Alexander Haig (1924-2010)

After the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in March 1981, his Secretary of State Alexander Haig went into the White House press room to address the inevitable anxieties. The Vice-President was travelling in Texas, and he is the highest ranking executive-branch official in Washington D.C. When a reporter asked who was making the decisions, Haig (above) declared, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House.” Although the full speech acknowledged the constitutional requirements, some immediately thought he was a megalomaniac, while for others he was a legal illiterate. The press, which had previously pinned on him the word “arrogant”, had a field day. On the cover of Time, Haig, chin high and arms akimbo, appeared above the words “Taking Command”.

Whatever your interpretation was, this incorrect statement of the chain of presidential succession forever disqualified him from further high office. The bottomline was that Haig lacked linguistic clarity, which didn’t help when he tried to defuse the Falklands crisisin 1982. His clumsy mediation and mishandling of the crisis eventually led to his dismissal from the Reagan Administration, the group which he came to view as conspiring against him.

Alternately the man who as the Chief of Staff held the presidency together during the darkest days of the Nixon White House, and the self-serving aggrandizer who aimed for the imperial presidential powers, Alexander Haig lived as a man of epic contradictions, and died as one yesterday. He mused that “the third paragraph of his obit” would be about his disastrous press conference. In this assessment, he was correct.

See also http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/21/us/politics/21haig.html

Muskie Moment

Senator Edmund S. Muskie was the clear frontrunner in the 1972 Democratic presidential primary, when he committed a gaffe now known among politicos simply as the “Muskie moment”. In one of the classic meltdowns in campaign history, Muskie broke down and cried in front of reporters after allegations that his wife drank too much and swore in public.  Muskie tried and failed to convince the voters that they weren’t tears, but melted snowflakes running down his cheeks.

He was responding to a particularly vicious political attack published in the Manchester Union-Leader, accusing the Senator’s wife of using foul language and drinking while on the campaign trail. Publisher William Loeb had been printing editorial attacks on Muskie, including the “Canuck Letter” which accused Muskie of a bias toward Americans of French-Canadian descent. (These were allegedly written by the incumbent president Richard Nixon’s aides). In response, Muskie gave an emotional speech in the New Hampshire snow defending his wife, and several journalists reported that Muskie cried during the speech. As he vehemently defended his wife, Muskie’s speech broke three times as he rubbed his face and tried to regain his composure.

Muskie claimed that he did not cry, and journalists merely saw as melted snow on his face. Previously known as a calm, reasonable candidate, this moment made Muskie appear weak and emotional to voters. While Muskie went on to win the New Hampshire primary, it was not be by nearly as much as expected, and this moment more than any other lead to the nomination of George McGovern by the Democratic Party.

Frost/Nixon

David Paradine Frost was somewhat of a precursor to Jon Stewart. A TV phenom in Britain during the 1960s, Frost had an entertaining weekly show of satire towards the Establishment called That Was the Week That Was. In 1975, Frost, then a successful businessman whose television stardom itself had faded, embarked on a journalistic adventure of a lifetime, to interview Richard Nixon.

Disgraced and debt-ridden, Nixon did not want any of the well-known U.S. journalists as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley to interview him. Frost made Nixon an offer ($500,000 for four shows), and the president agreed. “Nixon can, of course, refuse to answer questions,” Frost mused, “But then I am able to film his refusing to answer.” The tapings were done north of San Clemente, California from 23rd March to 20th April 1977 in the home of a Nixon friend and ran over 12 days, and 28 hours of tapes.

For both parties, the interviews were a success. It covered a full range of topics from Nixon’s presidency, and although after the interviews, 72% of those who watched still believed Nixon was guilty of Watergate, the ex-president redeemed himself as a great statesman who accomplished many diplomatic achievements. As for Frost, it gave him international exposure, and hefty profits.

After the Nixon interview, Frost went on to interview seven more American presidents and six British prime ministers. He was knighted in December 1992, and currently hosts the Al Jazeera English program, Frost Over the World. In 2006, a play about the interviews – titled Frost/ Nixon – premiered; it was written by Peter Morgan.

Presidents in Japan

President Obama is currently under fire for his obvious yet unreciprocated bow to Japanese Emperor Akihito. The conservatives defined this deference as an inappropriate gesture for a President of the United States, while the president’s defenders noted this showed Mr. Obama’s cultural sensitivities. No matter what symbolisms meant, this marks another episode in faux-pas-ridden relations between the U.S. and its former WWII enemy.

When Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, who ruled Japan during the WWII, visited the U.S. in 1971, President Richard Nixon bowed to him. In November 1974, Gerald Ford became the first sitting president to visit Japan. He didn’t pack his formal trousers, and attended an imperial ceremony in Japan’s extremely formal court in borrowed trousers which were too short for the president. The media had a field day, but Ford–who was an Eagle Scout–joked that scouting still ran in his veins and that his visit to Japan proved that he still liked to go around in short pants.

[President Ford also encouraged people to wear “WIN” buttons as part of a plan to “Whip Inflation Now.” Bob Hope joked about Ford’s trip to Japan, “Hirohito gave the president a jeweled sword with a crest of the Imperial Order of the Setting Sun, and the President gave him a WIN button. The president told him, ‘Millions of Americans are wearing these.’ And Hirohito said, ‘I know. We make them.’]

In 1992, on his state visit, President George H.W. Bush vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. Earlier in 1989, while attending Emperor Hirohito’s funeral, Bush committed the same controversy as Obama by bowing deeply in front of the emperor’s casket. The issue was further complicated by the fact that as a flight-pilot, Bush was shot out of the sky by the Japanese. While being pressed about his bow, Bush wavered, noting members of his squadron who never came home, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s decision to keep the emperor system.

In 1994, Bill Clinton was criticized for almost bowing to Akihito. Liberal The New York Times wrote: “It wasn’t a bow, exactly. But Mr. Clinton came close. He inclined his head and shoulders forward, he pressed his hands together. It lasted no longer than a snapshot, but the image on the South Lawn was indelible: an obsequent President, and the Emperor of Japan.”

(Above photo was by Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse)

Richard Nixon Jumps

halsman_nixon

“Halsman felt that asking a person to jump shifted their attention from being photographed to the act of jumping, thereby revealing the subject’s inner personality,” said Kurt Sundstrom, Assistant Curator at the Currier Gallery of Art. “In fact, Halsman compared his ability to reveal character to the work of a good psychologist.”

Halsman himself admitted, “[Revealing character] can’t be done by pushing the person into position or arranging his head at a certain angle. It must be accomplished by provoking the victim, amusing him with jokes, lulling him with silence, or asking impertinent questions which his best friend would be afraid to voice.”

Halsman himself was daunted to photographer Vice President Richard Nixon in the White House and thought that the proper and grumpy politician would refuse to jump. However, Nixon readily agreed, but like his subsequent presidency, the photo was awkward to say the least.

Kitchen Debate

A kitchen of a suburban model house — cut in half to be viewed easily — was an unlikely place to make history, but on July 24th 1959, vice-president Richard Nixon and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did just that at an impromptu debate (made through interpreters) at the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

This was the first high-level meeting between Soviet and American leaders in four years. With two political heavyweights  arguing for their respective ideologies, the debate was historic yet its contents banal. Khrushchev stressed the communism’s focus on “things that matter” above luxury while Nixon extolled America’s household appliances which give the event its title, “The Kitchen Debate.” Then, Nixon started his carefully prepared speech on American abundance and Soviet drabness.

Back home, the event was denounced as a political stunt: “an exchange that emphasized the gulf between east and west but had little bearing on the substantive issue,” wrote the New York Times. However, what the American people saw was the above photo by taken by Elliott Erwitt. Erwitt captured the moment when Nixon poked his finger at Khrushchev, who didn’t have the slightest idea of what Nixon was saying. Americans assumed that Nixon had silenced the Soviet premier and “won” the debate. Nixon acquired the image of a tough forceful statesman, one which carried him all the way to the Republican presidential nomination the next year (postcards featuring the image were a campaign must-have) and eventually to the White House in 1968.