For a man of any age it would have been remarkable. But President Richard Nixon — it is an amiable habit of the Americans not to remove the title from anyone who has occupied the supreme office of state — is in his eightieth year.
He began by speaking softly of his early recollections of London, of his hero Churchill, of Attlee, a courteous and subtle man whom he greatly respected. He had become a Republican congressman in 1947 and with colleagues had come over to consider how the shattered European economy could be rebuilt. One of the fruits of the visit was congressional support for the Marshall Plan.
There can be few politicians of his generation who speak with such authority and understanding of international affairs, or who in their later years retain so much intellectual force.
And it was hard to remember, as he held spellbound an audience full of senior politicians and public figures, that this career of enormous distinction had been marred by two ugly and unsavoury passages — the enthusiastic part he played in the McCarthy witch-hunts, particularly his pursuit of Alger Hiss, and the Watergate scandal which drove him, disgraced, from the presidency in 1974.
This week there were some in the audience of conservative disposition ready to proclaim that the Washington Post’s famous exercise in investigative journalism had done the US and the world a grave disservice by removing so skilful and perceptive a statesman from public life.
That is going much too far but Nixon’s contribution to international relations over many years is incontestable. As Eisenhower’s Vice-President between 1953 and 1961 he began what we can now see was the beginning of the thaw in the Cold War. He defied domestic criticism to travel both to Russia and China. And he was one of the first western statesman to recognise the coming importance of China.
Well, he told us this week, the sleeping giant has at last awakened. One of the points I inferred from his remarks was that Britain may be making the most enormous hash of its policy in Hong Kong.
He was too polite to say so in London. His overt warning was to his fellow Americans. He said that China was going to be the next economic and military superpower, with nuclear capacity if it wanted it.
This erstwhile pursuer of communists in the US is completely pragmatic when dealing with communist states where human rights are suppressed. To annoy China by removing its preferential trading status with the US would be folly, he implied. It would not change anything in China. It would merely be an irritant. (President Bush earlier this year vetoed a Bill ending China’s most favoured nation status.)
Nixon said it was better to rely on economic pluralism to spawn, as it inevitably would, a growth in political rights. By implication Britain’s policy, of increasing democratic representation in Hong Kong, to the evident fury of the Chinese, is tarred by the same injudicious brush — although it could be argued that the present Chinese leadership will have gone by the time Hong Kong is absorbed in 1997 and that an entirely new climate will develop.
The core of Nixon’s address was that Yeltsin must be given more help if he is to survive. The failure of reform would be a disastrous setback for democracy and the spread of economic liberalism. Cold War 2 was not an impossibility if it all went wrong.
Impressive though his argument was, I found two asides rather more interesting. The first was historical. Eisenhower had told him, long after the Suez invasion of 1956, that the US had made a grave error of judgment. It had bolstered Nasser and undermined two of its most loyal allies, Britain and France.
The second point offered an insight into both the nature of American politics and the character of the man himself. Here before us, just for a mere instant, stood the cynical and ruthless machine politician of the Watergate tapes.
Don’t worry, he assured the audience on the not entirely correct assumption that it was composed of like-minded conservatives, if President Bill Clinton brings out any really radical legislation Senator Dole and the Republican conservative alliance in Congress will fix it.
The moment passed. The politician stepped back and the statesman took over again. But it triggered in my mind vivid recollections of the Watergate affair and of how Nixon had been forced from office.
After all those years much remains mysterious. Deep Throat, the anonymous informant of the Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein, has never been identified. Was it simply, as some in this week’s audience were ready to argue, an unforgivable and excessive use of press power which deprived American public life of one of its most distinguished servants?
I think not. Watergate was about the dirty tricks used by the Nixon campaign to defeat McGovern in 1972. Big issues about political conduct were involved. Yet it was in the end a small thing that finally ended his resistance.
This was the foul language revealed by the tapes to be in habitual use in the White House. The infamous deleted expletives did for Nixon, just as a Thresher’s wine bill almost did for Norman Lamont. The public do not really like it when the mask slips to reveal the fallible human being behind the statesman.
As the former No. 10 press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham said in his Town and Gown lecture at Strathclyde University last week, the public slavers over the disclosures about the royals. It flocks to buy the papers which feature them most sensationally. It savours their misfortunes and then denounces them. As Macaulay said of the British public’s periodic fits of morality, it is not a pleasant spectacle.
But such are the daft rules of public life. Nixon played the game for a long time. He eventually lost. He has fought back as a fecund writer and commentator on international affairs. His reception this week showed, if proof were needed, that he occupies a place of high respect among his peers. Tricky Dick is that no longer: he is a class act, a politician’s politician, and like the others at dinner this week I felt privileged to have heard his fluent discourse.
Editorial Notebook, Dec 6 1992.