The flaws of a president who pitied himself: Cal McCrystal looks back on the rise, fall and redemption of Richard M Nixon

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The Independent Online
THE WISE politician does not defend his own importance against the criticism of ephemeral iconoclasts; the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on. By ignoring this rule, Richard Milhous Nixon brought about his own downfall.

Between 1968, the year he was elected US President, and 1974, the year in which the agonies of his office culminated in his political destruction over the Watergate scandal, Nixon's actions confirmed his lack of faith in the wise politician's strategy: stay cool, and, sooner or later, the 'iconoclasts' - anti-Vietnam war activists, black radicals, Congressional snipers, East Coast intellectuals - would begin to blunder, to distrust one another, to fall into discredit and disappear.

Instead, he insisted on parading what he saw as his personal virtues before an increasingly incredulous US public. For this he was mocked, and for his responses to the mockery he was eventually destroyed.

Later, the passage of time, the inevitable revisionism of modern historians, and a sporting inclination to forgive an elderly, disgraced leader, partly restored him to the affections of Americans. His successor, President Ford, pardoned him for his misdeeds. President Clinton - a Democrat - consulted him often on world affairs and welcomed him warmly to the White House.

But for those who actually reported on the Nixon Years, as I did from 1968 to 1974, it is still hard to overlook the deep flaws of the man once taunted as 'tricky Dicky'. His ruthlessness in pursuit of power seemed to overcome his concern for the people who granted it to him, and his bad grace was painfully visible when they removed it.

He was a sentimental man, and often genuinely so. The final paragraph of his autobiographical Six Crises, published in 1962, is particularly tender: 'For me, the evening of my life has not yet come. But for the boy who, 40 years ago, used to lie in bed in Yorba Linda, California, and dream of travelling to far-off places when he heard the train whistle in the night, I can say now that the day has indeed been splendid.'

Yorba Linda, south-east of Los Angeles, was a small community of a few hundred people when Nixon was born there on 9 January 1913, one of five sons to a poor Quaker family.

He became a lawyer in 1937, marrying in the same year Patricia Ryan, who was to bear his two daughters, Patricia and Julie. His wife died last year. Five years later he got a job in Washington, interrupted by his Second World War service as an aviation ground officer with the US Navy in the Pacific.

The war over, he began to eye the national political scene, which his father, Frank, often said was infested with 'crooked lawyers'. But far-off places beckoned. The train was whistling. Nixon jumped aboard.

In his first Congressional campaign in 1946, he quickly exploited his country's anti- Communist paranoia. The young Republican candidate talked about 'lip-service Americans' and claimed Moscow was trying to influence voters on behalf of his opponent. He won.

Three years later, as a member of the House Un- American Activities Committee, he made a name for himself by preparing the ground for the conviction of a US diplomat, Alger Hiss, for lying about giving secret documents to the Soviet Union. In 1950, running for the Senate, he described his opponent as being soft on Communism - and again won.

He did not invent the 'Red' smear tactic - it was part of US political rhetoric long before he left Yorba Linda - but he used it to powerful effect, seeming to pour into it all the passion and emotion bottled up inside a small-town lawyer. He interrogated Hiss, for example, with the zeal of a medieval witch-hunter. With the spread of McCarthyism, extremists flocked to him ('Help Richard Nixon get rid of the Jew-Communists'). Cartoonists discovered a man dark of jowl and purpose.

At times, Nixon appeared to relish the heat and hazard of vituperation. In Six Crises, he wrote that crisis could be an 'exquisite agony' and a 'cherished memory'. One of his crises concerned a 'secret fund' for his personal use, created by a group of Californian businessmen. Nixon responded by using television as no other politician had done. His bizarre 'Checkers speech' was delivered to the nation in the middle of his 1952 campaign to be Dwight Eisenhower's vice-president. Like many speeches to follow, it defied parody. In it he introduced Checkers - the Nixons' cocker spaniel; his wife's 'Republican cloth coat'; his war record; and an emotional (though as it turned out, hardly prescient) declaration that the Nixons 'are not quitters'.

Pathos enters his descriptions of his other crises: Eisenhower's 1955 heart attack; his own violent reception by anti- American mobs in Caracas in 1958; his confrontation with Khruschev a year later; his vain bid against J F Kennedy for the presidency in 1960. Pathos was a quality entirely appropriate to a man beset by powerful paradoxes; who in one breath could quote Balzac's remark that politicians are 'monsters of self- possession', and in the next confess that it was all a veneer covering 'almost unbearable turmoil'.

In private, the turmoil produced insomnia and heavy drinking. In public, it would surface as a bead of sweat on the upper lip or in words of self- pity. When he failed to be elected Governor of California in 1962, he told reporters they would no longer have Dick Nixon 'to kick around any more'.

But they continued to kick him around. Pledging 'an open administration' on being elected President in 1968, he immediately began bugging his political enemies - and even some friends, as the White House tapes revealed in the Senate's Watergate hearings. Within three years, the American historian Henry Steele Commager could write: 'For the first time in our history we have an administration that lies systematically and almost automatically . . . No other administration in our history has practised deception, duplicity, chicanery and mendacity as has the Nixon administration.'

Even without Watergate - the White House conspiracy to break into Democratic Party headquarters in Washington and steal that party's campaign plans for the 1972 presidential election (which Nixon won, anyway, by a landslide) - these are not unreasonable charges. The birth of Creep (Citizens' Committee for the Re-Election of the President) injected a massive dose of poison into the electoral process and made 1972 the most corrupt election in US history.

'I don't want a Cabinet of yes-men,' he had told Americans as he paraded his first Cabinet on television in 1969. But that was precisely what he got. His domestic aide, John Ehrlichman, said of Nixon's appointees: 'When we say 'jump' they will only ask, 'how high?' '

Secrecy and paranoia reduced the number of presidential press conferences. Appointments to public office, particularly embassies, during the Nixon years were sold for contributions to Republican coffers to a higher degree than in previous administrations. One man was given a refund of his secret dollars 250,000 contribution when the State Department prevailed upon Nixon not to send him as ambassador to Madrid as promised. These things were not nice, but, as Nixon was fond of saying, 'Nice guys don't win ballgames.'

Post-Nixon administrations have done little to convince Americans that Washington cares more for truth than for power or business. And because we know more about the regimes both after and before Nixon - Irangate under Reagan, the sexual escapades of Kennedy - we may view Nixon's activities with less disfavour than they found at the time.

In foreign affairs, he sometimes showed a surer hand. In 1972, the year before the Vietnam ceasefire was signed in Paris, he went to Peking to shake hands with Chou En-lai, symbolically ending 20 years of hostility between China and the US. The old Red-baiting 'Middle-American' became the first US President to visit Communist China, as part of a foreign policy that sought to redefine the US's international role, with the intention of persuading the Kremlin to enter into 'constructive relations' by creating a complex network of incentives and penalties. The incentives included expanded trade, arms-control negotiations and recognition of the USSR as a superpower. The penalties included the US's developing relationship with China - and continued efforts at deterrence and containment when the Soviet Union failed to restrain itself in the Third World.

Yet, for various domestic and international reasons, Nixon's effort to forge a post-Vietnam foreign-policy consensus around the concept of detente was ultimately to founder. In an attempt to end US involvement in Vietnam, Nixon had no compunction about starting another conflict. And so, in violation of his country's constitution and international law, he launched a secret war against Cambodia which ended with the establishment of a brutal, closed, Communist society and the massacre of two million Cambodians.

The foreign-policy failures are generally attributed to the Watergate scandal. The President's energies and political resources were increasingly concentrated on a futile effort to stay in office. By then, his claim to have ended the Cold War was dismissed as naivety, or hyperbole. Later, however, when he had retreated ignominiously into private life, it was widely acknowledged that Nixon's foreign policy had fallen victim to the narrow construction Moscow had placed on detente: that is, as a relationship not intended to hamper support for 'wars of national liberation' and other Soviet adventures in the Third World.

At home, he was thwarted, partly by American journalism's rediscovery of muckraking, but partly also by his own ambition to control the bureaucracy as a means of taking on a hostile Congress. He made unprecedented changes in the appointment of officials and in the assignment of their duties. The President's men, trusted lieutenants without national reputations of their own, were put in direct charge of the major programme bureaucracies of domestic government.

In the end, he came to realise they did not serve him well. He also came to realise that the Yorba Linda dream was breaking up. 'We have no discipline in this country,' his voice can be heard growling on the White House tapes, unearthed by Watergate investigators. 'We never fire anybody. We never reprimand anybody. We never demote anybody. We always promote the sons-of- bitches that kick us in the ass.'

Those who knew Nixon well (his secretaries and close non- political friends) have testified to the deep hurt he felt by what people were saying about him during the Watergate cover-up. One night he ventured out of the White House, unannounced, to chat to a small crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. 'When we examine the American Presidents,' he told them, 'it is quite clear that no President in history has been more vilified or was more vilified during the time he was President than Lincoln.'

Shortly afterwards, he was hounded from office, claiming: 'I am not a crook]' In the light of what was to follow, Nixon probably revised his vilification league of Presidents - just as history is now revising its judgement of him.

(Photographs omitted)