This election has got me thinking about Richard Nixon. For all of his flaws, which were legion, he had depth. He had style. Bebe Rebozo would fix him chilled martinis at seven parts gin to one part vermouth. Of course, he also had a self-destructive streak that compelled him–and us–to live out a Greek tragedy called Watergate. What made the tragedy mythic was that Nixon was the ideal protagonist. He was a modern version of Richard III who was instrumental in creating the imperial presidency, which has been perfected since by Brand Obama. But he also opened up China, took the dollar off the gold standard, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, and fought for lowering the voting age to eighteen. I actually think the voting age should be 35, but that’s another story.
Compare that with today. What do we have? A shrill, power-driven politician with a pants-suit collection who has made hay of her husband’s philandering and a real estate developer who treats his campaign appearances as if they were Dean Martin celebrity roasts. As sympathetic as I am to the Trumpster for his arrogance and plain-talk (imagine a crass Harry Truman), I keep waiting for him to get serious about the issues. It’s not as if the Republicans don’t have a platform. Why not talk about it? I have the same reaction when priests give a homily that has nothing to do with the readings. It bothers me no end.
Social media has enabled this. Both sides use it to hurl schoolyard invectives at each other. I think it should be called “anti-social media,” especially when so much of it is not just ideological but delusional. Clinton is a Communist and Trump a bigoted nativist. If you listen to what they actually said rather than what those with an agenda want you to believe, you’ll see that much of what passes for news is orchestrated newspeak. Everything is controlled. The Democratic convention is a case in point. One third of the delegates–Bernie supporters–walked out in disgust, but you’d never know it watching network television.
Another troubling development is the claim by many that they made up their minds about the candidates after watching their acceptance speeches. But these speeches are meticulously crafted productions of sound and fury signifying nothing. They are permeated with cliched thinking meant for a television audience whose attention span has grown shorter and shorter over the years. It’s no different than deciding which toothpaste to buy based on the bright colors on the box. Of course, what’s really troubling is that it works. Life in the twenty-first century is all about marketing. Reading? It’s a town in Pennsylvania.
I find it more than ironic that, according to Jerry Zeifman, chief of staff of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate investigation (1974), a young Hillary Clinton was fired from her staff position for writing a “fraudulent legal brief,” confiscating public documents, and lying in an effort to bring down Nixon and protect key Democrats. She has since graduated to deleting 30,000 emails, which beats Nixon’s 18 1/2 minute gap in the White House tapes.
Trump, on the other hand, has managed to remain free of major scandals, which is why so much criticism is directed at his personality. Frankly, I don’t care whether a candidate swears, blows his nose in the shower, or cross-dresses. I am interested in his or her party’s stand on the issues and how they plan to work with the opposition to get things done.
I also don’t worry about what the Germans think of us. Or the French, Belgians, or Venezuelans. As a Korean colleague said to me, “We look to America for leadership. But if you’re not leading, then what do we do?” It reminded me of the flight attendant instruction about adjusting your own mask before assisting others. It is also the reason I am not a globalist, even though I am open to and appreciative of other cultures. This does not mean I am an isolationist. Far from it.
I don’t long for the days of “Tricky Dicky,” but at least he was an adult. A corrupt one, sure, but he could also act like a statesman. Look at a video of the 1960 debates with John F. Kennedy. I can’t imagine either one of them saying the things that were said during the current campaign even though there was no love lost between them.
Today, we have petulant children in adult roles saying things that any rational person should find disturbing. One will tell you what she thinks you want to hear; the other will tell you what he thinks will shock you. That’s quite a contest: a liar versus a loose cannon.
And the Constitution? In 1974 we proved that it worked. The coup d’état never happened, although some claim that it took place in 1963. The problem is that amendments are being lobbed off left and right. Soon, all that will be left will be a Constitutional twig.
Maybe what we need “now more than ever” (Nixon’s 1972 campaign slogan) is reason, but that takes depth.
That’s why I am voting for Gil Fulbright.
Nixon martini photo from Barnaby Conrad, The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1995), 74.
Take me to the beach with you: BEACH! It’s not too late.