Books: Visions Before Midnight — Nixon on the skids |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Nixon on the skids

With a breathtaking surge of technology, pencil-thin beams of ozone-fresh oscillation soared into the night sky above the wind-scoured Atlantic, bounced off the vacuum-cradled skin of a communications satellite, speared downward through the rain-drenched darkness enshrouding England, tripped the ball-cock of a Baird colour television receiver and flushed the face of Richard Nixon into my living-room. And what do you know, he was still selling himself. ‘There can be no whitewash’, he announced with a husky quaver of anguished conviction, ‘at the White House.’

The BBC had a couple of early-morning hours to fill before Nixon’s face was ready for transmission. They preluded the event with some interesting programmes beamed from America and some less interesting acts chosen from the local pundit-farm. As well as the CBS News, starring Walter Cronkite, there was an American programme compiling interview footage of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. The level of intelligence was high: even, I was glad to see, from Eisenhower — the only modern President, it has always seemed, who sincerely wanted less power than the office affords.

Our own resources of expertise were necessarily less exalted, although. Peregrine Worsthorne had managed to make the scene and was eager to express his hope that Nixon would get out of the spot he was in, thereby restoring the authority of the Presidential office and ensuring the safety of the Free World. An American on the panel tried to remind him that the way to restore authority to the Presidential office would be to find out the truth about the man currently holding it, rather than perpetuate a cover-up.

For some reason the point was pursued no further, and I wasn’t able to tell whether Perry had commenced grappling with this new view of the problem. He must have been working on it at some level of his complex intellect, however, because about 2.7 seconds after Nixon had finished speaking he was calling the speech ‘ominous’ and declaring his titanic disillusionment. Like Beethoven crossing Napoleon’s name off the ‘Eroica’, Perry was a study in tottering idealism and god-like scorn. The tube fairly trembled.

But throughout the week, in all the programmes devoted to this issue, there were the odd notes of realism — and realism, one is convinced, is still the stuff to cling to while the ideologists on both wings act out their fantasies. On This Week (Thames) there was a rather marvellous lady who had the low-down on Ron Ziegler and company. ‘These people’, she declared with a yelp of delight, ‘have been selling soap for years!’ If anybody still wants to know what freedom means, the way she spoke is what it means.

6 May, 1973

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]