The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Memories of Dickie

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The Independent Online
WHEN I began writing my major new tome, Richard Nixon: Husband to Pat, Father to a Nation (Weidenfeld, pounds 25), I was well aware that the media (dread word]) remained hell-bent on indulging in the vilification of this most honourable of men. This made me more than ever determined to paint an accurate pen-portrait of the Nixon I knew - patriot, family man, wine-lover, Morris dancer - many miles removed from the ruthless monster of popular imagination.

I had first met Richard Milhous Nixon in 1978, a full four years after he had resigned from office under something of a cloud. We had invited him for a private discussion with the Conservative Philosophy Group, a select gathering of like-minded academics, politicians and editors who met from time to time for a lively debate of like-minded opinions.

Throughout that historic meeting, we were impressed by the ex-President's dazzling mastery of foreign affairs. He spoke with great courtesy. 'It's nice to be here in . . .' (at this point he took only the most cursory of glances at his prepared notes) '. . . England,' and we awarded this display of international expertise with rapt applause.

He then embarked on a tour d'horizon of foreign policy developments, leaving us all quite literally flabbergasted at the breadth of his knowledge. 'China,' he reminded us, 'is one helluva big country. Full of one helluva lot of people. And who are they? Mainly Chinese.'

At this point, my old friend and quaffing partner, the distinguished columnist Peregrine Worsthorne, chipped in: 'And Japan, that's very much the same, would you agree?'

'To some extent, but not entirely,' replied Nixon, with the greatest courtesy. 'You see, Japan is, comparatively speaking, a small country, with rather fewer people. An interesting point, nevertheless, Mr Horne.'

'Quite, quite,' replied Perry, 'but the point I was making is that Japan is also populated largely by Chinese.'

'To some extent,' replied Nixon, 'but mainly by Japanese, to be absolutely frank with you.'

'My point entirely,' exclaimed Perry, obviously delighted that he and Mr Nixon should be seeing eye-to-eye. Needless to say, we were all stunned by Mr Nixon's bravura display of international know-how. In the question-andanswer session that followed, he was able to tell us the name of the longest river in Africa, how glaciers are formed, the capital of Canada and the rough whereabouts of New Zealand, brain-teasers compiled by my young confrere Mr Jonathan Aitken.

Three years later, in June 1981, at Mr Nixon's behest, I was to arrange an intimate dinner party at the Dorchester. Mr Nixon had requested beforehand that, aside from the most distinguished parliamentarians of the day, the cream of sympathetic intellectuals and influential columnists should be invited. From all over the nation, the great and the good turned up to pay homage, so that eventually we were forced to change our booking from four people to six, after last-minute acceptances from Lord Kagan and the self-styled Bishop of Medway, with Messrs Worsthorne and Aitken in charge of drinks, 'nibbles' and so forth.

Mr Nixon proved himself a most civilised dining companion, and something, I might add, of a wine buff. 'This is white wine, am I right?' he said, taking a sip. 'A good 50 per cent entirely accurate, Mr Ex-President]' I confirmed, leading a ripple of appreciative applause while topping up his claret.

Over coffee Mr Nixon stunned us with his insight into world politics. 'I always say that every clock must tick before it tocks. Furthermore, no alarm will ever ring without a bell.'

'A penetrating insight into foreign affairs,' I nodded sagely.

'Who said anything about international affairs?' replied Mr Nixon. 'I was talking about my goddamned alarm clock.'

'A most apposite metaphor none the less]' I said, and as Peregrine rounded off the evening with his celebrated rendition of 'My Way', we all sensed that the rehabilitation of Richard M Nixon had been launched with aplomb.