Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Nixon and his successors: rememberance of things past, anticipation of things to come

Little incidents can bring buried memories flooding back, so that a distant moment is suddenly with you again as though you were living it now.

For Proust, it was the taste of a Madeleine cake conjuring up his childhood.

For me, this weekend, it was seeing the latest releases of extracts from the Nixon tapes. Suddenly, I was back in a New York street, in fine rain, the street lights glistening on the wet pavements, in front of a shop window with a poster whose evocative message had stopped me in mid-stride.

Tricky Dicky: man of confidence or confidence man?
Oh, for those long-lost days when the United States had a President who was clearly not a man forced into politics only because he couldn’t make a success of any other career. With his wits and ethics, Tricky Dicky Nixon could have flourished in many other walks of life. Say, as a market trader.

Doesn’t it warm the cockles of the heart to remember those glorious aphorisms of his such as ‘When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal’?

What’s been coming out now? It seems that ‘…the Irish can’t drink … Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.’ The Italians: ‘those people … don’t have their heads screwed on tight.’ And as for the Jews, they ‘are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.’ Don’t limit your amazement to the sentiment, let yourself go in wonder at his command of the English language too.

As for Blacks, he commented on the view expressed by a colleague that ‘they are coming along, and that after all they are going to strengthen our country in the end because they are strong physically and some of them are smart’. ‘Some of them are smart’ and ‘they are coming along’ were, it seems, judgements that were just a little too generous. ‘My own view is I think he’s right if you’re talking in terms of 500 years. I think it’s wrong if you’re talking in terms of 50 years. What has to happen is they have be, frankly, inbred.’ Ah, yes, a little breeding is what these people need. Presumably to turn them into shining examples of humanity such as the Nixon product itself. And don’t you just admire the prescience? I mean, he was speaking over three decades before the election of Obama.

I noticed that USA Today reacted with something less than enthusiasm to one of Nixon’s utterances. Talking about the prospects of Ronald Reagan occupying the Oval Office, he had said ‘Good God, can you imagine – can you really imagine – him sitting here?’ And he added ‘I can imagine anyone ... but Reagan.’

The paper seemed to feel that Nixon had revealed a character flaw (even the finest have them) in misjudging this great man who would indeed eventually follow him into the White House.

Reagan had his own magnificent quotations. Faced with student unrest at Berkeley, he showed his resolution: ‘If it's to be a bloodbath, let it be now. Appeasement is not the answer.’ Later, he denied that he had called for a bloodbath. He’d probably forgotten he’d said it. His was another of those times that conjure up feelings of nostalgia, in his case for a President with the gifts that come from incipient Alzheimer’s.

Since then the same Grand Old Party has thrown up two George Bushes to teach us to rate Reagan more highly.

But it isn’t nostalgia that is my main emotion today, it’s that delightful tingle that anticipation of the future gives. Could the Republicans be about to serve us up another White House occupant to make even Dubya look good?

Remind yourself of gems such as:

“Refudiate,” “misunderestimate,” “wee-wee’d up.” English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!’

Isn’t that worthy of Nixon at his best?

And what about:

... obviously, we've got to stand with our North Korean allies.

The command of foreign policy and sensitivity to its nuances is deeply reminiscent of Reagan, isn’t it? For instance, in his famous statement into a live mike:

My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.

Who’d have thought anyone could make us look back on Reagan and Dubya as men to miss? And to feel that Tricky Dicky, deceitful, racist and convinced he was above the law, represented something of a golden age?

Yep. Get ready to enjoy the Sarah Palin show.

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