office midway through his second term over the Watergate Scandal: when members of Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (more commonly know as CREEP) broke into the Democratic National Committee's Watergate headquarters, in Washington, in the early hours of the morning on June 17, 1972.

Watergate was part of a larger conspiracy of wire-tapping and spying already in place by the Nixon administration that emerged after The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in 1971: when Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defence Department analyst, leaked files to the newspaper exposing secrets about the Vietnam War.

It's generally believed Nixon didn't know before hand about the break-ins at Watergate. That's also the conclusion John A Farrell arrives at in this magisterial study of a hugely complex individual, who ultimately paid the political price for chasing power to its nihilistic conclusion.

Nixon's knowledge about the initial break-in at Watergate wasn't the issue that forced him to resign at any rate. It was the cover-up which followed that sunk him. Just days after the break-in, Nixon organised 'hush money' to be paid to the burglars.

Nixon sowed the seeds of his own destruction by personally approving the installation of a secret White House tape-recording system in 1971 to memorialise his decision-making process for posterity.

These tapes eventually supplied the evidence to bring Nixon down, when the US Supreme Court demanded that he release most of them to the public.

The court ruled that alleged criminal behaviour was of more importance to the public interest than executive presidential privilege.

As Farrell notes, Nixon breached his constitutional duty.

While Watergate justifiably gets considerable coverage here, Farrell maps out Nixon's path to power in gripping detail.

Nixon was elected to office twice as President in 1968 and 1972; he served as Vice President from 1953 to 1961; and prior to that he served both in US Congress and in the Senate.

Nixon could be unapologetically racist, foul-mouthed, bigoted, and prone to moments of delusional paranoia.

An avid reader of philosophy who was of an obsessional nature, Nixon strove for intellectual brilliance. But his penchant to view politics, and indeed the world, in simple binary opposites, stunted any real intellectual growth.

In Nixon's worldview, there were good-natured conservatives folk, and then there were morally bankrupted liberals.

However, for all his faults, Nixon did make a number of noticeable achievements in office.

On the domestic front, there was the integration of racially segregated southern schools.

On foreign policy, he brokered the first meetings between communist China and the West for some time. He also signed a number of strategic arms treaties with the Soviet Union.

Nixon's life has almost been documented to death at this stage.

Stephen Ambrose's three-volume biography, for instance - published before Nixon's death in 1994 - was highly praised.

But Farrell has the added advantage of material that was simply unavailable to previous biographers and historians. Namely: 3,700 hours of White House tape recordings; Nixon's grand jury testimony from Watergate; and, most importantly, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's White House telephone transcripts with the President.

The latter give us real insights into Nixon's pathological nature.

Away from the sugar-coated lenses of TV cable network cameras, and predictable White House officialdom, Nixon could be a ruthless bastard.

"We will bomb the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam [and] then if anybody interferes we will threaten the nuclear weapon," Nixon explains to Kissinger in one of these many frank exchanges. These were usually late at night, when Nixon began to ramble after taking his favoured concoction of booze and sleeping pills.

We also hear in these exchanges how both men successfully carried out a plan that involved secretly bombing Cambodia, while keeping the general public, and most of their own administration, in the dark.

While Watergate would be the cause of Nixon's eventual downfall, Vietnam became the straw that broke the camel's back.

Farrell isn't shy in reminding the reader about this. Mainly because he has mountains of evidence to back up his claims.

The casualties the war caused, and the number of years it dragged on, changed the infallibility complex other presidents - such as Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson - had all enjoyed.

Farrell subtly hints at reasons for this. American society was caught up in post-war euphoria, and thus blind to the sinister forces of the deep state, and global American hegemony; even though, ironically, both had made that prosperity possible in the first place.

Nixon suffered from one major flaw, Farrell argues here. He failed to fully understand the enemy within: liberal America.

He constantly feared they would lynch him and, eventually, they got their man.

Yet till the bitter end, Nixon failed to take any sense of responsibility for his criminal behaviour relating to Watergate, believing instead that in certain situations, the president had a right to rise above the rule of law.

Thankfully, constitutional checks and balances told him otherwise.

Nixon was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford and never faced criminal charges.

The final road the 37th President of the United States walked was a bitter one.

Speaking to British journalist David Frost in a 1977 interview, Nixon explained how the curtain finally fell.

Imbuing a tone that had all the hallmarks of a classic Greek tragedy, Nixon admitted: "I brought myself down."

"I gave them a sword," he went on, "and they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I'd been in their position, I'd have done the same."

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