Nixon was there, seemingly, from the start of my political consciousness. I have a dim memory from the Fifties of his stepping into the breach when President Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack. There was the televised slanging match with Khrushchev in front of a display of US-made appliances at a Moscow trade show, in which Nixon extolled the most materialistic virtues of US life. Most vivid, though, is my recollection of the 1960 presidential election, when Nixon stood against my candidate, John Kennedy.
His physiognomy didn't help, I confess. To a teenage political neophyte, that famous five-o'clock shadow he wore in the debates with Kennedy made him look very sinister. It was then that I first saw the devastating Herblock political cartoon showing a swarthy Nixon in an automobile showroom with the caption: 'Would you buy a used car from this man?'
Nixon lost that election, of course; but we had got to know him. To know, in particular, that cringe-making, self-pitying tone he was capable of: in the Fifties 'Checker's speech', when he told the nation that his wife Pat had only 'a plain Republican cloth coat'; and then in the early Sixties when, after losing the California gubernatorial election, he assured the press they wouldn't have Nixon 'to kick around any more'.
All this, however, was just the prologue to Vietnam. From 1969, to our astonishment (I didn't know a soul who had voted for him), we had Nixon in the White House, escalating the war he had promised to end; worrying about the US (ie, himself) being seen as a 'pitiful, helpless giant'; and trying to engage a knot of students protesting at the Lincoln Memorial against the widening of the war to Cambodia, in conversation about college football. We felt we were in an incomprehensible national nightmare, in which Nixon headed the dark forces that wanted to send our generation to kill and be killed in the jungles of south-east Asia.
Watergate came as a relief. Now the rest of the nation could share our contempt for a man whose pathological paranoia led him to keep 'enemies lists' for the tax man and 'plumbers' to steal his opponents' secrets, and to issue 'inoperative' statements to cover-up his sleazy administration's corrupt activities. We watched Nixon's downfall with a complacent pleasure that was marred only by Gerald Ford's pre-emptive pardon.
I thought my hatred would have cooled by now. But in the past day or two, the many panegyrics to his career have brought some of my former, 'alternative society' self to the surface. Even when the silliness of the Sixties is swept away, I still believe we were right to oppose Nixon's failure to honour his election promise to withdraw from Vietnam, and right to reject his mean-sprited and cold-hearted ways of fighting political battles. I wish Bill Clinton would be true to his Sixties self and boycott the state funeral of a man whose career disgraced the nation that made him its president.Reuse content