Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Tricky Dick, meet phoney Tony

From Guardian Comment is Free
7 May 2007
What the end of Richard Nixon can teach us about the end of Tony Blair.

Ian Williams

How long will it take to rehabilitate Tony Blair? As Mark Anthony said about another military adventurist who came unstuck:

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interréd with their bones

As Tony Blair gets ready to call the movers into 10 Downing Street, it may be premature to exhume some of the soon-to-be-buried good from the loads of justified dirt about to be heaped on his grave, but a spirit of balance calls for some sense of perspective - as long as he actually goes!

In many ways, Blair's going with the director of public prosecution hovering over his head is reminiscent of Richard Milhous Nixon's impeachment-impelled exit from the White House. Nixon was not exactly one of my favourites when he was in office, but since then I have developed quite a soft spot for him. I think Blair suffers from the comparison, but there are nonetheless similarities: not least stealing the opposition agenda, but also a complete lack of public trust compounded by a complete sense of personal infallibility.

On the other hand, spending on welfare and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as court-ordered desegregation measures all reached a peak under Nixon. He stopped the war in Vietnam, recognised China, fostered détente with Russia, engineered arms control treaties, and ended the US's chemical and biological warfare programs. He stopped conscription and was the last president to consider a comprehensive national health service. He passed the Clean Air Act, and empowered the Environmental Protection Agency. By many rational standards of actual achievement, Nixon was the most liberal and progressive president since FDR. In fact, since his departure, most studies show that American workers' incomes have been stagnant in real terms.

Of course, Nixon also had dismissively anti-Semitic and racist attitudes... but hell, you have to take the rough with the smooth when dealing with a president who believed so much in transparency that he wired the White House to preserve all his own ill-considered words.

Watergate was his downfall, which in its way was the type of peccadillo that allowed both conservatives and liberals, outraged at how he had co-opted the liberal agenda, to unite against him. Just compare Nixon's public excoriation with the free pass given to Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra , where the Republican team conspired with the ayatollahs to keep Americans hostage until the election and then promptly traded arms between them and the Israelis to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Not only did they get away with it, but half the pardoned perpetrators are now in and around this administration - and saying we should not talk to the aforesaid ayatollahs under any circumstances.

Now back to Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. One of his senior ministers complained during the first term that the government was actually doing a lot of good, but that they were not allowed to advertise it and there is a lot of truth in that.

From the perspective of an exile from the Thatcher years, I suspect that those who stayed behind do not always appreciate how much better things in Britain really are now than when Labour first took over. (Which is not to discount how much better they could have been were it not for the paranoid, power-hungry clique of New Labour that Blair led, with all its nannyish obsessions.)

It is difficult to reconcile all the early New Labour guff about empowering people with the ID cards, the ASBO , the attacks on civil liberties under the guise of anti-terrorism, the lie detectors for benefit claimants, and similar measures that intrude upon the life of British citizens in a way that makes the average North Korean commune seem like an open-house.

And then there is the sleaze. Blair's crowd descended on the Labour Party like Deng Xiaoping on the Chinese Communist Party, and in effect told it that greed was good. And the comrades took to it with the vengeance of the wannabee nouveau riches. The ministerial mayhem was of course capped with the Peerages for Sale wheeze, which was almost certainly based on an idea by Bill Clinton. It was intended to free the prime minister even further from any remaining ties to the residual socialism of the unions and the Labour Party, just as Clinton took the Democratic Party from what he called "Special Interest Groups" like working people, minorities and women, and handed it over to Wall Street.

Does anyone really believe that Blair did not know what was going on? Here we get to the real cause for his downfall. Who believes anything he says anymore? Lies led Britain into Iraq, and the prime minister now dissimulates in harmony with possibly the least popular president in the world who, incidentally, does not have a smidgeon of Nixon's solid domestic track record to rehabilitate his sleaze.

It took several decades before many people overcame their reflexive repulsion for Nixon. Indeed, even quite recently, I have had steak knives brandished at me across Manhattan dinner tables for challenging the received liberal view that wants to replace the "x" in his name with a hyperbolic swastika.

Even without Nixon's real achievement, Blair is smooth, articulate and photogenic, unlike him. And since Blair will probably be on the board of directors of Murdoch's News Corporation
in about the time it takes to sing the first verse of the Red Flag, he will be assured of an adulatory and amnesiac media across the English-speaking world, so one cannot help but suspect that his rehabilitation will only take several years. It may be a small price to say goodbye.

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