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20 November 2019

​BBC Radio Four’s old fashioned, unsparing series of essays on the 1970s

By Antonia Quirke

A series of essays on the 1970s sounded best when talking about Richard Nixon’s demise (5 April, 1:45pm). I never tire of hearing about the spiritual cost of Watergate: it puts me in a pleasant Seventies fug, peopled by Jason Robards with his hands mockingly on his hips. Eighty-three-year-old political writer Elizabeth Drew, unsparing chronicler of American politics since the Johnson administration, narrated.

What a name – suggesting eyes almost permanently narrowed (someone once asked Drew how she’d like to be introduced at an awards, and she said she’d like them to say “that I’m really not the pain in the ass that everybody thinks”). And the voice: pointedly undramatic, reporter-ish, with a very vague hint of Kentucky in its vowels. The Nixon White House, Drew tells us, sheltered “a combination of thugs and crackpots” and a president who “didn’t much like people and was odd around them”. Frequently Nixon seemed “out of control”, and once gave a “strange rambling speech” in which he spoke of his mother
(“a saint”).

Trump’s name inevitably appears, just once, but then we hear Nixon himself speaking, bidding farewell to his staff, as though he were some wise old mentor slipping manfully away from the auditorium. “Always remember others may hate you. But those who do won’t win, unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” It’s hardly Shakespeare (“proud can I never be of what I hate”), but Trump could never manage such a statement – although he and Nixon share a fondness for self-pity, and self-mythologising.

My pleasant Seventies fug darkened with the tendrils of imagined plots headswimmingly various, about Vietnam and the wholesale expansion of the CIA. And about today’s threats to democracy: the fear that as a system it has made us too blasé, the harbingers of inequality less and less willing to agree on things. All implied in the old-fashioned, uninflected voice of Elizabeth Drew. A voice dropping bombs, while minimising the surface area of dread. 

The Decade that Invented the Future: The 1970s
BBC Radio 4

This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure