Reading the spectacular biography Nixonland is like stepping back into the future when it comes to the current presidency, and as such, it made for the perfect travel companion on a recent visit to New York, the metropolis that produced the city’s own much-unloved President, Donald J. Trump. Even the subtitle, The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America is apposite today. According to historian-author Rick Perlstein, Richard Nixon, 37 to Trump’s 45, was a ‘serial collector of resentments’ (tick, Trump), ‘an outsider’ who craved insiders’ approval (tick, tick, Trump), and a man who knew that ‘being hated by the right people was no impediment to political success’ (tick, tick, tick, Trump).
I mention this because we arrive in New York amid Mueller Madness, with the release of the 448-page report that needs no introduction to this erudite readership. Manhattan is the central nervous system for news junkies, like me, and every medium and platform is awash with forensic post-mortems on what Mueller means. The usual suspects on both sides sing from their song sheets – No Collusion vs Impeach – but the one who surprised me most was on Fox News. Judge Andrew Napolitano, a fully paid-up member of the pro-Trump punditocracy, ran outside the pro-Trump lane expected on the top-rated cable network and said the report was, overall, ‘bad’ for Trump. Would it be bad, though, in the end? I doubt it.
But this is not about Trump. Two much more unforgettable things happen on this trip to New York; one will be indelibly etched in my memory for life, and the other is Anzac Day.
To set the scene: whenever we visit New York, we walk the city’s iconic bridges. It’s free. The views are perfection. You don’t need a tour guide, or a map. And, you never know what you’ll see. To wit. We are crossing the George Washington Bridge that spans the Hudson River to the neighbour state of New Jersey. Several fire engines from the Fire Department of New York – the venerable FDNY – have amassed on the Manhattan side, and the beautiful Stars and Stripes flies from the FDNY Tower Ladder 45 truck. We watch, in awe. Below on the Hudson chugs the FDNY Tug spouting a red, white and blue water salute. A water salute is significant. But for what, or who? Next, a motorcade heads towards Manhattan with flashing lights atop dozens of vehicles from the NYPD, FDNY, State Police from New York and New Jersey, ambulances and about a dozen firefighters from a biker group. Then a hearse, followed by more motorcade.
Being a nosey journalist, I google and discover that we are witness to a three-state ceremony to honour the return of a true American hero, United States Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Christopher Slutman, who had been killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan weeks earlier, along with two fellow Marines. The 43-year-old father of three girls was also a bona fide FDNY hero who ran through flames to rescue a woman from a burning building. He was killed a mere three weeks shy of coming home from his second combat tour in Afghanistan.
Five days later, 30 blocks on Fifth Avenue have been sealed off. Hundreds of firefighters and Marines in magnificent dress uniform have lined both sides of the avenue, in drenching rain, for Staff Sergeant Slutman’s funeral and cortège, which is televised on a giant screen. This is how America honours its true heroes, and it is utterly perfect.
We Australians also take our heroes seriously, so it was especially poignant to attend an Anzac Day service at St Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church near Wall Street. You might know of this glorious yet small schist and brownstone house of God from the terrorist attacks on 9/11, for it miraculously remained standing when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed directly across the road. In the immediate aftermath of the evil attacks, St Paul’s, where America’s first president George Washington prayed after being sworn into office, became the relief centre for thousands of first responders at Ground Zero.
Hosted by Australia’s ebullient Consul-General in the Big Apple, Alastair J. M. Walton, the service was as profound as any that I have attended. The colour guard was officiated by the United States Naval Academy, a 16-person choir from Trinity Church mesmerised the congregation with psalms and hymns, a bugler, bagpiper and drummer each gave inspiring performances including a haunting version of the Last Post. The former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, AC (Retd) gave the Anzac Day address and spoke of the sheer numbers of Australian and New Zealand lives lost throughout the horrible Great War. His speech was superb, and reminded us all of the monumental sacrifices percentage-wise in terms of blood made by our two small nations.
Former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, flew in for the occasion and gave the keynote address at a later veterans’ lunch. His speech was a tad tone-deaf to the occasion, speaking mostly about 5G wireless and cybersecurity, with several references to what he did while PM with ‘my government’, including banning Chinese telcos Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G network, just days before he was rolled by his party. Of course, no mention of that. You even could be forgiven for thinking he was still Prime Minister, particularly when he noted how he had personally encouraged President Trump on issues of 5G. The self-reference was kind of Nixonian, or, at least,Trumpian, and reminded me of Perlstein’s perfect travel companion.