Strait is the gate

Christopher Hitchens

  • Watergate: The Corruption and Fall of Richard Nixon by Fred Emery
    Cape, 448 pp, £20.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 224 03694 7
  • The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House by H.R. Haldeman
    Putnam, 698 pp, $27.50, May 1994, ISBN 0 399 13962 1

Probably every journalistic wretch in the business has by now tried his or her hand at shoving a ‘gate’ suffix onto the end of some dingy piece of chicanery. There have, admittedly, been a few quite funny examples of the genre. ‘Tailgate’ wasn’t bad for the pants-down episode in which Senators were found to be fornicating with the boy and girl pages who take messages through the marbled halls. ‘Koreagate’, on the other hand, was a lame effort to define the Washington influence-peddling of the arms-dealer Tongsun Park. The brittle and amoral wits of the new Post-Modern New Republic actually ran a competition to summarise the bewildering complexity of the Iran-Contra affair, and got gates galore. Since Oliver North and John Poindexter had communicated their fell designs through a system called the Prof computer, and since the thing hinged so much on transfers of hot and dirty money, I myself proudly came up with ‘Profligate’ which, though it won me no prizes, did get briefly adopted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The man who started this frivolous auction was William Safire, former speechwriter to Richard Nixon and now columnist for the New York Times. He it was who, during the dismal days of the Jimmy Carter Presidency, came up with ‘Koreagate’, ‘Peanutgate’, ‘Billygate’ and – his own favourite, concerning some fiddle of government expenses – ‘Double Billingsgate’. In an interview with Eric Alterman for the latter’s excellent book Sound and Fury, about the pundit class in Washington, Safire conceded that ‘yes, psychologically, he may have been seeking to minimise the relative importance of the crimes committed by his former boss, with this silliness.’ So now I’ve stopped ‘gating’ and will never try it again, however tempting the locution. As both these books in quite different ways remind us, Watergate was no mere smash-and-grab on public funds, and no paltry revelation of lousy morals among the morality-preaching classes. It was, at least until we learned of the Iran-Contra business, the most systematic attempt to convert the United States from a democratic republic into a junta with a civilian façade. Since it takes the part for the whole, and summarises the whole tapestry by the single thread by which it was unpicked, even the name ‘Watergate’ has become inadequate. Yet if one black nightwatchman had not noticed signs of forcible entry in that hideous condo on the Potomac (where the hapless Democrats had so typically sited their campaign HQ), and had not decided to raise the alarm, it is terrifying to think how ignorant we would now be of the uses of power, and even more terrifying to reflect on the uses that power would have made – nearly did make – of our ignorance.

For a week or two in the spring of this year, it seemed that Nixon’s death might kill off the entire subject. There is a whole American political vernacular, now quite highly evolved, that exists to serve the higher purposes of euphemism and amnesia. You can always tell that the moment for this has arrived when politicians and editorialists (and, at least for the past half-century, the Reverend Billy Graham) start deploying phrases like ‘the healing process’. Let us, they intone, put the past behind us and look to the future. Let us move the country forward and bind up the wounds. Of course, the same politician or cleric or editorialist is capable of saying, sometimes on the very same day and usually as if it were being said for the very first time, that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

Bill Clinton’s eulogy at Nixon’s graveside was the most sickly and lenient of his performances thus far; not exempting the one in which he welcomed Italy’s fascisti back into the democratic fold on the eve of the D-Day commemoration, for all the world as if the Mussolini question was Italy’s internal affair. Standing next to Reagan, Bush, Carter and Ford, Clinton reached as high as a cornball can reach. He began by recalling that Nixon’s father had ‘built’ his own house (actually sending off by mail-order to a pre-fabricator back East and putting up a featureless dwelling in the groves of California):

Today, we can look back at this little house and still imagine the young boy sitting by the window of the attic he shared with his three brothers, looking out to a world he could then himself only imagine ... When he became President, he took on challenges here at home on matters from cancer research to environmental protection, putting the power of the Federal Government where Republicans and Democrats had neglected to put it in the past – in foreign policy.

Eh? No, I’m quoting the President correctly, non sequiturs and all. And the speech was a hit, because it employed words like ‘challenge’ (a sure-fire term) a lot. Did Truman and Eisenhower neglect foreign policy? First I’d heard of it. Never mind – onward and upward. We come to the bump in the road where Nixon has to resign or go to jail, and Clinton is ready: ‘Oh yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes and they, like his accomplishments, are part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times.’

As Dr Johnson correctly and humanely observed, a man is not under oath when delivering a funeral oration. But as Kissinger himself brushed away a tear, this ceremony took on more the aspect of a Central Committee interment, where black limousines and dark-spectacled bodyguards wait to hustle the nomenklatura through the crowd after a feast of lies (and, perhaps, after the grudging admission that ‘mistakes were made.’) Mix this with Washingtonian orotundity and sententiousness (‘his times’ instead of ‘his time’ is a customary clue) and you have in effect a gang of overcoated politicos, standing round a hole full of carrion, and telling the citizens that they don’t appreciate the sacrifices made by the leadership.

Clinton gave one hostage to fortune in this otherwise anodyne and self-serving address, which too obviously identified with a man of obscure – not to say shady – background who had lifelong problems with the press. Speaking of ‘family, friends and nation’ (who wrote that?), Clinton addressed the Nixon kin and declaimed: ‘To them let us say, may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in