Richard Nixon's Piano Concerto.
I never met Richard Nixon, though there have been people on the alumni courses that I taught for the University of Chicago who knew him and who said that he was privately very charming, much more so than John Kerry. During his life, he was reviled by progressives, Democrats, and the upper classes as the ultimate scheming embodiment of the humourless middle class. In fact, in the 1960 election, the Scots-Irish Nixon had as good a claim to Irish ancestry as the Catholic Kennedy.
It is one of the features of that unloved side of the Ulster community of peoples, however, that they do not radiate an exciting ethnic charm. They tend to be serious, literal, and very often painfully decent people, albeit of a very literal-minded sort. How could they ever have compared with riverdance?
However, I remember the summer before I went to Oxford for four reasons. I had passed the Balliol entrance exam in a small vestry off the school chapel underneath a huge picture of Pope John Paul II and would be fully funded, so I had no need to worry about school exams.
The first thing I remember of that summer is the music. I found myself listening to the whole E-Street band collection, which comprised four LP Albums, I think, from Bruce Springsteen's early years. I got it from the public library and obsessed over the lyrics in the heat, as I was walking or cycling to my job in Texas Homecare. Roy Orbison and vast amounts of Baroque concerta rounded the summer off, there of course not being that much between them. I even had a walkman with earphones--new fangled things--to acompany me on my long walks to work or school and back. I used to go miles every day.
I remember the beautiful girlfriend of the time, whom I won't embarrass by naming. She went on to sing opera at the Royal College of Music I think, and we had a sweet thing that year of 1991 for a few months. My very good friend Emma died that year and I recall my tears when I went to the site on the road where her car had been cleared away. She was buried beneath a pretty tree in her village. I wouldn't count her death as a memory. Memories are of the category of things of the past. In the gentle way she used to talk, and with her big eyes, she is alive in my mind. Death and love played all around the blue sky of that year, as they have in so many summers.
I also remember the Soviet coup and my lovely Grandad and I sitting in the overbright sun outside my mother's house for what seemed like days on end as we listened to the BBC describing the events in Moscow. That was, he world later earned, exactly what Mikhail Gorbachev, of course, was doing under the different heat of the Crimea as Yeltsin defied the tyrants on his tank.
It's such a narcissitic thing memory. There we were, who didn't matter in the eyes of anyone except God and the people we knew, and there Gorbachev was. he was so high up, and now he is down to earth with a bump and waiting on trains like the rest of us, and all my memory does is erase the mad gap in status between us. What a cocksure thing memory is.
But, funnily enough, I mostly recall the books of the year. I read Middlemarch in one long go, staying up all night to get to the end; fell for Anna Karenina and Marcus Aurelius; and, most of all, read and devoured Stephen Ambrose's two volumes of Nixon biography. The third wasn't out. Some days, I walked from Corby's post industrial midlands concrete to the fields of rape and wheat in all their colour by the Welland Valley.
Nixon, I thought at the time, was a fantastic strategist, if self destructive towards the end of his races and administrations for some dark inner reason of the sort that LBJ drew attention to. He also very much almost pulled it off--detente, the ABM Treaty, withdrawal from Vietnam and the China opening were fantastic achievements. And he got a furious rap from middle-class progressives who were more than prepared to turn a blind eye to the crimes of Democratic Presidents. I was touched by all that.
I thought him far superior to his Republican successors, and I suspect that they knew it, which is why he was allowed to wallow in his later ignominy. For all those reasons I was drawn to the story of him.
I also, as someone who was and is not of the governing classes in the West, sympathised with Nixon's outsider status. Part of the dark art of American politics is to connect the frustrations and badness that lie within the western heart with your own take on things and make it seem natural, or at a pinch 'sophisticated' to be like that. Human beings, who are more flawed than audacious, go for such concoctions more than we admit to ourselves. It's clearly Hillary Clinton's remaining tactical hope now, of course, schooled as she was in the fire of Nixon's immolation.
The only contrast is overblown hope, and that can be taken apart. Nixon reached out to the side of anyone who gets on in the face of the bourgeois and the establishment to remember the smallness of things and yet to defy the desire to put one away and keep you down after a defeat. His insight that people never remember defeats if you have a comeback was a very attractive one.
I remember my surprise when I went to give a lecture to a depressed peace group in Minnesota three years ago at how much the liberals there pined for a Nixon. 'he was evil and bad and worse than the emperor in Star Wars, but at least he had a brain and was entertaining and wouldn't just have been a stupid thug' was one comment I got from them. Richard Nixon's ghost seems to have followed me around in my head.
Nixon's challenges were different from now, of course, and the men and women around him marked by the real fire of the world wars in their youth. But it did make me think. I think Gordon Brown in Britain has some of that Nixonian quality about him.
He broods, he thinks and strategises, and the media blow themselves out despising him for not playing their game and opponents and his own side lose their nerve and fall for flim flam merchants or nostaligize the past, and he just keeps going on.
Brown, of course, has more of a heart at first glance, but Nixon, after all, was also responsible for the Welfare and environmental programmes that are often associated anachronistically with LBJ before him or Carter after him.
He was sneaky, shifty, oddly funny and devious to an incredible degree. But what an interesting man. He once worked out that liberals would always have him in a middlebrow box unless he took enough defeats and pretended to enough intellect that they ran to him after realising their property would be diminished in value as a consequence of some of the collectivist policies they supported.
So he composed a piano concerto and got himself on television to play it whilst pretending to be self deprecating. As a scheme--I can almost hear the evil chuckle--it's a little less pretentious than JFK muttering about Jefferson whilst playing the uber-silly Last Year in Marienbad and obtaining sexual favours all over the place, but still impressive.
And here is the result. Reader, have a look at this; Richard Nixon's Piano Concerto. Watching it makes me ball my fist, bow my head, and vow to wow em with my harmonica before Henry, they all get theirs....