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The shock of the news of Kennedy and Nixon


Nixon resignation speech

If you are of a certain age, you not only remember the assassination of President John Kennedy but also where you were at the time you heard the news. This doesn’t happen with every memory of course. But the Kennedy attack is different. Probably because it was so shocking, so utterly unthinkable. For my part, I was moving into a flat – my first experience of an actually liveable residence since leaving the parental home a few years before – and I was poised on the first floor balcony juggling boxes and suitcases when Miss Agnes Brown, let us call her, the elderly lady who lived across the corridor and who would become, to her ill-disguised dismay, my nearest neighbour, told me about the events in Dallas. 

She had most of the details wrong as it turned out. Kennedy had been horse riding, she told me, and had been thrown from his horse. I don’t know how she got this idea though our subsequent rather rocky neighbourly relationship made it easier for me to understand that her take on some things might diverge so spectacularly from mine that I would question my grasp on reality. ‘Do I wake or sleep?’ I would quote to the mirror through shave-cream muffled lips after Miss Brown, having caught me picking up the morning paper, had poured forth with an obsessiveness compared to which the Ancient Mariner would have sounded casual, some arcane version of that day’s news or scandals.   

But what started me on this track was a different though still presidential occasion. Last week, on her daily ABC Classic FM program, Margaret Throsby replayed her fascinating 2004 conversation with John Dean, who was White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973 and deeply implicated therefore in the Watergate affair. She began the program with an excerpt from Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, made 40 years ago. 

‘Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me. In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort … with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served, and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged … I have never been a quitter … But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress … Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.’

When I heard this, I immediately remembered in startling detail where I was forty years ago when that speech was first broadcast. It was high summer, a beautiful warm day in Oxford. I was strolling along the banks of the Thames – or the Isis as that stretch of it is often known locally – through a leafy camping ground, thinking about nothing much, just how pleasant it was to have some warm sun and blue sky above the ‘Dreaming Spires’, and how I would go that evening to the venerable ‘Eagle and Child’ for a few pints and a pub meal and some good talk when, from a radio in one of the caravans, I heard a voice I immediately recognised. ‘ … To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication …’ I stopped, amazed, even though some such Watergate sensation had been brewing for weeks. Only then did I notice other people in the vicinity lingering and straining suddenly to hear. ‘…Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.’

Between all of us poised there for that fugitive moment listening to an unseen radio there was a momentary fellow feeling: each of us knew that this was history and we were just for an instant part of it. We would inhabit the future together – pausing by the river’s calm bend in the benign sunlight – whenever we recounted our story, though we hadn’t met and never would.

‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’ As with an impossibly distant star light years away, back near the beginning of things, you need good lens to see the past and even then the tricky, effulgent blur of distance distorts and confuses. But like lightning flashes, some of the past periodically brightens up around you, because for a moment you were there – an indelible personal memory of 22 November 1963; a voice, tragic yet culpable, retrieved from an unseen radio on 8 August 1974 in another country. Thus we inhabit and are imprisoned by what has gone before. 

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Kennedy, Nixon, John Dean, US politics, history, memory, Oxford



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Existing comments

There's an inevitable bias when history is written (or re-written) from a single perspective. Miss Agnes Brown does sound an interesting, and somewhat challenging, neighbour. I enjoy swimming against the current at the indoor heated pool. Even though my goggles fog up occasionally.

Pam | 14 August 2014  

Struggling to record my journey through Australia's Gondwana drifting and more than 60,000 years of humanity and the relevance of that tapestry to present day, Brian's words are inspirational. I am optimistic enough to hope that while we are too often imprisoned by what has gone before, we may also be inspired. Australia has incredible stories to tell, stories capable of changing who we are and how we see ourselves. Many thanks Brian

Jim Bowler | 15 August 2014  

Dear Brian, I could never forget where I was and what I was doing on both occasions. Kennedy's death was an inexplicable tragedy and we mourned the loss of a good man and hope for the future that he repesented. But when Nixon resigned, I at the same time, rejoiced and feared that we had seen the end of honourable people enbracing politics and that was and is a profound loss for us all.

Eilish Cooke | 17 August 2014  

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