If you are of my generation [soon to be 62] and lived in the UK at the time, can you remember where you were on the 9th August, 1974? I do. In the early hours of that morning I was making my way gradually – and frustratingly considering the sense of urgency – on a slow Honda C50 towards Ipswich to deliver an article I had just written for the Evening Star, the town’s local newspaper.
It did not print my report for that morning’s edition, nor at any time afterwards. I wasn’t a journalist [though aspiring to be one] and the diatribe probably wasn’t that well written, though intensely earnest. It was also adamantly political, so not a provincial paper’s normal fare – for unsolicited contributions in particular – and it also had a foreign political focus: American to be precise, written by an American living in England and staying that night in Kesgrave, a suburb on the A12 outside Ipswich.
The article I had composed in outraged haste contained my immediate, impassioned response to having watched Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, delivered in fact on the 8th August from the Oval Office at the White House, but I will have seen it live at 3am [I am guessing] on the 9th on the television at Kesgrave UK. I was incensed by the defensive tone of his speech with attempts to deflect from his criminal guilt by references to what he perceived to have been his achievements whilst in office as President. I obviously won’t have been alone in this feeling, but by some strange, naïve rationale I imagined I was the only American living in that part of Suffolk and felt sure others would want to read my informed-by-nationality observations in the main local paper.
I have been prompted to write this brief remembrance now for two reasons: first, yesterday I was reading Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger in preparation for another piece I intend to post about Nixon’s Secretary of State and Foreign Security Adviser – and fellow criminal – illustrating how this links to a published poem of mine from the late 70s about him and the Viet Nam war; second, last night I also watched the Sky Arts’ broadcast of the CNN programme The Seventies: The United States vs The President which was focused on Watergate, Nixon’s involvement in this and his subsequent impeachment and resignation.
When I revisited that resignation speech online, I looked immediately for the quote Nixon had used as his primary argument of self-justification and which had angered me so much when first heard. This is the allusion that still appals:
Sometimes I have succeeded and sometimes I have failed, but always I have taken heart from what Theodore Roosevelt once said about the man in the arena, “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again because there is not effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deed, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievements and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
I cannot find the article I wrote on that same night, but recall I began by making reference to this Roosevelt quote and my contempt for Nixon’s arrogant, preposterous appropriation of it, especially the ‘man in the arena’ metaphor of a nobility attained by at least having tried. My instinct then was, I believe, sharp and correct, and this view was reinforced by watching that CNN programme where the collation of judicial hearings, news reports and other expositions of the time surrounding the Watergate revelations continually exposed Nixon’s haughty contempt for acknowledging the truth.
There is little need for me to try and add to the mass of analysis out there on this – what struck me last night whilst watching was how I had missed all of that American media coverage of the time. We just didn’t have the depth of current, intense focus here in England, obviously, or it wasn’t easy to access like it would be now. Had I followed the protracted procrastination of Nixon in refusing, for example, demands to release the Oval Office tapes as well as his contemptible demands to have Special Prosecutors fired, I would have been even more enraged – if that were possible – to hear him invoke the words of Roosevelt. Whilst I can all these years later reflect on the masterful art of rhetoric employed in this speech, I can never remain neutral about its shameful artifice.