Watched the movie about the David Frost interviews with Richard Nixon on one of the SABC channels. I’ve seen the movie once or twice before and have also, over the years, read a couple of Nixon’s books. My specific interest in the man is more in Nixon as a particularly complicated individual, rather than the man as a politician or political analyst (although his rigorous ability to intellectually debate the global issues of his time, shouldn’t be discounted). Watching this famous story unfold (again), I was mesmerized by the striking similarities between our current ANC leadership, especially our president, and segments of the Nixon administration. At the same time, I was deeply saddened by the vast differences.
Nixon changed the English language forever. His administration ensured (as one narrator in the movie states) that every great scandal thereafter, especially those of a political nature, receive the suffix -gate. When one searches the dictionaries for Watergate, the word is given the hypernyms outrage, scandal or disgraceful event. Hence Nkandlagate, Oilgate, and many others that would be fitting of the Nixon contribution to the language.
Nixon was arguably the most paternalistic president of the United States in recent history. When one reads his opinions or when one comes across some of the wild statements he’d made in his time, it becomes clear that he didn’t really have a clear understanding of the constitutional or legal frameworks he was bound to. He clearly though, and later famously stated in the Frost interviews, that some things are illegal, but not illegal when the president of the United States of America does them. In the Frost interviews, he underlines this by saying: I believe that. I really believe that. As solid as Nixon’s reasoning could be at times (let’s not forget the impact he had with Russia and China at the time), he was his own worst enemy, because he misunderstood the powers of his office.
We have an almost identical mindset in the presidency in South Africa - a president who finds it psychologically impossible to understand that he IS not the law, nor does he MAKE the law - he simply has to ABIDE by the law. I really believe that Zuma’s inner workings are such that these simple concepts and the more complex one of running a constitutional democracy, escapes him entirely. The unsubtle differences between being and African monarch and being the president of an advanced constitutional democracy, simply don't stick in his mind. Therefore his leadership is forever castrated. I believe there are people who say this to him, and God knows, he sees in in the media daily, but in a striking similarity to Nixon, he simply believes he is above it all - that the office of the State President immunizes him against these concepts and that he can make it up as he goes along. His utter ignorance of the law and constitution is put on embarrassing display almost daily. He clings to the lies, concocted to camouflage his own wrongdoing, with the same tenacity of Nixon and, with the backing of his advisers, cabinet and spokespersons (who remind strangely of the weavers in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes), he spends all his energy justifying, or simply attempting to nullify his words and actions.
Here is the great difference, however. Nixon was intellectually organized. Frighteningly so. Yet, even for him, the lie became too big to sustain. It did what lies do - it grew legs and other appendages, each flailing about with a will of its own. Nixon fell because the lie slipped out of his control. And he fell because the American people wouldn’t tolerate the lie - not those who worked tirelessly to expose it, nor the ones who had the power of the vote and understood its importance in rectifying gross mistakes and oversights.
The last part of the film (Nixon actually speaks about this in his memoirs), shows the ex-president doing something I have yet to see in South Africa. Knowing full well the consequences, he conceded, on international television, to wrongdoing, abusing the power that was entrusted to him, and powerfully states that he had let down the American people - let down a nation - and has to carry that burden with him for the rest of his life. That didn’t make Nixon innocent. What it did was return some dignity to the individual, some integrity to the office he abused so dreadfully and restore some faith in the American Public Service.
I think the most fundamental reason for these actions comes from the American electoral system. Citizens elect the president - and by default then create a place for the buck to stop. It stops with an individual, not a mutually-protective cabal. The sad and continuous violation of the most basic principles of integrity, morality and constitutionality by the leaders of this country over the past decade comes to mind. Along with the futile hope that just one of them will grow a pair and go the Nixon route - acknowledge and show, at the very least, an understanding of their own wrongdoing.
My mom, a wise educator of 75 years old, always says of bad leadership: They have no pride and they have no shame. How apt those words are today. Especially with the run-up to Mangaung.
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