Nixonland

With another impeachment in prospect, I have had my nose in Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s highly readable account of the 37th president’s life and times through his landslide reelection in 1972. It is a reminder that, climate change, Donald Trump and the eruption of populism notwithstanding, we live now in relatively halcyon times.

I still have a trophy from my blooding as a journalist — a CS gas canister I scored covering the Republican convention at which Richard Nixon was nominated for his second term. The late Connie Lawn, for many years the voice of America for morning drive time listeners in SA, had lent me one of her clients, a chain of radio stations on the New Jersey shore.

Never since have conventions, Republican or Democratic, been as vivid, and that was a pretty tame one for the time, there being no doubt about the outcome. Street battles apart, the big news, a scoop for the BBC’s legendary Charles Wheeler, father of Boris Johnson’s soon-to-be ex, was that the whole shebang inside the hall was entirely scripted for TV. A novelty then. Wheeler, chief of the Beeb’s Washington bureau, so loathed Nixon that he spoke of demanding reassignment if the man was reelected.

We wring our hands these days about the polarization of American politics as if there was some golden past in which everyone linked arms and sang kumbaya. We forget that fifty years ago this country was ripping itself apart even as it was doing amazing things like landing a man on the moon.

The baby boom generation, today seen as a blight on the planet, was busy baffling and enraging its parents, getting high and laid to the accompaniment of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, and being obstreperous about the monstrously stupid war in Viet Nam.

It wasn’t all flower power and bell bottoms. The universities were on fire. At Kent State in Ohio, students were mown down by the National Guard. Weathermen and other home grown terrorists were blowing people up. Martin Luther King’s dream talk had been supplanted by ostentatiously armed Black Panthers threatening to kill whitey. Well-intentioned efforts to desegregate public schools by busing white pupils to non-white neighbourhoods brought out the inner Klansman in countless northerners.

Prophecies of doom abounded. The Population Bomb, a smash best seller by Stanford professor Paul Erlich, predicted cataclysmic global famine within a decade of so. Pollution, pollution, sang satirist Tom Lehrer, wear a gas mask and a veil, then you can breathe long as you don’t inhale.

Enter Nixon, a man from a hardscrabble background who had long since traded his soul to wreak revenge on the Ivy League bastards who constantly slighted him for not being one of them. His seething inner demons and skill in channelling them to political advantage made him useful to President Eisehhower whom he served as vice, acting as the general’s heavy much as Essop Pahad did for Thabo Mbeki.

Nixon was a smoother liar than Donald Trump but no less driven by resentment and like Trump he played on and fueled the fear and rage of what he dubbed the Silent Majority. His politics, like Trump’s, were unmoored to any principle other than the need to win and do down his enemies, not least the press.

Milton Friedman loved him until, having failed to bully his Federal Reserve chairman into keeping interests low amid rising inflation, and hoping to steady the economy ahead of his reelection bid, he imposed wage and price controls. Not that absence of principle is always incompatible with statesmanship. His fellow Republicans were flabbergasted by his opening to Mao’s China but it did wonders for him in the polls, helping him win every state but one in November 1972.

Pray that Trump doesn’t pull off an equivalent coup.

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