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Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Page: 26053

Senator MASON (6:51 PM) —I want to speak briefly tonight on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Nixon. I want to say a few words about the good and the bad of Richard Nixon, and perhaps also a word about what that means to us today as both parliamentarians and citizens. Let me go back 30 years—not to Washington, or even the United States, but to Canberra. I must have been 10 or 11 years old and I went to visit my father who was a journalist with the United States Information Service at the American Embassy. I walked across the black and white checkerboard foyer at the American Embassy. I remember this vividly. I looked up and there was a picture of a smiling Richard Nixon, smiling probably because he had just had a landslide victory against Senator George McGovern—one of the greatest landslide victories in United States political history. You might have thought that would be a vindication of Nixon, but within two years he had resigned in disgrace.

This brings me to the paradox of Richard Nixon, who, perhaps with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt—who played politics with a deft hand and was a brilliant politician—remains one of the most fascinating figures of American political history. He embodies that paradox and the paradox is this: the great certainly are not always good and the good are not always great. While on the one hand he was a master at foreign policy, and I think that is agreed by all, on the other hand—and I can remember this as a kid—he suffered from the most acute personal insecurities, feelings of mistrust, bordering on paranoia. Towards the end he fell into drunken profanities, illegalities and in the end he was crucified by his own hatred. Richard Nixon was very much that paradox.

Sure, Nixon was a heavyweight. At his funeral his old friend Senator Bob Dole prophesied that in the future the second half of the 20th century would be known as `the age of Nixon'. He was speaking not just about Nixon's own political accomplishments but of Nixon's own dominating political career. Nixon was elected to congress in 1946, where he had a short but very prominent career. In 1950 he was elected to the Senate in California in a very anticommunist and strident campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas. Within two years his work in the Senate caught the attention of the party elders and General Eisenhower and, at the age of 39, he was elected Vice-President of the United States. He was a well respected Vice-President, assuming greater responsibilities in that office than many—he certainly did much work in foreign affairs—given that General Eisenhower suffered from ill health and had suffered heart attacks and on occasions could not assume full presidential duties.

It was only in 1960 after Nixon's defeat that his real test began. He was defeated by President Kennedy of course, by one of the smallest margins in political history. Many thought his career was over. He said he could not abide private life, he would be bored sick being a lawyer and he had to go back into politics. In 1962 he sought to be governor of California. Of course he was defeated in humiliating fashion. This was the lowest point of his political career, except perhaps when he resigned in 1974. But just when everyone wrote him off in 1962 he bounced back. The Republican Party was thrashed in the 1964 presidential election by President Johnson. In 1968 he secured the Republican nomination for President—as a private citizen—beating, among others, Governor Reagan of California. He did all those things—he moved about the country, he went overseas. He would pay any price, he said, to remain in the arena.

It was one of the most brilliant comebacks in American political history, to come back from six years in the wilderness as a private citizen to secure the presidency of the United States—an accomplishment that may never be repeated. Whatever else Nixon had, he had bucketloads of tenacity. He never gave up. In his inaugural address to the American people he drew on his Quaker heritage and said, `The greatest honour history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.' He ended the Vietnam War, averted nuclear war in the Middle East, opened the door to China and reached detente with the Soviet Union.

He did, for a while, create a safer world. But all of those accomplishments have to be seen in the context of or are now clouded by his personal insecurities, banality, pet hatreds, his `enemy list', the darkest of dark moods and, finally, illegality and criminal activity. There can be no excuses for a President, whom we expect to uphold the law and a constitution but who breaks them. Even worse perhaps is that his conduct led to diminished respect for the presidency and, more broadly, suspicion of government.

While I would like to say that the legacy of Watergate and Nixon is that the system works, I sometimes wonder. Nixon was a crook. He was caught—that was great—and the constitution was not subverted. But since then many presidents, prime ministers and other potentates have thought the lesson of Watergate is: don't get caught. It is a cynical view about the real lessons of Watergate for our leaders, but I sometimes wonder.

There is one aspect of Nixon that is not often talked about that comes out clearly in his autobiography. I remember reading it when I was about 17. It was the first major political biography that I read. People have to understand that Nixon was an outsider or he felt himself to be an outsider. He was a hardworking and brilliant student. He won a scholarship to Harvard, but he could not go because his parents did not have the finances. But for the rest of his life he hated the liberal establishment on the Eastern Seaboard: the intellectuals, the journalists, the liberal Republicans and others—the Ivy Leaguers. He said that they were out to get him. Of course they were in the end, but he ended up destroying himself. On his way to the helicopter after he had resigned, he said to the White House staff:

Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.

How very true. It is poignant that, at the moment of his exit, he finally realised that hate had destroyed him. But he said one thing in his farewell address to the White House staff that I think rings true for all of us. It is a lesson for all of us. As parliamentarians, particularly, you will understand this. I remember him saying, as I watched on TV:

... greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

It is such a paradox that in the case of Richard Nixon he saw further and understood more when he was struggling in the valleys than he ever saw when he was striding the summits.