Neil Young: Feeling Nixon’s Pain
On The Human Highway . . . David Crosby handed Neil Young the May 15, 1970 issue of Life magazine. It featured photos of the tragedy at Kent State University. Four dead in Ohio. Enraged, despairing and caught up in the moment, Young quickly wrote “Ohio,” a deliberate and disquieting rocker evoking the anger and sadness felt when National Guardsmen turned their guns on protesting students: a representative group of the nation’s young people already embittered by America’s role in the Vietnam War. Jimmy McDonough, in his Young biography, Shakey, summed it up by writing, “Neil Young, in ten lines, captured the fear, frustration and anger felt by the youth across the country and set it to a lumbering D-modal death march that hammered home the dread.”
And who had aroused the anger of America’s youth? President Richard M. Nixon.
And who did Neil Young call out in “Ohio?” President Richard M. Nixon.
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
David Crosby once said that Young’s calling out Nixon’s name in the song “was the bravest thing I ever heard.” After all, Crosby noted, “it seemed like those who stood up to Nixon, like those at Kent State, were shot. Neil Young did not seem scared at all.”
“It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song,” Young wrote for the liner notes of his album, Decade, his three-disc compilation released in ’77. “It’s ironic that I capitalized on the deaths of these American students. Probably the most important lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.”
Recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young 11 days after the killings, “Ohio,” was released in June ’70, peaking at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. The group was already riding high on the album charts with Deja Vu, released that March. Two singles from the album, “Woodstock” and “Teach Your Children,” respectively, had already reached numbers 11 and 16. But overloading the market with CSNY product was of no concern at the time. Crosby told Rolling Stone the reaction by Stills and Nash was “How soon can we record it?” According to Crosby, it was finished, along with the flip side (“Find The Cost of Freedom”), within 24 hours. Haste didn’t make waste. CSNY made a brilliant and captivating record. Writing last year about “Ohio,” Dorian Lynsky of The Guardian declared it “arguably the perfect protest song: moving, memorable and perfectly timed.”
Appalled by the loss of life and the toll it exacted, Neil Young created a powerful piece of music that is part and parcel of a tragic time in our nation’s history. How does one think of Kent State and not think of “Ohio?” The song may sound as a call to arms but it mainly serves as the most sobering of wake-up calls. “Ohio” accesses the pain humans inflict on one another in causes of political one-upmanship. “Don’t you know there’s a war going on?,” people used to ask during the Second World War. In 1970 it might have been asked, “Don’t you see what this war is doing to us?’
It was Young’s sense of humanity that informed “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” two songs he released as a solo artist in the early ’70s. Young focused on concerns of interest to his followers and peers. Inveighing against bigotry, lynching, and Governor George Wallace was expected from Neil Young. Naturally, he was on the side of our “better angels,” to paraphrase Lincoln. Given the political and social tenets, either firmly or loosely held by people who bought his records and attended his concerts, Young was on solid ground with his beliefs: for example, his sensibilities regarding humanity. But when one holds firm to such core beliefs, defending or sympathizing with unpopular figures and or political opponents is possible.
And who did Neil Young sympathize with? Richard M. Nixon.
Hello Mr. Soul . . . Cameron Crowe, writing in the February 9, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone reported on a memory from the summer of ’76. Neil Young is on tour. Young and his son, Zeke, are sitting on a hotel bed watching television. A news bulletin interrupts the broadcast. Pat Nixon, wife of the disgraced former president, had suffered a stroke. The report has an announcer talking over a film clip of a distraught Richard Nixon moving through the hospital’s revolving doors. Young took it all in and after some time passed, headed for his bus in the hotel’s parking lot. There he wrote a song, “Campaigner,” and played it in concert a few hours later.
Hospitals have made him cry
But there’s always a freeway in his eye
Though his beach got too crowded for a stroll.
Roads stretch out like healthy veins
And wild gift horse strain the reins
Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.
First called “Requiem for a President,” “Campaigner” was included on Decade.
“Guess I felt sorry for (Nixon) that night,” Young told Crowe.
The Losing End . . . Richard Nixon was always the campaigner, even when he said his campaign days were behind him. Two years after losing the Presidential election to John F. Kennedy, Nixon came up short again, defeated by Pat Brown in the 1962 California Governor’s race. On the morning after his defeat, he put the blame on the media during his self-proclaimed “last press conference.” Not about to leave the scene gracefully, he told the reporters, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. Just think how much you’re going to be missing.”
But there would be more Nixon press conferences. Hundreds of them. What else could he do but campaign for public office? Since 1946, he had been running for office. That year, fresh out of the Navy, he was elected to represent a Southern California congressional district. Four years later California voters sent him to the U.S. Senate. In ’52 he was elected Vice President; in his eight years of serving under President Eisenhower, he expanded the role of that office. Richard M. Nixon was on his way to the top.
The two tough, tight defeats in two years’ time would be enough for most politicos to seek other lines of work, but even as he was hurling invectives against the press in November ’62, Nixon, despite his promise that it would be his last press conference, already had plans for a comeback. Biographer Stephen E. Ambrose wrote that “Nixon couldn’t imagine living without campaigning, and didn’t try to.”
His reemergence was well-planned and successful. In ’64, he earned a truckload of favors by campaigning for Republican congressional candidates. Four years later, Nixon cashed in at the favor bank and was elected the 37th President of the United States.
Those who had followed Nixon’s political career from the start, having watched him sling mud in his first two campaigns, first against Jerry Voorhis and then against Helen Gahagan Douglas (wife of actor Melvyn Douglas), weren’t surprised that his own dirty work brought down his presidency. Nixon’s fall, not fast in coming but ruinous to his career and image, made him the lonely man walking San Clemente Beach in his dress shoes. Another comeback by the Campaigner seemed unlikely. After resigning the presidency, then relying heavily on a pardon from Gerald Ford, his health quickly declined. Not even three months out of the White House, phlebitis brought him near death’s door. And less than two years after that, Pat Nixon was in the hospital with a stroke. Yes, as with Neil Young, one could generate some sympathy for Richard Nixon.
All Day Presidents Look Out Windows . . . Mainly, there were two schools of thought regarding the way Nixon should be thought of, spoken of and written about in the first few years after he left the White House. Some felt he had suffered enough. That group was made largely of people who had supported him in office, and there were lots of them; Nixon won 49 states in his ’72 reelection bid. Then there were those against him and his policies from the start, as well as those who felt betrayed by his unconstitutional actions in office and the lying to cover it all up. That crowd didn’t want to see him pardoned, forgiven or granted the respect former presidents naturally receive. They had a point.
In the mid to late ’70s, all Nixon could hope to regain was respect and influence. Americans, he felt, needed reminding of his accomplishments in office: the breakthrough with China, detente with the Soviet Union, ending the draft, creating the E.P.A. and other policies even those to his left favored. So in his own way, he hit the campaign trail again. Possessed with a crack political mind, he wanted the beltway crowd to seek and consider his opinions. He wished for a role behind the scenes in keeping Republicans in the White House, even if it meant Gerald Ford, a politician he was not enamored with, would continue as President. Nixon wanted to work the phones and be quoted by the likes of George Will, Tom Wicker and David Broder. He wanted his memoirs and other books to be reviewed and appreciated by academics. A guest appearance on shows like Meet The Press would be satisfying as well. He would never serve in public office again, but he did crave prominence. Yet, as he sought out the opinion-makers in the press, he didn’t let bygones be bygones. Nixon still felt enmity for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal, which led to his early retirement at San Clemente. Woodward and Bernstein wrote a book, All The President’s Men, about their reporting on Watergate, followed by a major film adaptation in which the reporters were played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (Rip Torn portrayed Nixon in the ’79 TV Movie, Blind Ambition).
But Woodward and Bernstein were not finished. Their second book on Nixon’s presidency, The Final Days, focusing on his struggles to remain in office in the wake of Watergate, proved every bit as fascinating as the Watergate story itself. Woodward and Bernstein put their readers inside the White House, delving deeply into Nixon’s nightmare. According to the book, Nixon would walk through the rooms of the White House, talking to portraits of long-deceased presidents. There were allegations of heavy drinking by both Richard and Pat Nixon, and most dramatic of all, a story of Nixon persuading Henry Kissinger to join him in prayer – 0n bended knee – in the Lincoln Sitting Room the night before Nixon announced his resignation. This revelation was the one denied most often by some of Nixon’s people, but eventually confirmed by others. In Walter Issacson’s biography, Kissinger, the story is told again, and Nixon that evening is considered “almost a basket case” by Kissinger.
Coming to terms with his mistakes and their consequences had long been difficult for Nixon. Generally, when not remorseful and seeking strength from a higher power, he displayed a tendency to lash out against his political adversaries and others, even ordinary citizens, opposed to his policies. Less than a week prior to the Kent State murders, before an informal gathering in the lobby of the Pentagon, he impulsively framed an us against them for the “silent majority” he claimed was behind him all the way.
You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, going to the great universities, and here they are burning up the books, storming around about this issue. You name it. Get rid of the war, there will be another one.
This was a fist-full of attitude from the President of the United States, who would meet up with some of the “bums” a couple of weeks later at the Lincoln Memorial, and convey some humanity himself. But there was more war ahead and more political football to be played.
Some Things Never Change . . . Neil Young might have wondered about the state of Nixon’s mind on July 7, 1976. Walking through the hospital, worried about his wife, whom he truly loved; what was he thinking? Where, if not for the foolishness of Watergate and other illegalities inspired by his paranoia, would the Nixons be that day? The White House! On that day there were six and a half months remaining on the second term Nixon was elected to serve. For the Nixons, it could have been a happy time, when they planned for a retirement, not a resignation. And perhaps Mrs. Nixon’s health wouldn’t be endangered. Richard Nixon, deep in his heart, could have accepted some blame for his wife’s condition. But, no, he would publicly attach blame to others. Less than a year later, in his interviews with David Frost, he took aim at The Final Days, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein. He didn’t refer to the writers by their names, only as “trash.”
All I say is Mrs. Nixon read it, and her stroke came three days later. I didn’t want her to read it, because I knew the kind of trash they are.
But nevertheless, this doesn’t indicate that they caused the stroke, because the doctors don’t know what caused the stroke. But it sure didn’t help.
Those who write history as fiction on third-hand knowledge, I have nothing but utter contempt. And I will never forgive them. Never. ………
He Fought For You, He Fought For Me . . . You don’t have to be paranoid to think they’re after you, but it helps. Nixon resigned from the Presidency because impeachment was coming. He had lost key support within his own party. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, not one to hide his feelings, had been growling to fellow Senate Republicans that “Nixon should get his ass out of the White House — today!” In came a call from Nixon aide Alexander Haig. He asked Goldwater how many Senate votes there were against impeachment. No more than a dozen was the answer. Then came the invectives. Goldwater told Haig it was time for Nixon to go, “Al, Dick Nixon has lied to me for the very last time. And to a hell of a lot others in the Senate and the House. We’re sick to death of it all.” That day Nixon accepted reality, telling his personal secretary Rose Woods “the whole bunch is deserting us now.” Two days later, he shook hands with his successor, Gerald Ford, and headed to San Clemente. A sentimental journey on Air Force One.
Even when things went well for Nixon, he dwelt on the negative and sought the credit he believed was coming to him. The acclamation in winning 49 of 50 states against McGovern in ’72 wasn’t enough. He yearned to be seen as one sacrificing all for the nation, or as he described himself to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Halderman, “the lonely man in the White House.” His National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, considered a superstar in world diplomacy, stoked Nixon’s resentment despite the foreign policy triumphs they shared. Nixon fumed that Kissinger not only was acclaimed for his diplomatic achievements, but also regarded a celebrity, rare status for a Republican. There was Kissinger at the choice New York restaurants, or at Trader Vic’s in Los Angeles, enjoying the company of Jill St. John, Shirley MacLaine and Liv Ullman. A new pal like Kirk Douglas would pass along the name of an attractive 22 year-old from Manhattan. This wasn’t the world Nixon felt comfortable in, but he knew the jet-setters were taken by power; the power he had granted Kissinger. For the women around Kissinger, that power served as an aphrodisiac. President Nixon would follow up on his sense of envy, all alone, devising ways to guarantee tribute be given to him first and foremost.
Richard Reeves, in his meticulous and highly readable President Nixon, Alone In The White House, wrote that Nixon regarded his personal isolation as a strength. “The basic line here is the character: the lonely man in the White House,” (Nixon) told Halderman. “Tell Kissinger he’s got to get across the lonely and heroic courage of the President.”
Nixon felt certain Kissinger was taking too much credit for the Paris Peace Accords in ending the war in Vietnam. He continued firing away at Halderman, seeming more an insecure man than the leader of the free world.
“The President alone held on and pulled it out… with little support from government, active opposition from the Senate and some House members, overwhelming opposition from the media and opinion leaders, including religious, education and business. Henry should realize that the way to show he and the President don’t differ is that he has to sell what the President did in his appearances, especially to sell the hell out of the bombing… Henry has to build the President… The media is trying to build the Kissinger role and downgrade the President’s role, making the point that the agreement was done by Kissinger over the President’s dead body.”
He Was A Western Hero, Sure Enough . . . Richard Nixon died on April 22, 1994. He campaigned to the end, after a fashion. Following his own purposes over the nearly 20 years he lived after resigning the Presidency, Nixon worked to regain his stature. If he couldn’t serve in the “arena,” he could at least be an influence there. But the comeback trail was a ragged one. There was, to the chagrin of the Ford Administration, Nixon’s return visit to China in early ’76. Nixon met with Chinese leaders such as Mao and Chou En-lai, possibly a violation of the Logan Act, barring private citizens from negotiations with foreign countries. Barry Goldwater thought the Justice department should consider prosecuting Nixon. “If he wants to do this country a favor, he might stay there,” Goldwater said from the Senate floor.
Other public efforts to secure a more solid place in history brought mixed results. His memoir, RN, soared to the top of The New York Times Bestsellers list despite negative reviews. Published in May ’78, RN was the subject of an organized boycott of the memoirs which featured t-shirts and other memorabilia emblazoned with the slogan “Don’t Buy Books By Crooks.” However, Nixon’s memoirs didn’t stir passions the way his televised interviews with David Frost did a year earlier. While Nixon loyalists such as former speechwriter Ray Price called Nixon’s interviews “a much needed act of healing,” there were others who had also shared history with Nixon who saw it differently. Carl Bernstein categorized Nixon’s performance as “pathetic, outrageous, proud, deceptive, self-pitying, cunning, self-destructive…”
One can agree with Bernstein’s account but also be intrigued by the Nixon/Frost interviews. Thirty four years later, the interviews seem even more fascinating. Nixon’s pugnacity combined with his lapses into sentimentality provide grist for the psychological mills. Here was a former president splaying his, and by association, the nation’s blood and guts on the studio floor. It wasn’t pretty, but it was must-see TV.
Defending himself of the conduct that brought him down, Nixon comes off like Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. The image he would’ve preferred was more like Gary Cooper’s in High Noon. That’s the kind of heroic figure Americans go for: the man who reaches beyond himself, battling the odds to secure stability and then walking quietly away, with no desire for accolades, just the peace of mind all just men and women have coming to them.
Less than a week after Nixon’s death, Neil Young completed his Sleeps With Angels album, another stellar effort from the hot streak he had going from ’88 through ’95. An observant track on the album is “Western Hero,” a soft but striking anthem to those who sacrifice for all, yet fade away, noticed by few. Young’s music and words are thoughtful, connecting with the images so well-captured on big screens and in our thoughts.
And on the shores of Normandy
He fought for you, he fought for me
Across the land and on the sea
But now he’s just a memory.
Just a memory, but one that inspires with deeds, when campaigning isn’t necessary.