Innocent Bystander: Sick of Dick

Though he may have abdicated his regal seat by the time you read this, the resignation of Richard Nixon will not invalidate the force of this confession the first. I believe. to be made by a plain citizen who is simply satiated with the continuing bungled nonfeasance of a man who was perfectly clearly not cut out to be president of anything larger than a used-car lot.

But let me enter a few demurrers. First, in spite of my bet-hedging supra, I don’t think it a bit likely that Mr. Nixon will have stepped down by mid-March: it’s not in character. Second, I’ll counter the charge of kicking a man when he’s down by reminding you that our President pro tem thrives, by his own admission, on opposition and adversity (see Six Crises and his repeated self-assertions of poise, coolness. and toughness during the last year). Third, I wish to point out that my pique is prompted not so much by anger at the man himself as bv sorrow over his inadequacy to fulfill the obligations of the high offices he has held.

Very well. then. I have had it. After twenty-eight years of following his Checkered career—of being confronted alternately with the Sweet Nixon (almost any formal public appearance or television address) and the Sour, or Real. Nixon (the post-’62-election California press conference, et seq., et seq.), I am fed up to here, and possibly beyond, with the burden of lugging the continued knowledge (and fear) of his ineptness around at all hours of the day and evening. It is very little consolation to have been vindicated in my early and frequent dislike and suspicion of the man; that’s a bit like seeing your prediction of a stock market crash come true while your life’s savings go down the drain.

Nonetheless, I am prompted to report at this late hour on my longrunning hate affair with Richard Nixon—an affair that began as a cloud no bigger than a congressman’s hand in 1946 and has now grown to overspread the earth and cast darkness on all things within my ken.

The feeling is a little like the one I remember having during World War II: of walking a long, weary, frustrating road which had no turning, and over whose length I had no control. Put shortly, then, I am feeling both angered and swindled by having The Ordeal of Richard Nixon visited, willy-nilly, on nearly thirty years of my young life.

The central fault. I think, is not in ourselves but in our stars: Nixon’s radical inability to fit and suit his time stems from the fact that he is an anachronism. Consider his advent: into an America that had been awakened to internationalism by its second global war. an America that had voted, under the New Deal, to be permissive to and supportive of its people, stepped a Horatio Alger caricature: a self-made man of the 1890s. say, big on the Protestant Ethic, self-reliance, and free enterprise, rough on Red Menaces, parlor pinkos, and assorted leftish rats, roughest, of course, on those omnipresent C-c-communists.

From the beginning, Nixon was a flat-earther. a proponent of ideas and interests the nation at large had thought to be outworn. He was a spokesman, in a sense, for the previous generation—or maybe the generation before that. His subsequent career proved, if it proved nothing else, that there were (and are) still large pockets of people who cleave to the old ideas, and whom progress has passed by. Orange County, in short, is reduplicated all over America. but it took Richard Nixon to bring it out in voting force.

Now it is neither shameful nor evil (though it may be misguided) to make a forthright, honorable appeal to the holders of the old values and virtues in this country; Barry Goldwater, who has made a career of such an appeal, has only gained in stature as the years have whitened his amiable brows. But it was the genius of Richard Nixon to wed the conservative appeal to the modern scare techniques of advertising: to entice the insecure into his camp—and thereby ditch his enemies by a not-so-subtle application of fear.

From the first, he settled on the Red Menace as the principal weapon in his arsenal. Nothing original about that, but there was originality (for which, of course, he must share credit with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy) in his inventive extensions of and elaborations on the Red idea.

This strategy first bore fruit in his successful—and infamously memorable—campaigns against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas. in both of which he imputed irresponsible leftism to his foes. This strain was continued, though in a muted, legalistic way, in his again successful prosecution of Alger Hiss; it burst out again in its full glory during his 1952 campaign for the vice presidency. But then, for the first time, a discordant note was struck; in a comic prelude to the later dirge of Watergate, Nixon’s personal finances came into question, and, for the first of many times, he took to television to vindicate himself with the marvelously mealymouthed Checkers speech. It worked, not least on doubtful Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, seeing public opinion veering back in favor of his running mate, re-embraced Nixon and carried on with his campaign.

During his two terms as Vice President. Nixon was not. presumably by his President’s wish, abundantly evident, though the Sweet Nixon made hay in Venezuela, where he contrived to be stoned by reputed Communists, and in Moscow, where he inveigled Khrushchev into the slightly ludicrous, but politically useful, kitchen debate.

The Sour Nixon was not far behind: he resurfaced in his own 1960 presidential campaign, in the course of which he grew increasingly dark, dour, and brusque as it became apparent that his opponent was outpacing him. Sourness shone out again in that famous California press conference, when the defeated candidate turned on his supposed oppressors and enunciated a new issue: the press against Nixon.

Then, eclipse. The Kennedy years and the early Johnson ones began to move the country forward again along the lines laid down by Roosevelt and Truman: after the pallid quiescence of Eisenhower’s two lassitudinous terms, the tempo of social action increased. Under Kennedy it was mostly heat and light; under Johnson, at least before Vietnam became a running sore in the integument of America, there was real power and motion toward the much-mocked Great Society. Nixon almost invisibly moved to New York to practice law; the eyes of the people were elsewhere occupied.

Until. Until the Democratic Party split into bitter factions and emerged from Chicago in disarray, and Nixon saw and secured his chance for the nomination and the presidencyin 1968. Then was a new, still sweeter Nixon unveiled by Roger Ailes and a corps of packagers: the firm and statesmanlike leader, the courteous answerer—on television, naturally—of seemingly tough questions posed by a seemingly random sample of seemingly ordinary Americans. It was no great trick for this newest of Nixons to nose out the tiredly garrulous Humphrey, who had to suffer silently and smilinglythe burden of Johnson’s Vietnam policies, of which he was all too unarguably the heir apparent.

Nixon in office: a fanfare of pomps, a paradiddle of early executive pretensions, including the Ruritanian uniforms of the White House police. A clear and growing rightward drift on civil rights, on law and order, on Vietnam (and Laos. and Cambodia). An attitude of laissez-faire toward the economy, corrected, too lightly and too late, by the halfhearted imposition (and early relaxation) of economic controls. A short way with critics, especially the ladies and gentlemen of the press, leading to an ambitious campaign, quarterbacked by the unfortunate and now hoist Spiro Agnew, against the credibility of the media.

And then the PR masterstrokes: the triumphal progresses through China and Russia, the sudden vision of a generation of peaceful coexistence with those erstwhile Commie rats, our giant allies to east and west.

And then the noncampaign of 1972: a silent, monolithic working President, not given to stump speeches, against an outgunned, illstarred liberal whose humanitarian propositions had not been markettested. And then victory, the landslide of landslides, conferring, for the first time, a genuine stamp of popularity upon the President.

And then, conveniently after the election but most inconveniently for his place in the presidential pantheon of history, Watergate and all its writhing sequels. Shame! Grief! Mortification! Woe! Embarrassment! Richard M. Nixon, at the very height of his semi-imperial majesty, was struck from the dais at one blow and left struggling on the ground, entangled in the voluminous folds of his cohorts’ sly intrigues. And perhapsbut will we ever know? his own. At any rate, this was the all-newest of the new, new Nixons, and the all-sourest: the quiet, dog-tired, squinting face, alternately growling and whispering out of the television screen, alternately explaining, denying, and pleading for a renewal of our faith. Which was not to be. For the tiny cloud of questions that arose from the burglary of June 17. 1972. had multiplied into an armada of unanswered queries about every aspect of the Nixon presidency.

Soon the cohorts began to fall in droves. Haldeman and Ehrlichman. followed by a host of lesser fry, retired from office and took up new positions at the bar of justice. Then Agnew. caught in an isolated, prior peculation, took a great fall of his own and left the beleaguered President sidekickless. Nixon was seen to smart and waver under the onslaught of his hostile questioners; the soft answer that turneth away wrath sometimes became a taunt.

The newly inoperative Ron Ziegler got pushed by the presidential digit. And an innocent Air Force sergeant got slapped, or patted, depending on which version you read. The fat was in the fire, all right, and nobody knew if the President would still occupy his Oval Office on January 19, 1977.

Finally though the last act may not have happened set -the whole story degenerated into what would, if the presidency of the United States were not such a gravely consequential office, seem like pure slapstick farce: the disclosure of the existence of the tapes, their withholding. their surrender, and, along the way, the sudden Saturday Night Massacre which plunged Nixon’s already stained and tattered credibility into a bath of ink. Then can there be more, one laughs and cries? the gallows humor of the eighteen-minute gap in the key tape, and all its public repercussions.

And still they come, the improprieties. the anguished cries of rectitude from the impugned President, the bungled attempts like Operation Candor to retrieve the irretrievable. the inept and shifty explanations. the cans of worms opened to clear the air (the income tax returns, for one) that proceed to darken the air with plagues of worms and questions. The loans, the campaign contributions, the real estate deals, the state income taxes

Surcease! I—we—have sat for far too long twenty-eight crisis-packed episodes on the Saturday serial screen through the comically menacing career of the man who will surely be known to fame as our worst and most inept President. Ladies and gentlemen. I give you Richard M. Nixon. Will you please secrete him in some hidden place? For I am sick of him and all his works.

PHOTO AND DRAWING CREDITS

Cover, 37—Adrian Taylor,

design; Dale Wilson Smith, photography

41,43,44—Stephen Snider,

Snider/Lampton Design

60,65—Rick Zonghi

79.83—Kathleen Anderson