It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he’s gone, I feel lonely. He was a giant in his way. As long as Nixon was politically alive — and he was, all the way to the end — we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.
That was Nixon’s style — and if you forgot, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don’t fight fair, bubba. That’s why God made dachshunds.
The above quote is from Hunter S. Thompson (see: previous) in his 1994 obituary of the 37th President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. So much for all that ‘do not speak ill of the dead’ nonsense. After all, the only way one learns anything useful from history is by approaching its events and personages with total honesty, certainly not by applying a soft lacquer to the portrait of an abominable visage.
Even though Nixon resigned in disgrace nearly forty-three years and seven completed Presidencies removed from the present he has re-emerged like yet another re-imagining of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster or Godzilla. Same sort of reactions too, with the slight difference being that while the villagers still flee in panic, now they gather and show strength not with pitchforks and flaming torches, rather with mobile phones and angry tweets. We march together beneath the banner of Emoji Poo!
I certainly do not have to tell you why Nixon is relevant again, not if you have been even slightly observant of the recent, growing and true fear and loathing going on in the United States these recent weeks. Donald John Trump is President and that is a reality that makes Dracula seem in comparison a tiny mosquito, dismissible with a firm swat.
Three times in the past twenty-four hours I have heard or read the same quoted phrase – once on BBC News, once on Newsnight and once (naturally) on Twitter – ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’ All three were making the Nixon-Trump comparison. The quote itself is of slightly shaky origin. It is generally attributed to Mark Twain however it does not appear in print until a 1970 poem by John Robert Colombo, who himself says he thought he read it in a book somewhere. Well, artistic licence and all that, let’s move on. We have far greater crimes to discuss than the mere misdemeanour of a poet pulling a snappy observation from the lips of long-deceased writers. Besides, if Twain didn’t say it, he bloody well should have.
At the nut of it, is the comparison valid? How Nixonian is Trump, how short-fingered vulgarian was the man who became known as ‘the Ghost of San Clemente’? I believe that the questions are worth the examination. (I bloody well better believe that or I’m completely wasting an otherwise lovely day writing this.)
There are not many honest reasons for feeling glad of the fact of having lived a half a century, however having a vivid personal memory of Nixon and Watergate is one of mine. No book or poem about war can hold a candle to the vivid, horrible sights re-lived in the nightmares of any infantryman. Similarly, watching the ugliest of all stripteases, witnessing the unraveling of Nixon’s crimes over months and months of televised hearings bore a suspense and slow shock ending in a great puff of relief that goes far, far beyond a handful of paragraphs or pages recapping it all. I was a Watergate addict.
I raced home from school almost every day that I had not otherwise feigned a horrible illness in order to watch the US Senate Committee hearings charged with investigating a botched break-in at the Watergate Hotel and office complex. Nixon had ordered a burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters on June 17, 1972 in order to find any material possibly damaging to the Presidential campaign of Senator George McGovern. Yes, the same George McGovern who Nixon would absolutely crush in the November election of that year; the whole damn thing was completely unnecessary.
Mind you, Nixon did not know at the time it was unnecessary, although he should have. What he did know, and on this he was absolutely correct, is that while the American people may have voted for him in 1968 – based on a pledge to end the Vietnam War and restore ‘law and order’ against all those unruly, seditious hippies out there – they did not like him very much; certainly did not love him as they had the two assassinated Kennedy brothers, John and Robert.
There had been a whiff of dodgy criminality about Nixon right from the start, like a cheap and lingering aftershave. General and later President Dwight Eisenhower came very close to dropping Nixon as his Vice-Presidential running mate on the 1952 Republican Party Presidential ticket because it came to light that Nixon had accepted some $16,000 in money from contributors to help pay for office expenses. (I know, it all seems so quaint in retrospect.) Nixon made a nationally televised address on September 23, 1952 where Eisenhower expected his running mate to close his remarks with a graceful resignation. He didn’t. Instead the man who would be nicknamed Tricky Dick after suitable apologies and vows to do no wrong (the donations were not technically illegal, just shady) mentioned that he had also been given a cute little puppy named Checkers that his two daughters loved, and “we’re gonna keep him.” Oh yes, that cloying tactic worked and don’t kid yourself into thinking it wouldn’t work just as well today. The public loved it, he stayed on the ticket, and served two full terms as Vice-President.
That, by the way, is the biggest problem in writing about Nixon or Trump, let alone the two together. Perhaps not literally but it’s very close to that, one can examine any event in either man’s life and if you puff off a bit of dust there’s another scandal to be told. So, we must condense quite a bit.
The nexus of a Nixon-Trump comparison is the point where the two men’s psyches meet and diverge, a magnetic repellent force, or more colourfully a snake eating its own tail. Now, there is something called the Goldwater Doctrine (look it up for yourselves or we really are going to be here from now until St Swithin’s Day) which states that no one should psychoanalyze someone else from a distance. To this I say nonsense, we do it every day. Oh, we may not be right all the time, but we do it regardless. Tell me you haven’t surmised a friend’s mood (or state of inebriation) from their Facebook posts or tweets and I’ll be left to judge whether you are simply naive or a bald-faced liar; two qualities I coincidentally ascribe to Donald J. Trump.
Both Nixon and Trump knew or know that they were or are disliked by the vast majority of the wise and artful; both knew or know that they are mostly admired by the (often accurately) great unwashed who they would as soon drive a limousine over as welcome into their homes. Nixon had been born poor, Trump the opposite yet they came to that meeting point, the nexus from those opposite directions. Each man had a horror of their true selves being exposed as that would lead to defeat.
I have written about Nixon’s close shave in 1952. He also lost the 1960 Presidential election to the more polished and handsome JohnF. Kennedy, and the 1962 California gubernatorial election to an old-time glad-hander named Edmund Brown, father of the current California Governor Jerry Brown. After the latter defeat, Nixon famously and falsely promised retirement from political life, saying ‘You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.’
Trump too has whiffed the stench of defeat. Two failed marriages, multiple bankruptcies, and frequent appearances as a laughingstock in gossip columns, comedian’s monologues and satiric publications. As such, I charge – and this is the crucial thing – I truly believe that Trump knows he is a fraud. Nixon believed he was better than the common perception; Trump does not.
Disagree? Well look here, let me ask you this, have you ever bluffed knowledge? Whether it is in a business presentation or a pub quiz, when questioned by a teacher or a first date, have you ever worn the mask of the smart in order to get past the moment and on to the next that might hold more favourable ground? It’s okay, don’t cry, we’ve all done it. But! You knew you were bluffing. Or you’re a psychopath, but let’s not go there. Yet.
Both Nixon and Trump were or will be accused of similar crimes: obstruction of justice, misuse of campaign funds, and willfully maintaining a White House Staff and Cabinet Members who in turn committed criminal acts. (I suppose I am supposed to say allegedly. Very well then abracadabra, er, allegedly.) And yet, as we start to come to a conclusion, the two are different.
For all his smearing of the Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, his back-channel destruction of the Paris Peace Talks leading into the 1968 election, for his Enemies List and his sneering of the ‘East Coast liberal elite’, there was some good in Nixon. He actually had ideas. Included in them were the Clean Air Act, various Consumer Protection laws, the easing of tensions with China and others. Nixon’s was an intelligence gone astray due to paranoia.
Trump? As Gertrude Stein said of the city of Oakland, ‘there’s no there, there.’ A good friend of mine back in Canada, the author Jules Carlysle compiled in November of 2016 a collection of Trump’s strange and stupid remarks into a book titled Dumbass Too. I really must chat again and soon with Jules as she must be adding chapters daily. Whether it be suggesting that President Andrew Jackson (a slave owner and white supremacist) would have staved off the Civil War, a war which began sixteen years after Jackson’s death; or claiming he invented the term ‘priming the pump’; or not knowing what the nuclear triad is, Trump is monumentally, breathtakingly ignorant. Even firing the Director of the FBI, James Comey, on Tuesday and then the very next day, the very next day!, inviting in Russian officials and that Watergate-era survivor Henry Kissinger into the Oval Office is … well really, is there a stronger word than stupid that any of you can come up with?
Weakness and power should never mix. All our worst historical tragedies bear in common what the late historian Barbara Tuchman termed The March of Folly. One’s hopes for the near future rest on two suppositions. One, is that just as the White House staff lifted the nuclear codes away from a drunken and broken Nixon lest he do the unimaginable in a final gasp of power demonstration we must hope that the US military will, or has already, done the same. The second is that even the subservient and craven Senators and Congressmen in the Republican Party will sense their own dooms if they continue to support Trump and will move for a quick impeachment. For Trump will never sense his own doom and admit his failure and incompetence. He is too much the coward, too little the man, so there is the bluffer with no cards in his hand.
Be seeing you.