1974 - The corruption of power

How could it have happened? Who is to blame? Richard Nixon asked these questions rhetorically on 30 April 1973 when he addressed the people for the first time on the subject of Watergate. "I want to talk to you tonight from my heart on a subject of deep concern to every American," he began. He had been appalled to hear of the Watergate break-in on 17 June 1972; he had ordered a full investigation and he had been assured repeatedly that no members of his Administration were involved; not until 21 March 1973 had he had reason to doubt these assurances, and as a result he had assumed responsibility personally for intensive new inquiries; he was determined to bring out the truth, no matter who was involved. He accepted responsibility but not blame; it would be cowardly to blame his subordinates, he said (thereby imputing that they were to blame). And with that he declared: "I must now turn my attention once again to the larger duties of this office."

A year later to the day the President released a 1,200-page transcript of tape-recorded meetings and telephone conversations covering chiefly the six weeks preceding that first public defence of himself on television. The transcripts utterly condemn his presidency. They present an intimate portrait of a man morally unfit to occupy his high office. They question the previous judgement of most critics and admirers alike that Richard Nixon, whatever his deficiencies, is a man of quick mind and firm grasp, a consummate politician. The questions he asked about Watergate - How could it have happened? Who is to blame? - must now be asked about his presidency. How did such a man come to occupy the White House?

We are obliged to consider seriously, in the light of the new evidence of the tapes, whether the root explanation is that the White House in 1968 became occupied by a psychopath, possibly a schizophrenic. Several of the transcripts reveal him playing twin roles, one moment Richard Nixon (Mr Hyde) and the other the President (Dr Jekyll). Washington has long been rife with rumour concerning the President's mental health, some of it well-authenticated from within the Administration. Certainly his observable behaviour has often, to say the least, been strange, although paranoia and manic-depression, too easily mistaken for schizophrenia, are frequently found in the wielders of great power.

For me the most striking insight into the President's mentality came last year. In Memphis, Tennessee, he met Republican governors who were desperate for reassurance. "Mr President, are there any more bombshells in the wings?" he was asked. He replied that there was none within his knowledge. The next day, back in Washington, Judge Sirica was informed that 18 minutes of a crucial tape recording was mysteriously obliterated. Later testimony allowed no doubt that the President was aware of this when he gave the governors the assurance they asked in Memphis. Nixon, in short, behaved like a child denying that a vase has been broken when the pieces are lying on the floor in the next room. Either he had become utterly reckless, no longer concerned with the remaining shreds of his credibility, or unable to connect with reality. He was beyond the reach of conventional political analysis.

His entire presidency begins to focus if we begin to examine him not as a success but as a failure. He had failed, although narrowly, in his bid for the presidency in 1960; he had failed, humiliatingly, in his run for the governorship of California in 1962; and in 1968, when a donkey could have beaten a Democrat, Richard Nixon, the born loser, nearly managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He never for a moment forgot during his first term that he was the 43-per-cent president. That entire first term was a campaign for re-election, for a victory that he could count according to his own strange standard, by which anything short of total victory is defeat . . .

Nixon was not corrupted by power, he corrupted power. A powerful presidency does not have to produce a crook any more than a strong man has to be a thug. McCarthyism rose and fell under Truman, militarism grew under Eisenhower, but there were no Watergates. Nixon's presidency is the projection of his personality, his probably split personality. A charlatan and opportunist, lacking any firm commitment or ideological belief, he made do with the traditional, fundamentalist values of his Middle American background. The force of his destructive power is evil, but happily his exercise of power has been inept and lacking in direction, mistaking appearance for substance, concerned more with petty vendetta than with wide-scale repression. As Haldeman lamented: "We are so [adjective deleted] square that we got caught at everything." A PR man does not have the makings of an effective tyrant. He is a thoroughly nasty piece of work who brought disgrace upon his office and his country and who killed a lot of people in Asia. Watergate was entirely characteristic of his presidency - dishonest, disgraceful, inept. How could it have happened? Who is to blame? It happened because Americans elected Richard M Nixon to be President of the United States - an unfortunate choice, but were they to know they were electing a psycopath? Who is to blame? Nixon is to blame - Nixon's the one.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser