All Politics is Local, History

And then you destroy yourself: Nixon resigns, +40

By Scott Ross

I did not start out a Nixon-hater. But as familiarity breeds contempt, the more you know about Richard Milhous Nixon, the more there is to loathe.

Admittedly, I was too young to fully comprehend the man his growing legion of enemies were wont to call “Tricky Dick” (or, to save time, as Philip Roth discovered, just plain “Tricky”) during his Presidency, and certainly prior to it. As a politically naïve pre-adolescent I had even, in sixth grade, been tasked with presenting Nixon’s candidacy in the best possible light for our classroom debate. Diligent if not exactly percipient, I attacked the project with limited gusto, which largely meant committing to memory as much of the President’s numerous campaign brochures—including the flyer that, infamously, depicted him walking the beach at San Clemente in his suit and tie; I wish I’d saved that one—as I could cram into my head and regurgitating it during the event. I threw in some jowl-wagging and Tricky’s patented “Vee” sign for good measure, along with a direct steal from Dickie Goodman’s then-current, now-forgotten, comedy 45, “Convention ’72”: Asked what I thought of my opponent, I intoned, “Well, as the song says, I don’t know how to love him.” It brought down the house.

Interestingly, the opposing statement by the boy who had been assigned McGovern seems, in retrospect, unconsciously yet almost eerily to parallel the actual candidate’s entire run. He trotted out a few, largely negative, comments, refuting me, but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. And in our class, as indeed throughout the school itself, Nixon’s win in the eventual polling was predictive; it was a slaughter.

I did become aware, from late 1972 on, of a thing called Watergate. As 1973 began and the re-election landslide receded I, like the rest of the country, heard more and more about the scandal, even as I understood less and less. And as with so many Americans of the time, the thing began to pall; would it never end? The revelations, the testimony, the hearings, the court decisions… for a largely ignorant—or at least, politically uninformed—cccccccccadolescent, the weekly parade of Time magazines that littered my 7th grade social studies teacher’s back wall cabinets and whose covers were a seemingly limitless recitation of this or that aspect either of Watergate or of the President himself (those steely, unknowable eyes… that determined grimace… those unmistakable jowls) began to take on the aspect of a fad that had long since reached its zenith but that kept on going, replicating itself ad infinitum.

The headline in the Raleigh paper, which I now wish I'd saved.

The headline in the Raleigh paper, which I now wish I’d saved.

The end, when finally it did come, felt almost anti-climactic. Even intrusive, as Nixon’s resignation interrupted my family’s annual August trek to the coast that summer. I vividly recall watching the speech on the hotel room television, but the emotional component, for me, was nearly nil. Yet even I (later, whenever the subject came up) found myself parroting my parents’ cries of, “Why can’t they leave the poor man alone?” Archie Bunker was alive and well and living in suburbia. And then like so many Americans, I tried my damnedest to forget.

Nixon and HUAC investigator Robert Stripling pretend to pore intently over the contents of a rancid pumpkin.

Nixon and HUAC investigator Robert Stripling pretend to pore intently over the contents of a rancid pumpkin.

Only as I became more interested in recent history, around the age of 15 or 16, did I begin to put together Nixon’s personal and political biography, and to be appalled at the absolute shoddiness of it. Watergate was as nothing, I slowly recognized, when compared to the squalid, reeking “accomplishments” of this professional serial criminal. From his earliest campaigns onward, the rehearsal of sleazy lies about his opponents (“Even Helen Gahagan Douglas’ panties are Red!”), the hitching of his political wagon to the trains of the rankest anti-democracy fascists (J. Parnell Thomas, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn), the infamous “Checkers” speech (as Pat looks to the middle distance, fervently wishing she was anywhere else)… the petulant farewell (“You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more…”)

nixon_brays

Why, as Esquire used to ask, repeatedly, was this man laughing?

This was the True Nixon. The New Nixon was the Old Nixon, re-packaged, re-branded, but rotten to its core. (As a well-known American magazine used, repeatedly, to ask, “Why is this man laughing?”) And the rot would spread. My, how it would spread!

The uni-ndicted war criminal outlines the "Menu" for Cambodia.

The un-indicted war criminal outlines his “Menu” for Cambodia.

The self-described “Peacemaker” who would end the Viet Nam conflict, spouting his catch-phrase “Peace with honor… Peace with honor…” like a berserk mynah bird, on attaining the White House in 1968 instead deliberately ratcheted it up. Yet all of this, and most of what followed, was as nothing compared to what this man, aided—if not  indeed cattle-prodded—by his self-adoring, overweening NSA Advisor, Henry Kissinger, would unleash in the first Nixon Administration: Nothing less than the achievement of instigating the worst genocidal madness of the post-war era. Under the nauseating, and cynical, rubric “Operation Menu,” Nixon and his happy war-mongers (a brace of whom would resurface 20 years later to present the world with “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the gift that keeps on taking) invaded, and bombed, a sovereign, neutral nation, with such ferocity that, ultimately, the mad Cambodian revolutionary Pol Pot would become completely un-hinged, brutally murdering fully one-quarter of his own countrymen and women. It is an atrocity that stands un-rivaled since the Holocaust, and one wholly, obscenely un-punished.

"John Filo's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard." (Wikipedia caption.)

“John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard.” (Wikipedia caption.)

What many of us forget, or never understood, was that the massacre of four students at Kent State in May, 1970, was an equally direct result of the then-secret Cambodian bombings. And most of them were not even protesting that evil event, merely standing in a parking area where the Ohio National Guardsmen had just told them to assemble, when they were cold-bloodedly murdered, by trigger-happy paramilitary thugs, none of whom was ever convicted. (One of the nine wounded, Dean R. Kahle, was paralyzed from the chest down.) Tricky, of course, instantly sprang to what passed for life, inveighing against the kids and warming to his perennial theme of “Us” (the illogically-named “Silent Majority”) against “Them” (dirty, foul-mouthed, violent, privileged, ungrateful little snots who got what they asked for.) In this parade of related obscenities, Nixon’s response to Kent State, via his speechwriter Ray Price, locating sympathy only for the Guardsmen (“a bunch of scared kids with guns”), rises to the top of the stinking heap.

Rosemary Woods, demonstrating (at White House insistence) how she might have erased five minutes of a certain Oval Office tape. (cf Robert Klein's imagined interview in which the President's secretary admits to a circus family background as one of "The Flying Woods.")

Rosemary Woods, demonstrating (at White House insistence) how she might have erased five minutes of a certain Oval Office tape. (cf Robert Klein’s imagined interview in which the President’s secretary admits to a circus family background as one of “The Flying Woods.”

Nixon is recorded—in Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days, among other sources—as expressing complete dismay that what he deemed “a third-rate burglary” could take down a President. The break-in itself, whose locale (the Watergate Complex) inadvertently, and tiresomely, gave us a new suffix, instantly appended to all political (and even some religious) scandals, was indeed a paltry affair, engineered, with almost hilarious incompetence, by that functioning nut-case Gordon Liddy. But ’twasn’t Beauty killed the Beast this time; it was the President’s own paranoia, his form-fitted suit of impregnable personal armor and his pathological inability to tell the truth when a lie would serve. Another President, Harry S (for nothing, as Gore Vidal used, gleefully, to note) Truman, famously said of his successor, “Richard Nixon is a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.” And, as Jonathan Schell observed in his staggeringly apt treatise on the Nixon years, The Time of Illusion, by the end the man’s infamous enemies list had grown to include the entirety of the American people. Even without the much-speculated-upon 18 and a half minute gap in those foolishly vouchsafed reel-to-reel wonders, the evidence was there, plain and unequivocal, if to everyone else except Richard (“When the President does it, that means it is not illegal”) Nixon.

The infamous "I am not a crook" press conference of November, 1973.

The infamous “I am not a crook” press conference of November, 1973.

Senator John Stennis, of the hilariously-conceived "Stennis Compromise."*

Senator John Stennis, of the hilariously-conceived “Stennis Compromise.”*

conradnixoncartoon

Conrad’s brilliant cartoon sums up everything about Nixon and his self-destroying approach to Watergate.

And he nearly got away with all of it, this lawyer who precipitated the gravest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War (and before the election of 2000.) Thanks almost entirely to the instincts, courage and dogged perseverance of “Woodstein” and the Washington Post, even “Tricky Dick” could not escape, if not the criminal court, the judgment of his peers, and of history. Even as he labored without surcease throughout the remainder of his mean, petty, resolutely un-seeing life to re-position himself to the nation he betrayed so cynically, callously and, it would appear, reflexively, as a vaunted eminence gris, an elder statesman of incomparable worth, and even as those efforts began, against all odds and sanity, to bear fruit… Even as, now, many Americans seem willing to, on the one hand shrug and forgive and on the other cheer and encase in nostalgic amber… Despite the Fordian pardon… Despite the annual release of yet more (and more ugly, and incriminating) tapes and transcripts… Despite it all… History still accords Richard Milhous Nixon his most fitting legacy: The only sitting President in the history of the Republic to resign the office. The Nixon Library can perform its white-wash, right-wing bloviators near and far can proclaim his nobility, and his greatness. But the facts remain. In spite of all that effort on his behalf, and the complicity of an ever-shrinking national memory, that shameful, and wholly deserved, footnote, will remain, forever attached to the man, and to his Presidency. Nothing so became his office as the leaving of it.

Astonishingly, at his televised farewell to the White House staff, Richard Nixon did, in a jaw-dropping display of seemingly unconscious self-assessment, reveal more than he knew when he advised his loyalists. (This was above and beyond the tired invocation of his father’s lemon ranch and the singularly telling re-statement, “My mother was a saint.” Kissinger observed of Nixon, “Can you imagine what he could have been if he had ever been loved?” Can you further imagine what being that woman’s child did to the boy Nixon was?) His advice to the troops? “Always remember, others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” Scant wonder, then, that some regard RMN as the most Shakespearean of Presidents: Richard III, invariably, telling us the truth about himself even as he obfuscates to everyone around him. But as Shakespeare, through the mouth of another political dissembler noted, the evil that men do live after them.

To evoke Santayana is by now both wearying, and a little suspect, particularly since so few ever heed his warning. Let’s say instead, Long live the memory of that evil.

Or should I, in deference to Nixon’s long and nearly peerless, putrid history, amend that to “those evils”?

All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

*Robert Klein: “The Court can’t hear the tapes, the people can’t hear the tapes, the Congress can’t hear the tapes, the judge can’t hear the tapes… But John Stennis can hear the tapes! He’s got the perfect credentials; he’s a 73-year old Senator from Mississippi. He’s just spent six months in a hospital, a veritable Rip Van Winkle… He can’t hear the dinner bell!… The black servants in his house do bits: ‘Hey, Senator Stennis, you can’t hear shit!‘ Perfect man to hear the tapes… Why couldn’t the tapes record that, when President Nixon said to Alexander Haig, ‘Al, get me a deaf senator, I’ll do the rest!'” (From “Wallowing in Watergate” on the Mind Over Matter LP.)

Advertisements
Standard
History, Movies, Personal Essay

“Surviving is the only glory”: D-Day plus 70

By Scott Ross

Samuel Fuller, who was one of the men on Omaha Beach the morning of 6 June, 1944, had no illusions about war. Nor about “heroism,” or “valor,” or “glory,” or “honor,” or “sacrifice,” or any of the myriad phony platitudes civilians have been throwing around for decades in their fruitless desperation to convince themselves their beloved sons, brothers, husbands, lovers died for something ennobling and worthy of the ultimate penalty of armed conflict. Note that I do not say “sacrifice.” Aside from the fear that if I did Fuller’s ghost (complete with cigar) would haunt me to my grave, I simply don’t believe it. No one but a self-glorifying fool willingly sacrifices himself on the altar of war.

(Although god knows all too many allow themselves to be sacrificed. By generals, presidents, politicians and assorted deluded fanatics and disinterested kibbitzers who’ve never so much as smelled a battlefield. If they didn’t, there’d be, if not no wars, far fewer of them.)

When it comes to memorializing I am as one with another wounded war veteran who became, like Fuller, a vital, idiosyncratic screenwriter. In his screenplay for The Americanization of Emily Paddy Chayefsky, through James Garner’s irrepressible Charlie Madison, preaches cowardice. “That’s my new religion,” Charlie says to Emily’s war-widowed mother:

“Cowardice will save the world. It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes wars. It’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny – always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some 10,000,000 humans in the interest of humanity. Next war, it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us. It’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved…”

“The Americanization of Emily”: Charlie Madison expounds on the nobility of the coward. (Left to right: Julie Andrews, James Garner and Joyce Grenfell.)

But Charlie/Paddy goes further, indicting in the complicity for needless death more or less everyone, Mrs. Barham included:

“It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. It’s always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades.

“We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio… An everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud…

“Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September… May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.”

Charlie, interestingly and ironically, later falls on Omaha, a casualty less of the war he reluctantly serves in than of the sudden madness of his Admiral, who insists that “The first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor!” and orders Charlie to film this “glorious” death. That he is wounded, not killed, is a further irony; it puts him in the international spotlight as the very thing he loathes: A living memorial.

Still. Even I, a pacifist to my bones and no lover of either war or of the military, have never been able to think of D-Day without a chill, and a sense of wonder at the intestinal fortitude it must have taken those boys — and they were largely boys — to storm those beaches. “Intestinal” is the right word, I think, not only for the reserves of strength, metal, physical and psychic, it required (even if, as in all organized combat, the only choice was to stand and die, or move and maybe live) but for the short voyage from the troop ships to the shore in those gut-loosening little landing craft rocking on the waves, everyone aboard puking into his helmet or over the side. To know, as you neared the shore, that if your boat was not shelled to pieces before it landed, the moment it did those in the front were almost certain to be machine-gunned instantly and that, even if you survived that, you still stood a pretty good chance of being blown apart by a mine or a bomb, or shot to ribbons as you ran.

I’m also thinking today of Sam Fuller, and particularly of his semi-autobiographical 1980 masterwork The Big Red One, the epic reconstruction of Fuller’s own experiences in the Second World War, including D-Day. Working with a much smaller budget — and, hence with fewer bodies and far less recourse to elaborate special effects — than Steven Spielberg had at his command for his later (and infinitely bloodier) re-creation of Omaha in Saving Private Ryan, Fuller still managed to convey the event in terms that, whatever its practical limitations, left no doubt as to the horror, the confusion, and the hideous odds that attended the event. And, since by the D-Day section of Fuller’s movie we know the five central characters much more intimately than any of the corresponding figures in Ryan, our investment in their fates is far greater than with Spielberg’s version, despite the level of graphic hideousness, necessary to a full, realistic image of what happened on that beach on that day. We are, therefore, less moved by what occurs in Spielberg’s movie than merely staggered. (Fuller, additionally, was not saddled, as was his successor, with a risible, ludicrous plot; Lee Marvin’s Sergeant would simply have shot Matt Damon and finished his mission.) There’s a recurring image in the D-Day sequence of The Big Red One that is at once astonishing, economical, and utilitarian: A soldier’s arm in the shallows, a still-ticking watch on its wrist. Each time Fuller cuts back to that wrist, the water is that much bloodier, and we get an instant sense of time as it elapses on that watch-face.

Speaking of time, I’m struck today, as I often am, by the mutable relativity of it. When I was much younger, and the events of World War II were only 20 or 25 years in the past, I couldn’t fathom that, to me, vast abyss of time. It seemed as far away from my own reality as the Civil War. I don’t know, but I suspect this dislocation must be very common in the young: You can’t quite reconcile the idea of time when your own age can be counted in single digits; coming to grips with a time that’s longer ago than you’ve been alive seems, somehow, impossible. I imagine this is one reason younger people (under 20, say) have difficulty finding immediate relevance in history, or indeed in any period longer than their own conscious memory. When I was 4, the war had only been over for 20 years. Now it’s been over for almost 70, and yet it seems much less long ago to me than when I was a child. Such are the disturbing vagaries of age.

Whatever my reticence to celebrating this as an anniversary, as opposed to merely marking it with respect, I can understand those who do: The inhabitants of Normandy, for instance, for whom D-Day spelled the end of their domination by Hitler, and conquered Europe generally, for which it was the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime.

And, of course, the survivors.

In his memoir A Third Face, Sam Fuller recounts what was said on Omaha by a colonel he particularly admired, “There are two kinds of men out here! The dead! And those who are about to die! So let’s get the hell off this beach and at least die inland!”

As the Robert Carradine character in The Big Red One — not coincidentally, Fuller’s stand-in — says in voice-over at the end of the picture: “Surviving is the only glory in war.”

Amen, Sammy.

Samuel Fuller (with his wife Christa Lang.) Survivor.

Samuel Fuller (with his wife Christa Lang) at Omaha. Survivor.

Text (other than that by Samuel Fuller and Paddy Chayesfky) copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Standard
History

“I did not hear fire engines and we understood”: Kristallnacht

[Note: This post originally ran on an earlier blog of mine on 9 November 2013.]

By Scott Ross

In a Weekend Edition Saturday piece commemorating the 75th anniversary ofKristallnacht, the Holocaust survivor Margot Friedlander notes of what translates to The Night of the Broken Glass, “I did not hear fire engines and we understood then that they didn’t come because they wanted the synagogues to burn. We never thought that Germans would stand by, and not do something about it.”
http://www.npr.org/2013/11/09/241903489/bearing-witness-to-nazis-life-shattering-kristallnacht

Kristallnacht more properly translates, colloquially, as “The Night of the Broken Crystal.” The symbolism was plain: Jews enjoy their ill-gotten luxury while “real” Germans starve; let us smash their riches, and their owners. The anti-Semitism had been building, of course, but with the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst von Rath by the Polish-Jewish Herschel Grynszpan, the Nazis (via the S.A.) finally had their excuse for widespread, and rampant, terrorism against the Jews of Germany and Austria.

Herschel Grynszpan as depicted in the Nazi press: As a stereotypically bloodthirsty, hook-nosed thug.

Herschel Grynszpan as he actually was.

Between 9 and 10 November 1938, 1000 synagogues burned; 7000 Jewish businesses were destroyed; 30000 Jews were arrested and 91 murdered—a tiny foretaste of the genocidal horror to come.

To what was no doubt its own vast amusement, the German government then fined the Jews of Germany for the cost of the damages.

A few anti-Semitic cartoons of the period.

“Never again?” Hardly. The world has “stood by and done nothing” countless times since 1938, and will doubtless do so again.

In the Weekend Edition piece cited above, Stefan Redlich, spokesman for the Berlin police is quoted as saying, “The Berlin police protects all Jewish schools, all hospitals, all kindergartens and all synagogues in the city” [while] “noting that 250 policemen stand guard in front of Jewish properties throughout the city.

“But German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said she is not proud of this fact: ‘I feel deep shame that there is not a single Jewish building in Germany without police protection because we still have to worry about anti-Semitic attacks.’

“Merkel’s concerns are justified. On last year’s Kristallnacht anniversary, vandals in the northeastern city of Greifswald removed a number of cobblestone memorials.

“Seventy-five years on, though, Germans refuse to stand by and watch. To mark this anniversary, they are taking to the streets — chamois leather in hand — to polish the brief, brass biographies that serve as a daily reminder of lives cut short by the Holocaust.”

Meanwhile, in the former Soviet Union, where the population eagerly acts on Putin’s pogroms against gay Russians with salivating bloodlust, preparations are under way for the Winter Olympics. A good time, perhaps, to invoke this Jewish Chronicle cartoon, published as Herr Hitler and his minions played host to the 1936 Olympiad.

Never forget? Never again?

Don’t make me laugh.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Standard