Books: Visions Before Midnight — Exit Tricky Dick |
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Exit Tricky Dick

With a measure of dignity but no more candour than usual, Nixon cashed in his dwindled pile of chips. An occasion of some stature, however twisted. It can’t be said that television, on this side of the Atlantic at any rate, rose to it.

On the evening of the fateful Thursday, the BBC at nine o’clock and ITN at ten o’clock were equally confident that Nixon was about to take the long fall. Obviously each channel’s Washington bureau had been doing sterling work: the compilations were pertinent, the pieces to camera cogent. Between the end of News at Ten (ITN) and the beginning of what promised to be an historic edition of Midweek (BBC1), there was sufficient time to ponder the gravity of the moment. An unprincipled man who had never been fit for his high office was about to be forced from it by due process of law — an event confounding to all sceptics, with the notable exception, perhaps, of the Founding Fathers. In the two and a half hours of transmission leading up to Nixon’s speech at 2 a.m., the tube would have a chance to excel itself. Like Keats dressing to write a poem, your reporter had a bath and a shave, wrapped himself in a luxurious towelling robe and settled down to take notes.

Alastair Burnet came on and immediately set about conveying a powerful air of relaxation. Condescension permeated his every utterance, as if what we were about to see was a mere formality, the acting out for the masses of a story which had long been known to such cognoscenti as himself. Introducing a satellite link-up, he looked on with weary eyes as the pictures degenerated into a shemozzle. NBC came through on vision and CBS came through on sound. Then neither came through on anything. Alastair celebrated by dropping his phone. A jest and a smile might have helped, but he reserves those for inappropriate moments. Finally we got CBS on both sound and vision. It was meant to be NBC, but who cared? The American telly-men were vibrant with life, well aware that they were living in stirring times. Nixon’s staff had been loading household gear into cars. The man himself had been cleaning out his desk. It was going to happen!

If only we could have stayed plugged into the American networks, everything would have been hunky-dory. But for some reason we were plugged out — perhaps because of costs. So it was all down to our link-men in Washington and London, aided by the standard time-killing compilations on Nixon’s career and the blazingly revealing videotape reminders of just how composed and forceful Nixon can look when he is lying his head off. Robert McNeil in Washington was stuck with a pair of unexciting panel members: Hugh Sidey, a portentous but sleep-inducing staffer from Time, and Vic Gold, billed as a ‘former Agnew aide’. (At least he was used to this kind of thing.) These two weren’t going to say anything penetrating about the personality and attainments of the departing giant. Nor was Stephen Hess, who added himself to the team and lengthily revealed that his blandness as Nixon’s biographer had in no wise diminished. McNeil asked in vain whether Nixon had a flaw. Sidey said he had, and that it was a disinclination to trust the American people. Gold and Hess said similarly unremarkable things either then or later; it is impossible to remember. Harry Truman said that Nixon couldn’t tell right from wrong, but that was years ago: he wasn’t around to say it now. You longed for a single cutting phrase.

Back on the home patch, the undynamic Alastair was abetted by Julian Pettifer, who did his best to look keen about interrogating a studio panel only marginally more gripping than the lot in Washington. William Shawcross of the Sunday Times seemed quite bright, but there was a man from the New York Times who kept saying that Ford would succeed Nixon and therefore cease to be Vice-President and that there used to be a war in Vietnam. Pettifer got impatient: he was probably wondering what Walter Cronkite was saying. So was I. Alastair cued in a rerun of Nixon’s odyssey, informing us gratuitously and with small evidence that this had been ‘in some ways a more distinguished career than the twists and the turns of the past year and a half have suggested’. He promised us ‘a little look’ at it. His tones were those of a solicitous father called in by his children to officiate at the funeral of a hamster. Meanwhile the commercial channel was showing McCloud.

As we came close to the big moment, the BBC’s Washington studio went ape. The ineffable Rabbi Korff, who believes in Nixon with a love that passes understanding, was more or less accusing his hero of trying to frame himself. Galvanized at long last, Vic Gold began shouting at the Rabbi with such violence that the picture went off the air. It was back to Alastair. Time to punch the button. ITN’s screen was full of Cronkite, what a relief. The last few minutes before Nixon appeared were thereby invested with some substance.

Nixon has come a long way as a talking head, and never did a smoother gig than his last as President. ‘I have always preferred to carry through to the finish, whatever the personal agony involved.’ He meant that he had always preferred to cling on to power, whatever the agony involved for other people — but at least the lie was told in ringing tones. I had expected him to look like a cake in the rain, but the impeachment sweat was gone from his top lip and his jaw-line was free from crumples. ‘I have always tried to do what was best for the nation.’ He was a constitutional disaster for the nation — or would have been, if the Supreme Court hadn’t fulfilled its function. Semantically, the whole speech was rubbish. As a performance, though, it merited what respect the viewer could summon.

11 August, 1974

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