Wednesday, August 09, 2006

where politics meets Shakespeare

Remember english class? Sure, there was plenty of drudgury learning obscure verb tenses and so forth, but if you were lucky there was also the discovery of characters in literature. Some of them seemed to symbolize certain character traits, good and bad. The was Hamlet - indecision, Brutus - treachery, Ahab - obsession, Scrooge - selfishness, then redemption.
If you put your eye on history, you see some of the same thing. In fact, in August we note the resigning of one such character/person from public office - Richard Nixon, the most Shakesperian of all our presidents, who departed the White House for California 32 years ago today.
The man was a model of complexity. He had some good qualities. He was smart, no question. Lots of people know that he went to law school at Duke, but not as many know that he financed it with Navy poker winnings. He was a ruthless campaigner, and never had to be told to stay "on message". He had already served in both the House and Senate when Eisenhower picked him (though he personally disliked him) as running mate in 1952. Nixon was around 35 at the time, and had ridden this new issue, anti-communism, to fame all over the country.
But there was the other side of the guy, too. If Humphrey Bogart's Captain Queeg, from "The Caine Mutiny", is our model for paranoia, then Nixon was right behind. From his youth he carried a certain bitterness that colored his whole thinking. What other professional politician (and I'm using the word in its positive context) had such a low regard for people in general? As president, for example, his favorite room in the White House was a tiny room near the Oval Office with a single piece of comfortable furniture. He thought that everyone was running some kind of scam designed to fool him. This sometimes included close White House staff members, like Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman (who he often confused), and even foreign policy co-conspirator Henry Kissinger, he of the famous thick German basso accent. This inner cynicism was so pervasive that certain staffers were assigned by others to help keep that side of the president away from the public, and especially the media, whom Nixon held in the lowest possible regard.
Like Macbeth, Nixon saw everything in terms of its relation to HIM. He became incapable of separating his own interests from those of the USA. Like almost all presidents, he was surrounded by people who knew that they would have no other chance to be near real power, and were anxious to tell the president what he wanted to hear. This is a dangerous quality of the presidency which, if unchecked, can lead a president slowly to a place which puts him out of touch with the people who, for reasons of their own, elected him in the first place. This was doubly true for Nixon, who had little regard for Congress and felt he had no special duty to cooperate with it.
Even when he did the right thing, it was often for the wrong reason. He ended the military draft in order to end college protests against the continuing Vietnam War. He broadened the social welfare net so as to blunt the damage from his "southern strategy," a plan to appeal to white southern votes at the expense of black voters. He had the CIA partitipate in the removal of an elected Marxist in Chile, not to free the Chileans from Marxism, but to stamp out leftist movements in South America, still at that time a source of raw materiels like copper. It mattered little to Nixon that the military seized power and began a reign of terror which still scars many Chilean families. Southeast Asians fared even worse in the name of "freedom".
There are a hundred books or more regarding the Watergate scandal. More accurately, Watergate was a series of scandals which finally revealed Nixon as seeing himself above the law, with a staff capable of almost any act of skullduggery they saw in Nixon's interest. The scandal took dozens of turns, and close to two dozen officials, some as high up as the Cabinet, did some prison time. A handful of them are still around, and they gather every now and then to try to figure out Nixon and his ultimate plans. They can't completely do it, of course, because the Boss isn't around to explain it, nor could they trust him to be truthful if he was still with us. When your children ask about Watergate, just give them what they want - the SHORT answer, Dad. The short answer is this. Nixon felt it was OK to get the entire US government to serve his agenda, in violation of the Constitution. If that's not enough for them, be glad you have inquisitive children...and suggest they read a book on the subject.


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