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Australia Latham's Law

Latham’s Law

It used to be said of the late American President Richard Nixon, if he rubbed his nose he was telling the truth. If he tugged his ears he was telling the truth. But as soon as he opened his mouth, you knew he was lying. Tony Abbott in the House of Representatives, 24 March 2011

2 April 2011

12:00 AM

2 April 2011

12:00 AM

It used to be said of the late American President Richard Nixon, if he rubbed his nose he was telling the truth. If he tugged his ears he was telling the truth. But as soon as he opened his mouth, you knew he was lying.

Tony Abbott in the House of Representatives, 24 March 2011

It used to be said of the late American President Richard Nixon, if he rubbed his nose he was telling the truth. If he tugged his ears he was telling the truth. But as soon as he opened his mouth, you knew he was lying.

Tony Abbott in the House of Representatives, 24 March 2011

Planning is now underway at the Richard Nixon presidential library and birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, to celebrate the centenary of the great man’s birth on 9 January 1913. Some folk, of course, baulk at the use of the word ‘great’ when referring to Nixon. In their minds, Watergate overshadows all other aspects of his career.

But understand this about Watergate. Nixon spent most of his public life under siege. He made his name as an inexperienced congressman in 1948 by outing Alger Hiss as a communist, earning forever the enmity of America’s liberal elites. He narrowly lost the 1960 presidential race to John Kennedy and then saw Lyndon Johnson win a landslide victory in 1964 — two ruthless practitioners of hardball politics.


In his early runs for congress, Johnson was a notorious ballot rorter. In 1948 he earned the sobriquet ‘Landslide Lyndon’ when he defeated Coke Stevenson by just 87 votes in a rigged Senate election. Herein lies the double standard. Whereas historians have portrayed Johnson’s fraud as a boyish adventure, a romantic ascent from the Texan Hill Country to Capitol Hill, Watergate is used as a flaming stake through the heart of all things Nixonian.

Once in office, Nixon received little support from the right-wing edge of American politics. His record on environmental protection and his refusal to dismantle Johnson’s Great Society social programs were criticised as left-leaning sell-outs. His transformative diplomacy with China was viewed with biting suspicion: evidence, according to the Goldwater-ites, that his anti-communist credentials were, in fact, flimsy.

It was against this background, his isolation from Left and Right, that Nixon condoned the use of ‘dirty trick’ tactics by his Republican campaign machine. Yes, he went too far in trying to cover up Watergate and obstruct the course of justice. But just as much, he was the greatest international peacemaker of the second half of the 20th century. This, by any measure of history, made him great.

Conservatives today should draw succour from the Nixon legacy. In particular, his scepticism about the value of unlimited economic growth and materialism. In her splendid reflection Nixon in Winter (1998), Monica Crowley, his foreign policy advisor and confidant, explores Nixon’s values and philosophy in the final years of his life.

In January 1992 Nixon asked to borrow Crowley’s copy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, a book best remembered for the phrase, ‘What does not destroy me makes me stronger’. Nixon was drawn to Nietzsche’s concept of ‘the unbent bow’ — that without struggle in life, man grows soft and directionless.

Nixon spent much of his time thinking about the role of the US as the world’s last remaining superpower. He believed the country needed to recommit itself to the idea of struggle. Thus he saw the relevance of Nietzsche and the concept of ‘the last man’, a character so obsessed with material advancement he was incapable of dedicating himself to a higher cause (whether in the form of ideological, religious or national struggle).

‘Not only is the last man selfish,’ Nixon told Crowley, ‘but he is pathetic. Imagine not being able to achieve anything great because you have grown so soft and lax that you simply don’t have the energy or courage to do it? Material things make life more comfortable while you are here but they are just things. What defines you, what makes you who you are, is what you accomplish, and everything worth accomplishing requires a struggle. Of course, no one wants to hear that but it’s true.’

Now, more than ever, politicians need to hear it. The mantra of modern democracy is about so-called cost-of-living pressures, the inglorious rush to throw money at middle-class voters. This has produced a valueless, gormless approach to public life.

Conservatives have always styled themselves as attending to the traditional social values of family, community and the rule of law. Today, in lavishly subsidising ‘the last man’, their value set is empty. They have nothing to say about a society in which most citizens are materially rich yet relationship poor. They should listen to Nixon, not rubbish him. Tony Abbott take note.

The former president had a productive relationship with Chairman Mao, but his access to the old Hunan chilli-muncher was never as good as Bob Carr’s, as highlighted by their healthful swim across the Yangtze River. Mao and Carr also shared a love of educating the masses. While perhaps not as well known as The Little Red Book, Bob’s Blog is nonetheless a selfless way of sharing his thoughts with a grateful public.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find an error on the website. Carr records Labor’s Muslim MP, Eddie Husic, as having unsuccessfully contested the seat of Greenway at the 2007 elections. Actually, it was in 2004 — I campaigned with him across the flatlands of the incongruously named Seven Hills.

Bob’s old buddy would be devastated. As the Great Helmsman said as they towelled down together in the shade of the Wuhan Bridge, ‘The revolution relies on accuracy, Bob. Errors are a betrayal of the people, the work of the jaw-flapping dogs of the bourgeoisie.’


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