Essays: Mass of offences |
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Mass of offences

At the risk of boring you stiff, I’m honour-bound to deal with the awkward fact that in the subsequent Nixon Interviews (BBC1) David Frost did rather better than in the first one.

If the interviews had been screened in their correct order, with the Watergate episode coming last instead of first, Frost would have been clearly seen to have started off quite impressively, and Nixon would have arrived at the finishing line so thoroughly compromised that Frost’s relatively cursory treatment of him at the end would have looked like elementary tact.

Cambodia and Chile do, after all, matter a great deal more than Watergate. As it happened, burgling a hotel turned out to be an impeachable offence, whereas flattening whole countries and delivering their populations into the hands of torturers could be palmed off as diplomacy. But in the long run it is the second kind of activity which has the most penetrating moral resonance. Frost, to give him his due, could see this.

Nixon, of course, couldn’t. In the second programme, largely devoted to his supposed triumphs in the field of what Frost (with increasingly Kissingeresque elocution) called diblomadic relations, Nixon talked grandly of how he had faced up to Brezhnev and Mao. Rare film footage was interpolated to prove that facing up to Mao in his last phase could have been no easy matter, the Chinese leader having come to resemble an indeterminate pile of flesh. The face was probably somewhere near the top. Nixon was to be seen shaking what was doubtless Mao’s hand.

In the third show, however, Frost moved the area of discussion to South-East Asia, and immediately Nixon started looking shifty. Inevitably he fell back on his trusty technique of insisting that the course he took was the difficult one. He could have done the easy thing, but he did the difficult thing. (You will remember that even at the eleventh hour of his Presidency he was still doing the difficult thing — staying — instead of the easy thing — going.) Questioned on Vietnam, Nixon said that it would be easy now to say that it was all a mistake, but he preferred to do the difficult thing and say that it had to be done. Justifying the invasion of Cambodia, Nixon was unrepentant — the difficult thing. ‘It was one of the most effective operations of the war.’ Frost knew enough to insist that whatever the Cambodian caper had been, it hadn't been that. Nixon referred to ‘a mass of offences’ (i.e. a massive offensive) that the enemy had been about to launch. Frost suggested that the whole adventure had been a moral disaster as well as a military one. Nixon, as usual, didn’t get the point. ‘The cost of Cambodia was very high at home ... the Kent State thing.’

Frost, who had a sounder idea than Nixon about what the cost at home had been, asked about black-bag burglaries. Nixon admitted that such measures had been unpleasant — the difficult thing — but asked Frost to consider whether Roosevelt would not have been justified in assassinating Hitler during the thirties. The effrontery of this argument left even Frost speechless.

And so to the last programme, in which Frost did his best to convince Nixon that on the question of Chile the fact that Allende had been voted into power, and that the United States had connived at removing him from office by illegal means, made Nixon’s claim to have been defending democracy questionable at the very least.

Once again, Nixon didn’t seem to get the point. Certainly he hadn’t enjoyed supporting right-wing regimes — the difficult thing — but the fact remained that such regimes, whatever they did internally, did not export revolution, whereas left-wing regimes did. Nixon couldn’t see then, and obviously still can’t see now, that the alleged realism with which the US supported the Right was always the very thing which gave the Left its impetus.

If Nixon had any merit it lay in embodying the absurdity of a foreign policy which by Kissinger’s sophisticated intelligence might otherwise have been made to look convincing. When Nixon spoke of ‘the Red Sandwich’ — the idea that Chile and Cuba between them might have subverted the whole of Latin America — Frost yodelled in derision. It was the first spontaneous thing he’s done on television for years. Four hours of double-talk was a long way to go for a single magic moment, but when it came it was one to treasure. Nixon and the Red Sandwich!

All You Need is Love (LWT) has been a long haul as well, but once again this is a case of a series turning out to be more valuable than it looked at first. The episode before last was particularly interesting, since it featured a good deal of dry talk from Derek Taylor, the best dry talker in the music business.

The latest programme, about rock’s decline, came from the grandiloquent pen of Tony Palmer himself. Jimi Hendrix balling his guitar looked fearfully trite in retrospect. There was sad footage of Jim Morrison, so stoned that his eyeballs pointed straight up through the top of his head. All such a waste. But that famous clip of an open-mouthed Mama Cass digging Janis Joplin’s act at Monterey still arouses the old joy, if you can manage to forget what happened to both of them.

A Lively Arts (BBC2) on the Dance Theatre of Harlem was delectable. The combination of classical technique and the ability to boogie makes for a violently intoxicating rhythmic cocktail. The girls were enough to set even a eunuch moaning low. The viewer had no reason to be ashamed of sexism, since the company avowedly thrives on that very impulse: some of the male dancers joined up because they were caught girl-watching through the studio sky-light and told either to go away or join in. One of the best arts documentaries I have ever seen.

According to London Heathrow (BBC1), the airport of that title was originally designed for half a million passengers a year. Now 23 million pass through. 90,000 meals a day are loaded aboard the planes. Each Jumbo yields three quarters of a ton of rubbish after every flight. Every mobile toilet emptier can hold the effluent of two Jumbos. It would take 643 toilet emptiers to pump one Jumbo full of effluent. Me Tarmac, you Jane. Jumbo no fly: Boy lie. 90,000 Jumbos converge on London every day. I could have done the easy thing...

The Observer, 29th May 1977

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]