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'My meeting with the man in the Oval Office who lied and lied - until he could lie no more'

Tom McCaughren


Trump isn't the first US president to be accused of dishonesty. Lying cost Tricky Dicky his job, says Tom McCaughren

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Taoiseach Jack Lynch with US President Richard Nixon in October 1970

Taoiseach Jack Lynch with US President Richard Nixon in October 1970

Taoiseach Jack Lynch with US President Richard Nixon in October 1970

There has been a debate in sections of the news media in America as to whether they should describe some of Donald Trump's statements as falsehoods or lies.

Most of us who have watched and listened to his verbal contortions and contradictions will have made up our own minds. But to be accused by the media of lying - that'd be something else.

Not that he would be the first president to face such an accusation. Remember President Nixon? He wasn't known as Tricky Dicky for nothing. A man who served with him in his earlier years said he was the only person he ever knew who could lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time.

And lie he did, denying any involvement in the Watergate affair, a scandal that started with a break-in at the Democratic Committee headquarters in Washington's Watergate complex in 1972.

But even before then, Nixon's need to survive seemed to exercise his mind. For when he greeted Jack Lynch in the White House in 1971 following the Arms Crisis it was the fact that the Taoiseach had managed to survive that impressed him. Hard to believe, but as a journalist I was fortunate enough to be in the Oval Office when he said so.

The Arms Crisis occurred when Jack Lynch sacked two of his ministers whom he suspected of being involved in a plot to import arms and ammunition. The weapons were ostensibly to help defence committees in Northern Ireland fend off attacks by loyalists - but as it turned out, would have armed the emerging Provisional IRA.

A district court judge ruled that there wasn't enough evidence against one of the ministers, Neil Blaney - but the second one, Charles Haughey, former Minister for Finance and three other people were sent forward to be tried by a jury in the Central Criminal Court.

The trial took place in the Four Courts and I was assigned to cover it. After a mistrial and another lengthy trial, all four accused were acquitted. Immediately afterwards, Haughey did a TV interview with me in which he threw out a challenge to the Taoiseach to resign. This Mr Lynch refused to do - and in March of the following year he paid a visit to the US, accompanied by his wife, Maureen, and two officials.

Because of my reporting of the Arms Crisis I was assigned to cover the visit, as was Chris Glennon of the Irish Independent, and as it was such a small group we all travelled together.

On arrival we were immediately taken in hand by the secret service. This is one of the oldest federal law enforcement agencies in the US, dating from the American Civil War when it was founded to combat widespread counterfeiting of US currency. From tracking down forgers, its functions have been expanded to cope with the financial and cyber crimes that come with today's highly inventive technologies. It also has the job of protecting the president, a job given to it in 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley.

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US Secret Service badge

US Secret Service badge

US Secret Service badge

But the responsibilities of the secret service don't end there. It protects the US president's family, the vice-president and his family and many others including visiting heads of state. As a result, a number of secret service men were detailed to protect Jack Lynch and his party. All of us were immediately issued with lapel pins, or as we would call them, badges - and while this might seem trivial, we later learned that our lives could depend on whether we wore them.

The secret service men made no secret of the fact that they still felt very badly about not being able to prevent the assassination of JFK. Whether a president might or might not survive by the way he acted in office was one thing, but their job was to try as far as possible to make sure he, and indeed, all in their care survived the assassin's bullet. As a result, we discovered, they, and indeed all agencies in the US have a strange obsession with badges. The president wears one in the shape of the stars and stripes. Everyone in the White House and everywhere else where there is a need for identification wears one. Bomb disposal men who came to check out our venues wore them, sheriffs wore them, detectives wore them.

In fact, if you didn't have an invitation or you didn't have a badge you didn't get it in.

The logo of the secret service is a five-pointed star, each star tipped with gold. In the centre is the Treasury Building encircled with the words "United States Secret Service" , though the designs have changed with time

However, this was not the badge worn by its members. At that time, their lapel pin was in the shape of a triangle, or perhaps more like an arrow and was the subject of much mystique.

It was said, for example, that they turned it around to certain positions at certain times by way of some sort of code - and judging by what I have read since about the type of badges they wear I have no reason to doubt that.

The small lapel badges the secret service gave to Chris Glennon and myself were in the shape of a shield, half white, half green. They were greatly envied by the wives of the millionaires and multi- millionaires the Taoiseach met in exclusive clubs in an effort to entice them to invest in Ireland. As far as we could make out the women wanted to make them into cufflinks, probably so that they could boast to their friends that they had come from the "Irish prime minister's party".

I suppose we were tempted to part with them because of the warm welcome we got from these people. However, we quickly changed our minds when we consulted the secret service officer in charge of our detail. While we were accompanying the Taoiseach as members of the press, they may have thought that we were really on under-cover protective duty.

"Look guys," he said, "if shooting starts and you pull a gun, as long as you're wearing that pin we won't shoot you."

It was then I realised why the secret service insisted during Kennedy's visit to Ireland in 1963 that the Irish Special Branch should wear lapel badges. They didn't like it, but had to do it. Anyway, enough said. We weren't going to part with our badges after that.

The Taoiseach's visit to the White House was a very special occasion, of course. Chris and I waited for a moment outside the door of the Oval Office. I was then told to leave my tape recorder outside and we were ushered in.

Nixon was not as tall as I expected. In fact, my memory of him is of a small man. The second thing I noticed was that his face was heavily made up, probably for television.

As soon as we went in Nixon walked over to the Taoiseach and shook his hand warmly, saying: "You are very welcome prime minister." Then he added, "I must say I admire your ability to survive."

And that was it. Chris and I left them to it, but with that strange greeting ringing in our ears. Before we left the White House, we were each given a memento of our visit - a box with the US presidential seal of office embossed in gold. Inside was a Parker pen bearing Nixon's signature. Before we took leave of the secret service men, they also gave us a memento. Some of us got cufflinks, I got a tie pin. Each bore the secret service logo on a circular blue background.

I treasure both gifts to this day - but now as I look at them, I think of the man in the Oval Office who lied and lied until he could lie no more and had to resign.

Tom McCaughren is a journalist, broadcaster, and award-winning author

Sunday Independent