Do You Remember Your President Nixon*

NIXON RESIGNATIONAs I post this, it’s forty years today since Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States. Whatever you think of Nixon’s presidency, his politics, or the scandal that brought down his administration, it’s hard to deny the impact of his resignation, at least in the US.

Of course, there’d been scandals before at very high levels of the US and other governments. But this was the first time for the US that a scandal led to a presidential resignation. What’s more, the investigation into Nixon’s activities and those of other members of his administration were very public – on television for the world to see. For many people who’d always trusted their government, the Nixon resignation was a rude shock and a bitter lesson that sometimes that trust is misplaced.

But if you look at crime fiction, you see that high-level government scandal has been around for a long time. There are a lot of examples of this plot point in the genre; space only permits me a few. But I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of many more than I could anyway.

A few of Agatha Christie’s stories feature government scandals. One of them is the short story The Incredible Theft. In that story, Lord Charles Mayfield hosts a house party that consists of himself, his secretary Carlisle, Retired Air Marshal Sir George Carrington and Carrington’s wife Julia and son Reggie. Also present is an enigmatic American Mrs. Vanderlyn. During the visit, Mayfield and Carrington want to consult about the plans for a new air bomber. Those plans have been kept top secret since they would be of great interest to England’s enemies. During the evening, the plans are stolen. Recovery of the plans is essential in order to protect them, and it’s got to be done quietly, too. Otherwise the scandal and the insinuation that someone powerful is aiding the enemy could bring down the government. So Sir George calls on Hercule Poirot to help find the plans.

Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life concerns a case from 1963. Cissy Kohler was arrested and imprisoned for her involvement in the murder of her employer’s wife Pamela Westropp. At the time, Ralph Mickledore was also arrested and convicted in connection with the murder. As the novel begins, Kohler has recently been released from prison, and new hints are surfacing that suggest that she was innocent. More than that, they suggest that the investigating officer Wally Tallentire know that and hid evidence of it. When Superintendent Andy Dalziel finds this out, he’s determined to prove those allegations false. Tallentire was his mentor, and he has absolute faith in the man’s integrity. So Dalziel looks into the case again and from a different angle, so does Peter Pascoe. One interesting thing about this case is that it was tried in the same year as the famous Profumo case, in which John Profumo’s relationship with Christine Keeler was made public and eventually led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In fact that scandal is mentioned in the novel as a way of explaining public attitudes towards the Westropp case, and the assumption that Kohler was guilty.

In Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is recovering physically and psychologically from his last case (detailed in Dead Set). His plans are to work on his Ph.D. thesis and have a normal life, whatever that means. But he’s drawn back to AFP work by a double murder at Uriarra, a writer’s retreat near Canberra. The victims are Alec Dennet, a member of the 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government, and Dennet’s editor Lorraine Starke. As the investigating team learns, Dennet and Starke were working on Dennet’s memoirs at the time of their deaths. Since the manuscript has disappeared, it looks as though someone committed murder to be sure it wouldn’t be published. And that suggests several possible suspects. For one thing, there are some very highly-placed people who don’t want everything about the Whitlam government’s activities to be known. For another, there are some very nasty groups from other countries too who would very much like that manuscript, not just for the information it may contain, but also for its monetary value. Among other things, this novel gives readers a look at the effects of a scandal years after it’s broken.

And then there’s Philip Margolin’s Executive Privilege. Washington-based former cop-turned-PI Dana Cutler is hired by prominent attorney Dale Perry to follow a young intern Charlotte Walsh and report on where she goes and whom she sees. Cutler doesn’t see why a ‘nobody’ intern could be of interest to anyone, but a fee is a fee. So she begins her work. Then one night, Walsh leaves her car in a mall parking lot, is picked up in another car and is taken to a secluded safe house. Cutler is shocked to find that Walsh is meeting with US President Christopher Ferrington. The next morning, Cutler learns that Walsh’s body has been found in her car, which is still in the parking lot. Now Cutler is an important witness – and a target for some very powerful people who don’t want the young woman’s death investigated. It turns out that Charlotte Walsh’s murder is connected with another murder and a common experience the two victims had.

There are also several books by Margaret Truman, including Murder at the White House, in which scandal at the very highest levels of government is explored. But Nixon’s resignation didn’t just change people’s attitudes about government and its leaders. It also made heroes out of journalists such as Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered what was going on in the Nixon administration.

The perception of journalists as interfering annoyances (you see this attitude come up in some classic crime fiction) changed for a lot of people during the Watergate investigation. And we see that shift in some modern crime fiction. For instance, Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon is a crime reporter who breaks several high-level scandals in the series that features her. One of the recurring characters in Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series is journalist Linda Hiller. She helps Irish bring down some very powerful people in Bad Debts, and even though she doesn’t appear in all the novels, she’s presented in a positive light, as a someone who’s working to stop corruption. And of course to get herself a major story. And Ian Rankin’s John Rebus co-operates more than once with journalist Mairie Henderson. The image of the reporter/journalist as the gutsy, heroic protagonist may not have originated with Woodward and Bernstein, but it certainly got a boost as a result of their Watergate investigation.

The Nixon resignation had powerful and lasting effects, and not just on those directly involved. It was one of the pivotal US events of the 1970s. Little wonder that scandals are still given nicknames that end in ‘-gate.’

ps. If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you know that I almost always take my own ‘photos. But this one’s far better than any I could take. Thanks, Channel One News.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Young Americans.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Kel Robertson, Liza Marklund, Margaret Truman, Peter Temple, Philip Margolin, Reginald Hill

28 responses to “Do You Remember Your President Nixon*

  1. President Nixon and his Secretary of State Kissinger disliked India and its formidable prime minister, Indira Gandhi. In the seventies he opposed India’s military intervention in Pakistan-ruled East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and sent the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate her government and force her to pull back. Things would have gone out of hand if our friends, the Soviets, hadn’t sent their Pacific Fleet streaming into the Indian Ocean. The exodus of refugees from East Bengal into India necessitated the 1971 war that India won and led to the creation of Bangladesh. It was odd that Nixon backed a dictator in Pakistan rather than the world’s largest democracy. He was never liked by Indians. Declassified documents of what actually happened at the time reads like a geopolitical thriller.

    Ms. Kinberg, your post reminds me of another Agatha Christie novel, THE SECRET ADVERSARY, and the involvement of a high-level government official, Sir James Peel Edgerton, in the sinister scheme of things.

    • Prashant – I’m very glad to get your perspective on Nixon. I’d known about his and Kissinger’s views of India and of Indira Gandhi, but not from a really reliable source. The background you’ve provided is fascinating and I’m not surprised that Nixon wasn’t popular at all in India.
      And thank you too for mentioning The Secret Adversary. It’s a terrific example of the way Christie wove high-level government scandals into her plots. And of course, it’s the first outing for the Beresfords, who make a great detective team.

    • Former head of counter-terrorism branch of India’s intelligence Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), B. Raman, in his book ‘The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane’ documents the major part played by India-Israel intelligence agencies in the dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh in the Eastern part of Pakistan in 1971. And if Israel was the culprit, it automatically means the US …

  2. I definitely remember when Nixon resigned. The whole scandal was demoralizing. I haven’t read any of these books / stories that you mention here and they all sound interesting. Recalled to Life by Hill is one I will be reading soon.

    • Tracy – I hope you’ll enjoy Recalled to Life. In my opinion it’s one of Hill’s really fine efforts. And as to Nixon’s resignation, I like your choice of word demoralizing. Certainly it gave us a bad taste for high government and powerful politicians.

  3. The Watergate hearings played out night after night on the news here when I was a young teen, but I really didn’t understand it at the time. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever fully got to grips with it! But it did give us the wonderful expression ‘expletive deleted’ which people of a certain age still use today. A few years back they re-ran the Frost-Nixon interviews over here – I think it may have been when the film came out – and they were truly fascinating televeision. On the upside, the whole affair did at least show that in the strong democracies these things can be discovered, dealt with to a degree, and not destroy the foundations of the whole system…

    • FictionFan – I think a lot of people haven’t quite come to grips with the Watergate scandal. It had so many implications and involved quite a lot of technical information. And of course, ‘expletive deleted.’ I’ve seen the Frost/Nixon interviews too, and they do give a fascinating look at the era and the man. I’m glad you brought up possibly the most important lesson from the whole mess: in a strong democracy, that sort of thing can be handled without resorting to awful violence or the loss of the entire system. In a sense that’s been heartening. I think it also goes to show that it’s possible to ensure that no-one is above the law. Of course that doesn’t always happen; we can all think of any number of examples of people at the top of the tree who get away with things. But it’s good to know too that it doesn’t always have to be that way.

  4. Good one.

    I remember that Reginald Hill book. I prefer his earlier Dalziel and Pascoe stories. Sometimes I want to box Peter Pascoe in the ears for the disrespect he shows towards Andy Dalziel. The fat man is my hero, hah, flawed, gruff, brilliant, and sensitive, deep inside!


  5. Interesting selection … thank you.

  6. Yes, I too remember the resignation quite vividly. Very glad to see you mention Recalled to Life, which I really enjoyed.

    • Martin – Recalled to Life is an excellent novel I think, and a good example of Hill doing what he did very well. And I think the resignation is one of those pieces of history that made enough of an impact that people still do remember it clearly.

  7. Margot: John Grisham created a very credible thriller on corruption in high places reaching up to the U.S. Supreme Court in The Pelican Brief. I equally enjoyed the movie. Some great movies have come from Grisham’s books.

    • Bill – Oh, yes, The Pelican Brief! I’m so glad you mentioned that one. It is a great example of corruption at the highest level. And you’re right; there have been some very good films made from Grisham’s work.

  8. Count me in as another fan of Recalled To Life: one of my favourites of that series. I always find the real-life Profumo case fascinating, and John Lawton did a very good lightly-fictionalized version of it in his A Little White Death.

    • Moira – Recalled to Life is really a terrific read isn’t it? And the Profumo case continues to capture the imagination even this many years later. Thanks for mentioning the Lawaton as well – I definitely left a gap there.

  9. kathy d.

    I’ll have to add Recalled to Life and A Little White Death to the toppling over and intimidating TBR list. Sound like good reads.
    I wasn’t demoralized by the Watergate scandal, just surprised by its breadth, and fascinated at every twist and turn. Real life was as interesting as the film of All the President’s Men with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. We were living through a thriller, but it wasn’t fiction.
    Each day the media uncovered another layer of deception, until the truth was known — at least as much truth as we would know.
    Those were the days: The public was rocked by the scandal, which forced Nixon to resign.
    Nowadays NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens’ phones and emails is exposed, and some people in Congress are perturbed, but nothing happens. Intelligence agencies went into secret Congressional files; senators are angry. Nothing is done. Secret drones and assassinations are carried out but nothing is done. Maybe the public is inured to all of this although people don’t like the domestic surveillance nor the storage of the data. But nothing is rippling through the White House like the Watergate scandal and no one is resigning. It’s all (ho-hum) business as usual.
    I can’t wait to see the novels that are published about today’s scandals.

    • Kathy – There really is a different reaction today to some of the things happening in Washington than there used to be isn’t there. As you say, the public was engrossed in the Watergate hearings, and Nixon ended up having to resign. But today, all sorts of things happen, and it’s not just in our government, and people don’t respond as they did. Perhaps we’re sated; perhaps we’re inured. It’s hard to say really. But you have a point.
      And I know all about TBR piles, but honestly, I do hope you get the chance to read Recalled to Life. It’s a very well-written novel and has a solid connection between past and present.

  10. Margot – For better or worse I’m very much old enough to remember Nixon’s resignation. I’m inspired to think of novels in which he appeared as a character but I don’t recall any offhand. So I go back to my standby: the movies 🙂 One of my favorites is Fran Langella’s marvelous portrayal in Frost/Nixon. Also Phillip Baker Hall in Secret Honor. All President’s Men too, in which he doesn’t appear as a character but always there lurking in the background.

    • Bryan – Oh, I think it’s great that you get your inspiration from films. And I think Langella did a great job as Nixon too. And of course, All the President’s Men has I think become a classic film. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  11. Col

    I can vaguely remember the resignation growing up. Like Kathy says above all the things occurring today and nothing happens and the closest anyone comes to getting into trouble is over a dalliance with an intern or aide.

    • Col – That’s true. We seem to have such a different perspective these days on what the consequences ought to be for certain things. There is, I think, a different feel to these times.

  12. Coming to this late. Nixon was before my time, but the words politics and dirty seem to be married to each other, unfortunately.

    I’d almost forgotten about the Incredible Theft till you reminded me of it. But the first name I thought of when I got to your post was Margaret Trueman- I enjoyed Murder in Kennedy Centre (recommended by you).

    Bruce Paddington Plans springs to mind, immediately, even though it is not that much about scandal in high office, as treason.

    • Natasha – That’s true; Bruce Paddington Plans… is more about treason, but still, it’s a great example of dirty work, so to speak. And you’re right; politics and corruption too often do go hand in hand. I wish it weren’t the case.

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