Essays: Nixon through the night sky |
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Nixon through the night sky

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.’ Impossible not to sympathise: guilty or not, a hunted man is a hunted man. But so was Alger Hiss, and if Nixon has forgotten Hiss during the long anabasis to power, many ordinary people have not. The forces that destroyed Hiss were canting demagogy, witch-finding hysteria, unprincipled legalism and a brain-chilling lack of compassion. Nixon led them. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, the chickens were winging home to roost.

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 Presidential office and 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.

The beer was smaller on a World in Action (Granada) special about Poulson — the very programme which had the plugs pulled on it by the IBA all those months ago. Private Eye might be a careless and philistine pain in the neck, but it has a few useful features apart front the very occasional hilarity provided by an inspiration like ‘Love In the Saddle.’ One such feature is its ability to pull the rug from beneath the well-shod feet of financial operators. There wasn’t much in the programme that one hadn’t seen long ago in the magazine. But then, the programme, it’s assumed, reaches millions of people who wouldn’t see a satirical magazine from one year’s end to the other.

Given this assumption, it was understandable that the production team should try to beef up the boringly tawdry facts into a gripping drama, even managing to introduce a large camera crew into the council chamber where Alderman Egan was being defended. Technically, a good programme — but narcotic to a high degree. It was a week in which cheap crooks were outshone. The ‘World in Action’ I’m still keen to see, incidentally, is the one on why the IBA pulled the plugs.

Joan Bakewell fronted the first instalment of a new series about theatrical schmutter called For the Sake of Appearance (BBC-2). John Bloomfield, who designed the cossies for ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII,’ was on hand to show how you can texture new cloth by ironing on scraps of glued lace or doodling Jackson Pollock-style with a can of glop. The instant illusions were fascinating. Genuine eighteenth-century fancywork won’t do for telly: it takes fake to look like real, since the real looks like nothing.

Allan Prior, famed writer of ‘Z Cars,’ did a One Pair of Eyes (BBC-2) on the vandalism and despair which have by now come to the housing estates that first inspired the settings for the series. His worry was deep and easy to share, but he seemed over-eager to find such destructiveness unmotivated and irrational. Having personally voted the Welfare State into existence in 1945, Prior could no longer see any real reason for people to rebel against their surroundings. The fact that the new housing was soulless, styleless, inhuman and fairly begging to be smashed up just didn’t seem to strike him.

A Picture of Katherine Mansfield (BBC-2) is only one sixth over at the time of writing, but I already turn wounded eyes to my battered row of Constable’s Miscellany in which her subtle creations live on and wonder just how thoroughly the lady’s fine spirit is doomed to be violated. Vanessa Redgrave, pretending to be Mansfield, has never looked more beautiful or sounded more weird: apparently she intends to sing the role, for six weeks. Bravura is one thing, baby, but this is Bayreuth. The action switches puzzlingly from biography to fiction, and although the fiction is all by Mansfield, it doesn’t necessarily possess the automatic correspondence to actual events and personalities that the programme assumes. Middleton Murry is already emerging as a posturing twit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Still, early days.

The Observer, 6th May 1973

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]