Saturday, August 9, 2014

Here's To The State Of Richard Nixon: Tricky Dick's Exit Revisited

"Here's to the state of Richard Nixon
For underneath his borders the devil draws no line
If you drag his muddy rivers nameless bodies you will find

 "And the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes
And the calender is lyin' when it reads the present time
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Richard Nxon find yourself another country to be part of
--Phil Ochs, "Here's To The State Of Richard Nixon"

Forty years ago today, Richard Nixon made history by becoming the only president to resign -- a step that removed him off the national stage, if only for a time.  Hemmed in by an ever-growing paper and audiotape trail of high crimes and misdemeanors that seemed fated to end in his impeachment, Nixon did what any politician does in similar circumstances -- he took the option that allowed him to preserve what remained of his benefits and privileges, and waved the white flag.

Then and now, it's safe to say that Richard Nixon arouses strong emotions like few other political figures. For all the constant media prattling about "The Cynical Seventies," "The Me Decade," and the risk of apathy eating away at the fibers of our fair republic, I don't ever remember anyone simply shrugging Nixon off. People either liked him, or they didn't.

In January 1975, MAD #172 ran a back cover photo shot that read: "...SO WHY NOT...PARDON HITLER?" Several years later, when I showed it to my best friend in high school, his eyes bugged wide, and he gasped: "Wow!  That's when MAD made political statements!"  (For the actual photo, see the link below.)

When I got to college, I remember a political science professor telling our class, "I hated Richard Nixon, and I voted against him every chance I ever got."

In 1991, I got  a letter from an acquaintance whom I'd encountered during some anti-nuclear protests.  The letter bore a recently-issued 37-cent stamp of Nixon.  Across the top of the stamp, my pal had written -- in capital letters, no less -- "THE QUITTER."

When I took the envelope to the local post office, the clerk who waited on me didn't seemed fazed. "Oh, yeah," she said, on taking a closer look. "People either want the stamp, or they don't." Only a year before his death, Nixon still seemed capable of arousing the deepest animosities from people who hadn't forgotten his various misdeeds and missteps.

"Let me make one thing perfectly clear..."

"And here's to the laws Richard Nixon
Where the wars are fought in secret, Pearl Harbor every day
He punishes with income tax that he don't have to pay
And he's tapping his own brother just to hear what he would say
"But corruption can be classic in the Richard Nixon way
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Richard Nixon find yourself another country to be part of..."

It's worth remembering why the notorious earthy language and off-color comments captured on Nixon's infamous Oval Office recordings were so damaging to his presidency, and legacy -- in hindsight, the tapes revealed more about "Tricky Dick" or "Richard the Chicken-Hearted" (as his detractors often labeled him) than anyone, including his closest cronies, wanted to know.

These excerpts from the Washington Post's writeup of August 9, 1974 ("Nixon Resigns") give a vivid glimpse of the inner machinations surrounding the final departure of America's now-ex-thirty-seventh president: 

"Mr. Nixon's brief speech was delivered in firm tones and he appeared to be complete control of his emotions. The absence of rancor contrasted sharply with the 'farewell' he delivered in 1962 after being defeated for the governorship of California. 

"An hour before the speech, however, the President broke down during a meeting with old congressional friends and had to leave the room. 

"He had invited 20 senators and 26 representatives for a farewell meeting in the Cabinet room. Later, Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.), one of those present, said Mr. Nixon said to them very much what he said in his speech. 

"'He just told us that the country couldn't operate with a half-time President,' Goldwater reported. 'Then he broke down and cried and he had to leave the room. Then the rest of us broke down and cried.'"

And:  "One official, who has known Mr. Nixon well for many years and remains a White House aide, commented: 'He is obviously a bad judge of character. But a lot was accomplished. So much more could have been accomplished but for these fun and games. It was such a stupid thing to happen.'

"It seemed inevitable then that this would be his last week in office, yet he continued to fight back and to insist that he would not resign. On Tuesday, the President held a Cabinet meeting and told his official family that he would not resign.

"On Wednesday, however, the end appeared near, for his support on Capitol Hill was disappearing at dizzying speed. There were demands from some of his staunchest supporters that he should resign at once." 

"And here's to the government Richard Nixon
In the swamp of their bureaucracy they're always draggin' down
And criminals are posing as advisors to the crown
And they hope that no one sees the sights and no one hears the sound

"And the speeches of the president are the ravings of a clown
Oh here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Richard Nixon find yourself another country to be part of..." 

Like everyone else in America, it seemed, our family sat in the den, as the final crashing and burning of Nixon's presidency played itself out live on national TV. However, the smoke had barely cleared from the soundbites already being chewed over, like a dog scrabbling with a bone ("America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress"; "I leave with no bitterness toward those who have opposed me"; "I have never been a quitter"; "I must put the interests of America first"), before the million dollar question started popping from countless lips: did he admit his guilt? Did he apologize? Did he say that he was sorry?

That question, of course, has preoccupied countless commentators and historians ever since Nixon's resignation became official, 40 years ago today, after giving his speech the night before. For my money, though, the answer depends on whom you ask.

As you might imagine, Phil Ochs (1940-1976) offered a rather different take on the matter, which is why I chose to include some of these lyrics in his post.  Like many critics who ran afoul of "Tricky Dick," Ochs felt the sting of presidential abuses of power. It's now a matter of public record that the FBI kept a 500-page (!) file on Ochs -- although, in rendering his name as "Oakes," proved the usual slippery grasp of spelling and grammar that characterizes bureaucrats the world over.

It's equally worth remembering that these abuses of power -- the covert surveillance of Nixon's real (and imagined) enemies, the never-ending public smear campaigns, the wiretaps and the unleashing of federal agencies like the IRS to comb for any opening at official retribution, subsidized by the taxpayer -- occurred largely out of sight, and when the more astute pointed them out, they were greeted with cricket sounds and snickers: "You're being followed? Oh, ha-ha-ha, that's so funny, that can't happen here. You're being paranoid."

However, as Bob Gruen has pointed out in The U.S. Vs. John Lennon -- and bear with me here, since I'm paraphrasing from memory -- "We were paranoid, because we were being followed."  Suddenly, all the snickering doesn't seem all that funny anymore.

"Here's To The State Of Richard Nixon" summarizes how popular feeling was running against the soon-to-depart chief executive. In true folk tradition, Ochs dusted off an earlier song ("Here's To The State of Mississippi"), and updated its lyrics to aim at the president's predicament. Released in January 1974, the song ended up as the B-side of "Power And The Glory" -- also reworked from an earlier recorded incarnation, with a fife and drum corps -- but time hasn't diminished its power. (Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder certainly thought so by updating the song as "Here's To The State Of George W." My quick sweep of Youtube also revealed a protest by two Ventura, CA teachers decrying maneuvers made by the Golden State's political class -- "Here's To The State Of Education."  You get the idea...)

Before embarking on this post, I happened to catch a few minutes of discussion on CNN -- one of those situations where the anchors have to kill some time before moving on to the next hour of headlines. The million dollar question popped up yet again, naturally, with little substantive insight added -- except for one anchor who remarked that he saw Richard Nixon as a classic narcisisst who (and I'm paraphrasing loosely here, yet again) "thought that everything he said had value, and importance."  This observation sounds apt, especially when you see how relaxed the late chief executive seems before he's about to give the exit speech of a lifetime (see the MediaBurn link below, and judge for yourself).

So maybe the original million dollar question (Did he apologize? Did he say that he was sorry?) is less relevant than an equally valid one: When are some moral failings simply too great to ignore, let alone forgive?  And, in all fairness, this question doesn't only apply to Mr. Nixon -- it's also worth asking of his henchmen, as well, whose slippery morals need not be revisited here for the umpteenth time.

I suspect, however, that Phil Ochs's sister, Sonny, and his other surviving family members might have a different take on those questions...not to mention Isabel Allende, Daniel Ellsburg, the descendants of Helen Gahagan Douglas and Jerry Vorhis, as well as the Vietnamese and Laotions who tasted the smell of napalm for breakfast...their responses might make the late president's apologists start to sweat, shift in their seats, and squirm uncomfortably as they try desperately to change the subject. And rightfully so. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (And Then Some):
Daniel Ellsburg's Website:

Doug Gifford's MAD Cover Site:

MediaBurn Archive: Richard Nixon (Before Resignation And Full Speech, 8/8/74):

Phil Ochs: Here's To The State Of Richard Nixon (Live):

Phil Ochs: Here's To The State Of Richard Nixon (Guitar Chords+Lyrics):

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