Richard Heller: On the downfall of Nixon, 40 years ago today

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon

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LIKE almost everyone of my generation, I remember where I was when John F Kennedy was killed.

But I can also remember where, 40 years ago today – August, 9 1974 – I heard Richard M Nixon resign the Presidency of the United States.

I was sharing a small flat in London and stayed up until 2am to make certain it would happen.

I was ready to believe anything against Richard Nixon. I was raised in a left-wing American household, forced to leave the United States during the McCarthy era.

I learned to hate and fear Nixon as a McCarthyite red-baiter, corrupt and criminal and a conservative class warrior for America’s powerful élites. (In reality, links to Joe McCarthy and organised crime, and membership of a rich élite were far more characteristic of those wonderful Kennedys).

He re-invented himself as “the new Nixon” during the 1968 election, but his Presidency still made him a demon to liberals and the Left.

His Vice-President, Spiro T Agnew, was a stupid, strident right-winger: fortunately, his corruption was exposed before Nixon’s fall, so that the dim but well-intentioned Gerald Ford inherited the Presidency.

Nixon cut back the Johnson administration’s anti-poverty programmes (in fairness, these were often wasteful).

With his hardline Attorney General, John Mitchell, he tried to halt the pace of civil rights and school desegregation.

His “Southern strategy” of courting white supremacist voters led him to nominate two reactionary Southern judges to the Supreme Court: one was rejected for previous malfeasance, the other for sheer inadequacy.

Above all, having promised a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam war, Nixon escalated the war and extended it to Cambodia, provoking a wave of demonstrations and the deaths of protestors at Kent State University, Ohio and Jackson State University, Mississippi.

The escalation achieved nothing militarily. Cambodia was devastated and ultimately delivered to the murderous Pol Pot regime. American casualties continued to rise: Nixon’s first year in office saw one quarter of the 56,000 American deaths in Vietnam.

When Nixon realised that “the silent majority” of American voters had turned against the war he ordered Henry Kissinger to negotiate in earnest, but also ordered the heaviest bombing of North Vietnam.

He and Kissinger claimed that the escalation enabled the United States to negotiate an honourable end to the war from a position of strength.

But the North Vietnamese secured American withdrawal without modifying their ambition to conquer the whole of Vietnam, which they achieved after Nixon’s fall amid scenes of American ignominy.

Nixon’s left-wing critics received new ammunition from the overthrow, assisted by the CIA, of the Marxist President Allende and the administration’s support for his successors, a repressive military junta which tortured and murdered opponents, including American citizens.

However, Nixon did some important things which confounded his stereotype. Domestically, his administration introduced a wave of major environmental legislation, promoted health and safety for workers and raised the minimum wage, ended the draft and reformed campaign finance (with some irony, given the Watergate revelations about his own re-election methods). His foreign policy embraced détente with the Soviet Union and the first SALT agreement, and, most dramatically, the opening to Communist China.

On the economy, Nixon (leader of the supposedly free-market party) operated a fiercely interventionist policy of price and wage controls. In 1971, he echoed Franklin Roosevelt by devaluing the dollar and wrecking 
the Bretton Woods system which managed international currency movements.

Bretton Woods would almost certainly have been doomed by the oil price shock the following year, but the world economy has never found a replacement: now nations either submit their currencies to volatile global markets or imprisoning them in artificial arrangements such as the euro.

Amid these great events, it seems strange that Nixon was ruined by such a petty matter as the Watergate scandals. They produced much melodrama but no casualties or suffering: ultimately, the only victims were the perpetrators. All of them, including Nixon, were undone by incompetence as much as villainy.

Nixon was probably the most charmless man to become President and this explains the impact of Watergate.

It is instructive to compare him with Bill Clinton, who survived impeachment proceedings largely through his supernatural empathy with the American people.

Likewise Ronald Reagan who faced more serious charges than Nixon in the Iran-Contra affair (clandestine lawbreaking to assist a terrorist group). There was one difference – Reagan was genuinely loved and was virtually unscathed.

Nixon was never loved, but he had enjoyed respect. Watergate destroyed this, and the image of him from the tapes overtook that of a competent, decisive chief executive, which he might have gained from his genuine achievements.

Day after day, Americans saw evidence of a person unfit to be President: paranoid and profane (Nixon suffered more from the repeated euphemism “expletive deleted” than from citation of his actual language), with a third-rate entourage, and above all, total contempt for legality and truth and total refusal to take responsibility for his actions.

Characteristically, when he finally resigned he made no admission of error or failure. Instead, he told Americans that “I no longer have a strong enough political base in Congress.” He entered office as a dark genius and left it as a lying oaf.

• Richard Heller is a former chief of staff to Denis Healey. Born in the United States, he has reported on five American Presidential elections.

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