To put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose

Alan Coren

  • Nixon: A Study in Extremes of Fortune by Lord Longford
    Weidenfeld, 205 pp, £8.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77708 4

Let me first of all say this: the man is not a crook.

So much for Lord Longford.

As far as his appalling subject goes, I am disinclined to be as charitable. And charity, unfortunately, is exactly what this hilarious little book requires of me: Lord Longford having taken it upon himself to set in train a sequence of events designed to process Richard Milhous Nixon through redemption to beatification and ultimately, I suppose, to canonisation, it is essential that his persecutors must first be made to see him as a martyr and recant the error of their own ways in failing to appreciate the blessedness of his. That achieved, we shall then be able to appreciate, as Lord Longford palpably does, his political successes as miracles, and the whole tenor of his public and (most important) private life as something which leaves Francis of Assisi looking like John Aspinall.

And, lest theologians rush to their nibs to remind me that there are no Quaker saints, let me quote one of those crystalline and unequivocal phrases that all who have read the martyr’s own tapes have imperishably committed to memory: ‘Look, I do not believe, I think that what we have here, I do not feel that we are looking at any kind of an obstacle at this point.’ Were Mr Nixon to wish to change any deeply held convictions for the chance of a better job, this being a behavioural pattern that emerges, willy-nilly, through the grimy gaps left by Lord Longford’s inadequate whitewashing, I cannot believe that the Society of Friends would stand in his way. After all, with Friends like that ...

So then. Lord Longford has put up his candidate before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, where, you will recall, the bishop advances his case based upon the life and the writings; a Promotor Fidei is then required to step forward and suggest why these might be a barrel of (expletive deleted).

It is not a role to which I warm. Since the bishop’s case is based almost entirely upon the wickedly false premise that a religious upbringing, domestic moral rectitude and the love of a good woman will so shape a character that it is incapable of behaving in a manner so abominable that it reduced a great democracy to disillusioned chaos, then mine must be based almost entirely not only upon refuting the preposterous premise, but also (this is Longford’s started hare, not mine) upon looking somewhat more dispassionately upon those very virtues, if that is indeed what they are.

The former tack is quickly dismissed. While I should not dream of comparing Richard Nixon with these examples in any but the most circumstantial way, I cannot but be reminded that Josef Stalin was chosen by his devoted mother for a career in the Georgian Orthodox Church and to this end educated at the theological seminary in Tiflis, that Idi Amin has some sixty-odd children with all of whom he is besotted, and that the adoring eagerness with which Eva Braun shared a terminal Luger-clip with Adolf Hitler is a matter of historical record. Knowing less of Myra Hindley (well, it was bound to come up, was it not?) than the good bishop does, I cannot of course say with any certainty whether she loves her mother, but ask only that you agree the obvious, since Lord Longford refuses to – that her public career might most sensibly be assessed on other evidence.

But the trickier latter tack remains to be faced, because it is the centre of the bishop’s thesis: Longford judges the extra-political life to be supremely significant, and we must probe his extrapolations. ‘Richard Nixon was brought up in Whittier, a small Quaker town, his life dominated by family, church and school. The family went to church four times on Sunday and to Wednesday night services as well. During his high school and college years, Nixon played the piano for various church services each week.’ There is nothing there I should wish to deride: but as one who has lived in such small American towns, I count it a grave omission that Longford chooses not even to admit the possibility that their exclusive fundamentalism, their narrow-minded bigotry, their isolationist suspicion of everything beyond the town line, their moral rigidity and resistance to change, might not perhaps create the best atmosphere in which to raise a future President.

Nixon’ father was a failed grocer, who,

if materially unsuccessful, was a devoted family man. He was also quick-tempered and combative. No one, friend or foe, would deny that throughout his subsequent career Nixon revealed exceptional qualities as a fighter – courage certainly, but combativeness also. The first owed much to both parents, the second to the father alone.

What are we to make of this? That the qualities which made a failed grocer were those which went into making a failed President? Are we supposed to accept that combativeness is a moral virtue? Are we not tempted to wonder whether the grocery business went to pot because Nixon père was given to taking a swing at anyone who complained about his beans? Ought we not perhaps to question, since Longford wishes us to view Nixon’s subsequent career in this light, whether the will to fight should be judged against the purpose in fighting? Would you vote for Billy the Kid?

A little later in the book:

all [Nixon] could say was, ‘Mother, don’t give up.’ She pulled herself up in bed and said with sudden strength, ‘Richard, don’t you give up. Don’t let anybody tell you you are through.’ ‘A marvellous legacy’ is how he described his debt to her. This supreme duty of not giving up, not quitting, was to remain very deep in him.

What on earth does Longford mean by ‘supreme’ duty? Are we really to accept that the greatest public commitment that the notional leader of the free world can make is to stay in office when every further hour in that office only serves to degrade and discredit it?

In 1938, Nixon met ‘a beautiful and vivacious young woman with Titian hair’. Surprisingly, Longford does not insist that Titian hair is an unimpeachable moral quality, preferring to launch straight into the fact that Nixon’s parents were immediately knocked out by Pat’s ‘obvious strength of character and indomitable spirit. These qualities were to be tested to the utmost in the years ahead by extremes of good and bad fortune, success and failure, both carried to the nth degree. Pat’s courage and fidelity were absolute at all times, amid much joy and many sufferings.’

Do we feel that a certain wiry thread is becoming discernible, despite the best efforts of Longford’s atrocious style to turn us away from this farrago? Are we not beginning to feel that the entire Nixon family, inherited and acquired, is characterised by nothing so much as sheer bloody self-protective obstinacy? My Nixon, right or wrong? And did it not permeate every moment of the final days in the Oval bunker? I leap forward a few years, and a few pages, to a Longford sentence calculated (though not by him) to make thy knotted and combined locks to part, and each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine: ‘Haldeman’s loyalty to Nixon was wholly admirable.’

Yet again, we have Longford’s elevation to a virtue of a quality which should never, ever, be endowed with an absolute value. Should you at this point hear a far, scrabbling noise, it is nothing more than Goebbels turning irritably in his grave. When will it be recognised that his loyalty to Hitler was wholly admirable? When will the truth about Von Stauffenberg’s disgusting treachery be given the airing that history requires? As for Charles Colson, surely beyond any disagreement one of the more poisonous of the little vipers clamouring at liberty’s battered bosom during those grisly two years of the second administration, not even Longford can actually deny that he had been a bit naughty. But it does not matter a fig, now:

I have met Chuck Colson several times, had prolonged talks with him and listened to him orating movingly on Christian issues. He was often referred to as ‘the hatchet man’ who had said he would walk over his own grandmother to serve the President, and who, in his own frank admission, was responsible for many a dirty trick, which he now regrets bitterly. Even before he went to prison, after the disclosures connected with Watergate, he had undergone a very remarkable Christian conversion. When he emerged, he not only wrote a deeply impressive Christian apologia, Born Again, but initiated a nationwide Christian Prison Fellowship. Some of us in Britain have paid him the sincere compliment of setting up a fellowship on similar lines in Britain ...

I have no comment to make on that. I should be as distressed as puzzled to hear that readers of a paper like this expected one. However, we cannot altogether dodge the issue of Life Eternal, since it suffuses this dreadful book, and if I am any judge, remainder shops are doomed to reek of incense for some time to come. Nixon, of course, will last longer and smell sweeter, for ‘it is at least certain that when, in a better world than this, all the books are open, there will be revealed many irregularities carried on by governments in warlike times which will shock us far more than the break-in at the psychiatrist’s office.’

I do not share Lord Longford’s certainty, but if I did, I should temper it with proper humility: the Almighty, if He exists, is no mug, and is unlikely either to accept burglary as irregularity, or to look tolerantly on a plea of mitigation based on the fact that Nixon wasn’t the first politician to get his hand caught in the till. Nor do I feel that Nixon will be best suited by a better world than this: it was just because this one is a flawed, corrupt, biddable and disordered place that he was enabled to succeed so remarkably in it. In a better world, he would be lucky to hang on to the job he had in his old man’s grocery.

I do not intend to examine at any length, since it is character and not action with which this mawkish volume occupies itself, the miracles of Richard Nixon, those triumphs of personal interface, as he has described them, upon which he has regularly expressed himself content to rest his case for immortality. As the first Quaker to invade Cambodia, he of all people must recognise that it is realpolitik by which this world turns, and I will have no truck with the sickening nonsense of the firm handclasp and the steady eye and the smack on the shoulder, nor will I be sold by either Nixon or Longford on insulting tripe like this:

Brezhnev told him after the broadcast [Nixon had spoken of being moved by the diary of a child killed in Leningrad] that this passage had brought tears to his eyes. Nixon’s sentimentality was much derided in sophisticated circles in America, but it was a genuine part of his nature and elicited a genuine response in many lands ... He records Brezhnev as very warm and friendly. ‘As we were leaving in the car out of the dacha, he put his hand on my knee and said he hoped we had developed a good personal relationship.’

Well, swell. There is nothing like the death of a child to commit world leaders to laying down their nukes forever, there is nothing like the brushing of hand and knee to ensure the security of all our children. But since all this genuine warmth, generated at their own parents’ knees, nurtured by loving wives and loyal friends, was in fact part of the rosy glow suffusing SALT, might it not be prudent to nip, with Lord Longford, across to Nixon’s latest book, The Real War, published this year by the good lord himself? ‘We needed a freeze, not only for arms control, but for strategic reasons. Our strategy was to agree on a five-year freeze – the interval we judged would enable us to catch up by developing cruise missiles, a new submarine, a new ICBM, and the B-1 bomber.’ Unquestionably, the man has come clean. Just how close that is to Godliness is a conundrum I gratefully leave to Lord Longford.