At the gate

Like many people, I remember certain dates in my life because of the major political events that happened then. One of these is August 8, 1974. I had just returned to Ireland from Germany, and was preparing to begin my studies in Trinity College Dublin. That evening I had been invited to a party, and as I was returning rather late at night I heard on the car radio that Richard Nixon had resigned, and I was able to listen to extracts from his resignation speech delivered in the Oval Office of the White House. It was the culmination of the events that had begun with the burglary of the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate complex in Washington two years earlier, which eventually implicated the President and changed American politics. It also produce the sometimes irritating practice of adding ‘gate’ as a suffix to names of political or other scandals.

For many of my generation in the early to mid-1970s, Richard Nixon was one of the really great villains, and back in August 1974 my rather happy post-party mood was greatly enhanced by the news. And indeed the events and revelations around Watergate tended to portray a president who was at best cynical about political integrity, and a system that was easily corrupted. And yet, with a growing distance from the mood of the time, history may yet view Nixon differently. His foreign policy in particular could be described as smart and imaginative, and even some of his domestic initiatives were progressive. Indeed by the end of his life in the early 1990s he hasd become something of an elder statesman, with admirers in unexpected quarters.

However, in the end Nixon will also always be a reminder of the destructiveness of political corruption, just as Watergate will be a symbol of vigilance where democracy may be at risk. The specific details of what happened at the time of the burglary and the subsequent attempted cover-up may get lost in the mists of time, but the significance of the scandal almost certainly will not. And that is a good thing.

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7 Comments on “At the gate”

  1. Vincent Says:

    It will be his seat on The House Committee on Un-American Activities that will be his undoing to the historiographers. It shows form.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    certainly interesting times. Francis Wheen’s book is an interesting take on this whole period: ‘Strange days indeed’

  3. kevin denny Says:

    The Watergate business had a big effect on us in school: on the Students Representative Council in which I was active we spent much of the time trying to impeach each other: happy days. I find the over-use of the “gate” suffix intensely annoying, yet another example of lazy journalism. Until such time as there a Kevin-gate perhaps.

  4. James Conran Says:

    Watergate was but the tip of a very nasty iceberg. I don’t know how reliable Anthony Summers’ biography “The Arrogance of Power” is but it’s worth checking out before we go too far rehabilitating Tricky. The apparent sabotaging for political ends by candidate Nixon of the 1968 Paris peace talks, the horrendous bombing campaigns in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Chilean coup…. Breaking into an office pales besides the wider scroll of sins.

  5. Yes James, I accept those are good points. I might however say that some if your comments probably relate more to Henry Kissinger, who I think is one of the villains of the 20th century.

  6. James Conran Says:

    I think in the realm of foreign policy one has to give equal blame (Indochina, Chile etc) and equal credit (Cold War detente) to Nixon and Kissinger – it’s not like Kissinger was a rogue operator doing terrible things Nixon didn’t want him to do. If anything Kissinger at least brought a welcome dose of rationality (however amoral) to a highly unstable president.

    It is true that looking back Nixon seems in some respects a picture of centrist moderation given the rightward shift of the Republicans since Reagan. He did, for instance, set up the EPA.

  7. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    The question for me is: was he a really bad president or was it that he just got caught.

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