On Wednesday 4 September 2013, Parliament Street hosted Jonathan Aitken, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and biographer of Richard Nixon, to speak on the 37th President’s centenary in the House of Commons.
While many biographies of Nixon have appeared over the years Aitken, an interesting and controversial figure in his own right, was one of the few writers to interview Nixon personally. His book, Nixon: A Life published in 1993, has long been considered essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the man.
Of the topics Aitken touched on the one that I felt had the most relevance to today was the toxic political environment that built up in the late 60s and early 70s as a result of the Vietnam war. The animosity between left and right, embodied perhaps most famously in Nixon’s ‘enemies list’, was blamed for the poisonous environment where aids felt they had implicit permission to do whatever it took to damage the other side. It was hard not to see parallels with political discourse in America and throughout the western world today.
In Aitken’s words Nixon wanted to “out hate” his enemies. It was this culture, together with Nixon’s dogmatic tenacity, that led him to start a cover up once he learned what had happenedat Watergate “to avoid having to apologise to those people”, and instead began digging a grave that would be nailed shut by his Oval Office tapes.
Aitken gave a particularly compelling account of how a mindset like this can develop. Speaking, in his own words, “as a person who’s covered up a few things myself” he was able to paint a clear picture of how a refusal to admit mistakes was able to grow into the measuring stick for political scandals.
An interesting side note came from Aitken’s discussion of the famous David Frost interviews, recently depicted in the Oscar winning film Frost/Nixon. That the event came so shortly after Sir David’s passing was unplanned but made a discussion these interviews all the more relevant. Accounts written after Frost’s passing discussed how, rather than the ‘gotcha’ moment of journalistic legend, Nixon’s apology to the American people was premeditated and even rehearsed with the intention of allowing him, to the extent possible, to rehabilitate his image in history. Aitken described this process “running for the post of ex-President of the United States. In this it was clear Aitken felt he had been successful. He described how Nixon came, in time, to be treated as an elder statesman and consulted on foreign policy by future Presidents. This, along with his foreign policy accomplishments, was Aitken felt that Nixon would be treated more kindly by historians than one might think.
Jonathan Aitken signs a book for an audience member
The discussion on Nixon’s foreign policy felt particularly timely as well. One questioner asked what he thought Nixon would have done about Syria. Mr Aitken responded that he thought Nixon, who he described as a “Granite realist”, would have focused entirely on the endgame and how it would affect American interests. He said he personally found it hard to see how the current strategy would strengthen the US’s position in the world.
On Nixon’s historic journey to China two aspects were stressed; firstly just how outlandish the idea was within the US foreign policy at the time and secondly how, having been elected “to end the war in Vietnam” engagement with China was part of a specific strategy of triangular super-power diplomacy with the USSR to isolate the Vietcong.
Flaws in Nixon’s foreign policy were addressed also. One audience member asked if Nixon’s Cold War achievements should be seen as short term compared to the later achievements of Reagan and Thatcher in bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union. Aitken’s responded that Nixon’s achievements had to be looked at in the contexts of the Soviet position at the the time, the Russian financial position was far weaker by the 1980’s and Gorbachev was a very different leader to Khrushchev, and that the long term significance of opening up China is still being comprehended to this day.
Mr Aitken started and finished by saying that he felt that Nixon’s stock was “a buy” on the historical stock market. Whether that is the case is open to question but one certainty is that Mr Aitken helped a young audience a window into the life one of the most interesting, divisive, intelligent and flawed figures in modern history.