Cultural Cohesion, p.51Clive James
Back from nowhere, Nixon runs and wins. He has the grace to concede that his victory over Humphrey was no more convincing than his loss to Kennedy. But that’s war, and here, thrown open, is the White House with all its wonders, including a refrigerator well stocked with butter-brickle ice cream, left by the Johnson girls so that Tricia and Julie shall not starve. Bliss!
Vietnam spoiled it all in the short term, and Watergate ruined it in the long, but before turning to those issues we ought to concede that Nixon had a lot going for him as President. Without dressing the set too much, he is able to show us in these pages that he could handle the work. Just the way he offers us proof of his political intelligence is proof of his political intelligence. The picture he paints is of a man on top of the job. With Haldeman keeping the side issues at bay, Nixon deals with the essentials. Whether in the Oval Office, at Camp David, at San Clemente or on Key Biscayne he is at the hub of America. Whether in America, Europe, China or the Soviet Union he is at the spindle of the world.
He obviously revelled in the task and doesn’t fail to convey the excitement. He gives you a better idea than anybody else has of why someone should want to take the job on. He even transmits a sense of mission. You can see how he might have thought of himself, without megalomania, as ideal casting for the role. Pat was just right too. She wasn’t as flash as Jackie, but she was solid: less up-to-the-minute, but more in tune with the past. She might not have known Andy Warhol personally, but she arranged an exhibition in the White House for Andrew Wyeth. The Nixons were proud to be square. At their best, they showed why squareness is better than sham.
It could have been an idyll. But America was at war, both in South-East Asia and in Nixon’s soul. Attaining the Presidency made him feel more victimized than ever. The Democrats had bequeathed him the mess in Vietnam. Now they would attack him however he handled it. They would stop at nothing. “Therefore I decided that we must begin immediately keeping track of everything the leading Democrats did. Information would be our first line of defence.” He says this on page 357. The thought is supposed to be going through his head in 1968, when he was already looking forward to the 1972 elections. A harmless enough looking statement, until you realize that he is attempting to justify, in advance, the private espionage activities carried out by the slapstick team later to become famous as the Plumbers.
Nixon makes the best possible case for himself. He was certainly in a fix about Vietnam. If he had been the cynic he is often supposed to be, he could have blamed American involvement on Kennedy and Johnson and brought the troops home. We can see now that it would have been the right thing to do, since the North Vietnamese won anyway. Even at the time it was clear to every responsible authority except the Pentagon that Vietnam was a bottomless pit. By staying to fight it out, Nixon was contravening his own idea of a sensible foreign policy. The Nixon Doctrine advocated aiding only independently viable governments and confining the assistance to hardware—roughly the same policy Carter is pursuing now.
Nixon might have got out of Vietnam straight away if he had thought it was the difficult thing to do. But the liberal opposition to the war convinced him that quitting was the easy thing to do, and he made a fetish of doing the difficult thing instead of the easy one. If the whole world begged Nixon to do the easy thing he would do the difficult one, every time. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the strength of Nixon’s convictions. He thought he was saving the world from communism. He was probably right to believe that for Communists peace is never an end, only a means. He was certainly right to be untrusting. But he never understood that there was such a thing as handing the moral advantage to the other side. He thought that the other side was too immoral for that to be possible.
Kissinger thought the same way. As Nixon’s National Security Adviser Kissinger was the man in charge of strategic brainwaves. It would be easy now for Nixon to blame Kissinger. More damagingly for them both, he approves of everything Kissinger did. There are successes to record: détente was probably the right move, which Nixon carried through patiently, without weakness. The Middle East policy was realistic in an area of competing unrealities. But Nixon still seems to think that the toppling of Allende was some kind of triumph, by which the Red Sandwich was undermined. The Red Sandwich was the device by which communism, squeezing inwards from Cuba and Chile, would capture the whole of South America. The Red Sandwich had to be foiled. Innocent Chileans have gone through the torments of the damned because Nixon and Kissinger thought that a sandwich had to be stopped from closing in on a continent.
It would have been better for everyone, capitalists included, if Nixon had burdened Allende with help. The best that can be said for such catastrophic initiatives is that they did not originate with Nixon. Eisenhower turned down Castro’s requests for aid. The same sort of mistake goes all the way back to the repudiation of the Dixie Mission. Nixon’s proudest boast is that he reopened the doors to China. He forgets to say that he started out as a fervent advocate of the policy which closed them.
So in foreign affairs Nixon didn’t show quite the clear vision that he thinks he did. He still seems to think that the invasion of Cambodia was a “complete success.” Right up to the final debacle, he and Kissinger understood everything about the war in Vietnam except what mattered. “As Kissinger saw the situation, we were up against a paradoxical situation in which North Vietnam, which had in effect lost the war, was acting as if it had won; while South Vietnam, which had effectively won the war, was acting as if it had lost.” If that was indeed how Kissinger saw things, then he was seeing them backward. (Apart from a few such local outbreaks, incidentally, the word “situation” is kept under tight control.)
Meanwhile, as Nixon tells it, the liberals and radicals were wrecking the country. On page 471 he argues that the depredations of the Weathermen were sufficient reason for stepping up the activities of the intelligence agencies. Reference is made to the FBI’s long history of black-bag jobs in defence of liberty. The reasoning is specious, since Nixon is really out to justify the existence of the Plumbers, who were not a government agency but a private army. On page 496 he is to be found “keeping the pressure on the people around me . . . to get information about what the other side was doing,” the other side being the Democrats. He admits that he overstepped the mark, but blurs the importance of the mark he overstepped. He was in fact subverting the Constitution of the United States, which is framed not so much for democracy as against the tyrant, and declares that a Presidential party shall not be formed. “At least, unlike previous administrations,” he says on page 781, “we hadn’t used the FBI.” But at least the FBI is to some extent accountable for its actions. Nixon’s personal fact-gathering unit was accountable to nobody—not even, apparently, to Nixon.
Nixon persuasively argues that he knew nothing about the black-bag jobs in detail. There is no good reason to suppose that he did—what use is power if you can’t leave the dirty work to subordinates? But plausibility evaporates when he tries to suggest that his ignorance was genuine rather than wilful. The first unmistakable evasion comes on page 514, when he addresses himself to the matter of the raid on Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. “I do not believe I was told about the break-in at the time.” Why isn’t he certain? How could he forget?
Credibility slips further on page 638, which records the day—June 18, 1972—when Nixon, at ease on Key Biscayne, first hears about the Watergate caper. Haldeman tells Nixon that the FBI will have to go further than Miami if it wishes to trace the cash found on the burglars. Nixon tells us nothing of how he reacted to what Haldeman said. An eloquent silence, because what Haldeman was really saying was that the cash was laundered. Why would Nixon accept that information without question, unless he knew that the White House was bankrolling intelligence operations with funds meant to be untraceable even by government agencies?
For the rest of the book, Nixon gives a convincing impersonation of a man standing on a landslide. As his world collapses, his prose
“If I had indeed been the knowing Watergate conspirator that I was charged as being,” he says on page 902, “I would have recognized in 1973 that the tapes contained conversations that would be fatally damaging.” It ought to be a strong point. Unfortunately Nixon has by this time already made it clear that the main reason he considered himself guiltless was that circumstances had made extraordinary measures legitimate. He had done what he thought necessary with such self-righteousness that the possibility of ever being called to account hadn’t entered his head.
Nixon’s book is one long act of self-justification. To a remarkable degree the attempt succeeds. At the end his enemies are plausibly made to sound hysterical victims of what he calls “liberal chic.” The House Judiciary Committee produced 7,000 pages of evidence against Nixon, but most people now would have trouble being precise about what he did wrong. The media caught Watergate fever. Rumours that he had lined his pockets assumed the status of common knowledge. He almost certainly didn’t. He would never have risked losing the Presidency for the sake of personal enrichment. He lost it because he went on feeling hunted even after he was home and dry.
A House Committee created him and a Senate Committee destroyed him. Under a different system Nixon’s talents might have flourished and his drawbacks been nullified. Men just as devious warm the front benches on either side of the House of Commons. The strangest thing is that none of it was necessary. He could have pulled out of the war straight away. Failing that, he could have resisted the liberal opposition by constitutional means. But to a fatal extent he was still the man he had always been. “The Presidency is not a finishing school,” he says memorably on page 1,078. “It is a magnifying glass.” Judging by his own case, he is only half right. The job did in fact bring out the best in him. But it also magnified the worst. Even as their President, he still felt that the liberals and intellectuals had an unfair advantage. So he tried to preserve his power by extreme means, and if he had not first resigned he would surely have been impeached for it.
The book is well enough done to establish Nixon as a tragic figure and turn the tide of sympathy. It might even put him on the comeback trail. But we ought to keep our heads. The real tragic figures are all in Chile, Vietnam and Cambodia. It is ridiculous to class Nixon with the great villains of modern history, but not so ridiculous to be more angry with him than with them. He should have known better. Nobody sane expects Russia or China to be bound by scruple. The Russians and Chinese, says Nixon—as if their endorsement supported his case—couldn’t understand what the Watergate fuss was all about. Of course they couldn’t. They have forgotten what freedom feels like. A state in which power does not perpetuate itself has become unimaginable to them.
In certain crucial respects Nixon forgot what America is supposed to mean. Yet the virtues of this book prove that in other respects he didn’t. Even now that he has lost everything, he has difficulty seeing himself from the outside. But whatever havoc he might have played with his country’s institutions, in these pages he does not betray its free spirit. The book is like a soap opera, yet the central character emerges as a human being. They were right to throw him down. Here is proof that they were not entirely wrong to raise him up in the first place.
New Statesman, 1978; later included in
From the Land of Shadows, 1982
Time and the archives can make a monkey out of the amateur political commentator. Hiss was guilty. It was a fact written down in Moscow, but until it came to light there was a terrific urge among the liberal-minded all over the world to believe him innocent, simply because his prosecutor had been Nixon. Never an object of love, Nixon’s name, by the time this piece was written, was mud: deep mud, poisoned mud, the mud of the Mekong Delta. As the quondam witch-finder burned in the same fire he himself had once helped to light, the smoke got in the eyes of the spectators. It was a kind of aerosol myopia. Not only must Nixon be guilty of any crime he had ever been accused of, he must be guilty of any crime Caligula had been accused of as well. But for those capable of retaining an historic memory, Stalin’s rap sheet remained all his own. More by instinct than judgement, I left room for the remote possibility that Nixon might have been right about Hiss all along, and that what had been reprehensible about the prosecution had been its methods. They were in transparent violation of the Constitution. People were always ready to think that about anything Nixon had ever done. It was a safe assumption. But they couldn’t have it both ways. If it was Nixon who subverted the American system of justice, then the American system of justice must be worthy of esteem, and, by extension, so must America itself. At a time when the Vietnam disaster was still fresh in the minds of all, it was unfashionable to hold the view that a nation which could get rid of its chief executive on a point of principle might have something fundamentally admirable about it when compared with nations in which the chief executive could get rid of large sections of the population at the stroke of a pen. (The victorious Ho Chi Minh was already engaged in that very activity.) In pursuit of the point, I should have noted that the Supreme Court, though Nixon had done his best to stack it, handed down the decision that finally dished him—the decision that ruled his tapes into evidence. When Gerald Ford said, “Our Constitution works,” he was talking something better than hot air.
And Nixon’s book was something better than casuist apologetics. It gave me a taste for American political memoirs, biographies and professional commentaries that I have pursued ever since: a vast subsidiary literature that can make it very easy to feel like an outsider. I went through all the collected commentaries of Elizabeth Drew as if they were episodes of The West Wing on DVD, and never ceased to marvel at how a journalist could be on such a sure footing with the elected politicians. But once again, the insider pays a penalty. Inexorably infected by glamour and power, the American political pundit is apt to persuade himself that he is part of the government. Walter Lippmann practically was. In 1918 he drafted most of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and as America’s next war approached he personally invented the destroyers-for-bases deal that opened the way for Lend-Lease and Britain’s salvation from Hitler. In Britain there have always been knowledgeable political journalists, but only on the understanding that they could never wield such influence. If they could, they would lose their reputations as writers. (Lippmann’s reputation as a stylist was undeserved, but he was certainly thought of as some kind of writer: the resolute drabness of his prose was taken for distinction.) It’s a different way of thinking about power and reputation, although one must sometimes strive to remind oneself that it is a preferable one. There are many reasons to envy Bob Woodward. His prose style isn’t among them, but it must be a confidence booster to know that your books, before they are even published, are read with nervous attention in the White House, on the Hill, in Foggy Bottom and at Langley. To have attained such a position must help Woodward to bury the nagging awareness of the fluke of fate that sent him to court on the very day the Watergate burglars were drawn up on parade like the Beagle Boys in the Scrooge McDuck comic books. Woodward was just an ordinary reporter, but in America there are few limits set to personal destiny, and eventually, on the way up, he would pass the President on his way down. The piquancy of their intersecting trajectories is lessened if we deny Nixon his status as a man of substance. While he remained alive, that status was still hard to assert. I count myself lucky to have found the nerve, or perhaps r
Matters of Fact and of Fiction:
Essays 1973–1976 by Gore Vidal
Nobody dissents from marking Gore Vidal high as an essayist, not even those—especially not those—who would like to mark him low as a novelist. His Collected Essays 1952–1972 was rightly greeted with all the superlatives going. Since one doesn’t have to read far in this new volume before realizing that the old volume has been fully lived up to and in some respects even surpassed, it becomes necessary either to wheel out the previous superlatives all over again or else to think up some new ones. Rejecting both courses, this reviewer intends to pick nits and make gratuitous observations on the author’s character, in the hope of maintaining some measure of critical independence. Gore Vidal is so dauntingly good at the literary essay that he is likely to arouse in other practitioners an inclination to take up a different line of work. That, however, would be an excessive reaction. He isn’t omniscient, infallible or effortlessly stylish—he just knows a lot, possesses an unusual amount of common sense and writes scrupulously lucid prose. There is no need to deify the man just because he can string a few thoughts together. As I shall now reveal, he has toenails of clay.
Always courageous about unfolding himself, Vidal sometimes overcooks it. He is without false modesty but not beyond poor-mouthing himself to improve a point. “The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of . . .” But wait a minute. It might remain a necessary task to point out that the nuttier film buffs are no more than licensed illiterates: the ability to carry out a semiotic analysis of a Nicholas Ray movie is undoubtedly no compensation for being incapable of parsing a simple sentence. But some of those bad movies were, after all, quite good. Vidal himself had his name writ large on both The Left-Handed Gun and The Best Man, neither of which is likely to be forgotten. It suits his purposes, however, to pretend that he was a dedicated candy-butcher. He wants to be thought of as part of the hardbitten Hollywood that produced the adage: “Shit has its own integrity.”
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