A Shameful Legacy Saved By a Culture of Art

17TH NOVEMBER, 1973, U.S.A. – The Watergate Scandal loomed ominously over Washington D.C., as menacing as the hostile slate-grey clouds hanging just above the sprawling streets of the Great Nation’s capital. Being just midway through the Scandal, it was by this time immediately clear whose head the great axe of democratic justice was yearning for; that of Richard Milhous Nixon.

But somewhere near Orlando, Florida, Nixon held an aggressive defence at the Associated Press Managing Editors annual meeting, during a Q&A session where he was desperately trying to extract some support from press big-wigs. Nixon prided himself in this environment – preferring the more natural form of questions and answers over a pre-written address – but one in which, with his wild and erratic body language, viewers could be mistaken for watching the final death throes of an animal after being clubbed over the head; jerky, involuntary spasms that signify numb suffering of the body struggling desperately to cling to a fleeing soul.

“Well, I’m not a crook,” rang out for the whole room to hear, Nixon folded his arms for the whole room to see and like a petulant child stuck out his bottom lip in the face of the next question from the room.

Crook? Crook… crrrooooooookkk. If you close your eyes and play with that word for a while faces will project onto the inside of your eyelids, panning from one side to the other and – after a while –Richard Nixon’s will float across with his trademark plastic smile. The Watergate hearings unearthed a shed of information pointing to the fact that Nixon had employed illegal espionage from as far back as May 1972. It was discovered that he had been the puppeteer behind a break-in to the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters, stollen copies of top-secret documents and bugged telephones. The culprits were members of Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (known derisively as CREEP). Later, as justice ground the hard and heavy wheel of investigation, it was revealed that in order to cover his tracks Nixon had provided hush money for the burglars, the CIA were ordered to foil FBI investigations, evidence was destroyed, staff were fired if not in line with Nixon’s criminal mental state and the tapes, admittedly in existence, were denied access to.

A bad and shameful end that resulted in his guilt of “obstruction of justice, abuse of power, criminal cover-up and several violations of the constitution,” all collated under a neat conviction as “unindicted co-conspirator,” forcing his resignation of the U.S. Presidency. But, his unnerving smile above a spittle-flecked chin would live on as he had the last laugh through a Presidential pardon by Lyndon Johnson, whereas he should have befallen a much graver fate. If our great species had not escaped the barbarism of the feudal years he would have been hung, drawn and quartered for high treason and any reference to axes yearning for heads would have meant more than just a passing comment.

Either way, some argue that the origins of the Watergate break-in lay in the hostile politics of the 1960s and 1970s: the Cold War was in its element having narrowingly escaped escalating into World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War was cranking out an American body count that would reach a higher death-toll than their involvement in World War II, communists were everywhere and the world was just not safe for the average American family. With this skin of fear spread so tightly – and so completely – over the drum of American society it is no wonder that politicians felt such immunity; they were the people’s saviours, the only figures capable of protecting good, hard-working and honest American families against the ‘Communist’ threat. A large portion of the American population would have resembled a colony of rabbits frozen in headlights. And for someone as soulless as Nixon, this would have represented a majority of voters easy to ply by being a tough, protective and fatherly President. It is no surprise, then, that the mass saw enough attributes in Nixon to re-elect him with a landslide victory in November 1972, despite the first rumours of Watergate coming to the surface six months before Election Day. It represented the last death knell for the American Dream.

But, where there is death, there is life – however – and inside America a new movement was emerging from a forgotten beatnik time where a small portion of the American people had, seemingly, blown their gaskets… gone completely out of their minds. ‘Freak Power’ had taken control of a large part of western America around Los Angeles and San Francisco. Immortalised by icons like the peace sign, Jon Lennon, flower power and luminescent shades of dye-glow depicting whirling, trippy, LSD-freak-outs, this movement looked like an unadulterated drug binge and represented the lowest and most useless of American society. But, it was much more than that.

Instead of following politicians, these young upstarts were following artists, poets, writers, musicians and general outlaws who refused to be stupefied by the veneer of dependency most Americans took from the government in that climate of fear-mongering. Allen Ginsberg – the beatnik cross-over, and the last remaining link to Jack Kerouac and William Burrows – was instrumental in organising peace rallies pushing for the end of the war in Vietnam. Ken Kesey was the Alpha-male in a group known as the Merry Pranksters, as well as the author of a book with as much truth depicting contemporary American society as George Orwell’s eerie prediction of future government in 1984 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And, all the zeal and energy was surrounded by sounds coming from the Grateful Dead, The Beatles, The Doors and the Rolling Stones linking all discourse with latent energy to produce a fantastical tribute to… something else. A different way.

It was from this small branch – this fine thread – of American society that Nixon met his match that precipitated his downfall into the shameful realms of history. Two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, realised Nixon’s complicity, duplicity, culpability and guilt in the Watergate Scandal and revealed him as the liar he turned out to be in what is now considered one of the finest pieces of investigative journalism of modern politics in All the President’s Men. These were two political junkies, serious men, without fear, who in large part contributed to a new setting in the course of history.

AUGUST, 2015, MALAYSIA – Forty-two years on and Malaysia is pushing, desperately, for status as a developed country by 2020. Most of the country, cocooned in dense jungle, is ready to wind down a long day of subsistence living under the mellow-dusky glow of a South-East Asian sunset. The sky turns ember-orange laced with pink tendrils holding a gigantic glowing orb that one can watch, in real time, sink below the horizon. There are very little sights more beautiful in the world.

But, in city centres the hustle and bustle of a nation continues with gusto. In these capsules of development, technology, culture, smartphones, iPads, 42 inch screen smart T.V.s and a burgeoning middle class, the same niggling sense of fear is beginning to creep into the minds of those leaving their nine-to-five jobs and heading to the sanctuaries afforded to them by their homes and families. They are lucky to live in a more prosperous part of the country and have modern amenities available to them that would rival some parts of the ‘developed’ world, so what are they afraid of? What is the biggest bug-bear on their side of the fence?

Take your pick: ISIS, pirates, China… unreliable airlines, dodgy traffic cops, GST… government debt, amendments to the Sedition Act, amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Law, Huddud… corruption, nepotism, an unbreakable ceiling of a Romanesque praetorian guard ready to spear anybody who dares to get close enough to monopolies and secrets within the upper echelons.

Most pressing in the news, however, is the 1MDB Scandal. This is history in the making so presents very little in what can be deemed as absolute fact and nobody has taken the blow, yet. But, for a developing country, the Malaysian government has concocted a fine Scandal for its people and the world to watch and get nervous about. 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, a government pot meant to direct finances for the development of the country, has misappropriated RM72 billion and the news is now, tentatively, suggesting that the money was used to placate desperate playboys, deal with Arabic oil companies and even finance the Prime Minister’s General Election Campaign in 2013. It may, suddenly, be revealed as a Scandal of international proportions and the Malaysian government’s first real threat to its existence.

Whoaa… oh boy! Nixon will be blinking in absolute ecstasy anticipating which greed-head capable of devising such a dastardly scheme will be joining him in the annals of shamed politicians. He will finally have someone interesting to talk to since Hitler is probably still in an indelible funk, Mussolini went crazy long ago and Mao has most certainly begun to sound like a broken record player. The guilty will join that loyal band of politicians who almost beat the system, or at least that’s the hope anyway.

But there are those who have taken up the call and engaged in a life separate from one that is dominated by fear. In art, people are increasingly being directed by incubation rather than money. On stage and in print, comedians are reminding people of just how funny the whole scenario is. In politics, ministers are trying desperately to enact the rules dictated by their relatively young constitution, whilst navigating respective rows and schisms in their own parties. Some leading the charge are free and able to campaign; others are barred from public behind steel doors in sterile cells, only able to watch.

However, unlike 60s and 70s America, most of these voices are hushed, out of their own sense of self preservation. In an effort to circumnavigate lewd charges of sedition, disturbing the peace or enacting religious hatred, their opinions are nuanced, watered-down, and lacking the hard-hitting stance that encapsulated America’s hippie, beatnik, outlawed intellectuals who caused such an almighty stir in their time.


NIXON died after suffering a stroke on April 22, 1994. He was buried, and the epitaph inscribed on his headstone failed in any effort to restore his battered image:

“The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.”

This is ironic because he also claimed in his 1985 book, No More Vietnams:

“Any nation that decides the only way to achieve peace is through peaceful means is a nation that will soon be a piece of another nation.”

Try and make a case for that as an example of consistent thought. Nevertheless, his legacy is not one of peacemaker. With regards to Malaysia, and those responsible for the disastrous fiascos taking place in the country today, there is a very important lesson to learn from Richard Nixon and his skewed legacy. It may even be Nixon’s greatest gift to the future, that he proved one last valiant shout-out for truth, honesty… peace… may not be enough for the history books. Someone in Malaysia’s leadership should realise that their legacy is inexorably headed to the same dank, dark, dirty corner of history that Nixon’s has been distractedly cast into. There is no going back now; it is already too late. It may not mean much to whoever that someone turns out to be – not when you put something as esoteric as legacy against hard, tangible, worldly privileges like power, wealth and influence – but, what remains after ashes to ashes and dust to dust other than words and thoughts and memories?

If this sort of rhetoric is ignored, which it probably will be by those it is directed at, it might mean the worst is yet to come. But, one positive to be taken from the muck of contemporary Malaysian politics is the reactive culture of art it is creating. Satirical comics from Zunar and Lat have both developed a satire deeply needed in this land of intensely humorous people. Local music artists are flexing, like Dasha Logan, and even hitting the international scene, like Yuna. Regional artists continue to exhibit increasingly often and explore new modes of conveying art to the public. States such as Penang are moulding art into culture, best expressed by the George Town Festival.

When you type “America 60s and 70s” into Uncle Google the results are refreshingly anti-government. The first page of tiled images are dominated by cars, flares, long hair, Windsor sunglasses… non-violence, flowers, peace; less of President Nixon. Those Hippies saved the country’s image as well as creating a sub-culture that will go down in eternity for breeding some of the most eminent thinkers on exposing modern society’s pitfalls.

Malaysia’s image can equally be saved by those building on culture and art and not being bogged down by politics that will soon be revealed, squashed and stomped out. If Malaysia’s government cannot prove that democracy works then they will be made an example of by the rest of the world; Lord knows that most countries need a scapegoat now more than ever. On a more personal note, if individuals responsible for governing this young democracy cannot right the wrongs and prove their worth, then they will leave this world in disgrace. But, this would be a shame because Malaysia is poised, in its growing pains as a country, to show the world how to survive in the modern world unconstrained by an increasingly conspiracy-riddled system of democracy funded by its lapdog of capitalism. Malaysia needs leaders, not corrupt copy-cats.

As a closing thought, maybe Malaysia’s comparative problems to America’s in the 60s-70s can be best expressed by the immortal words of John Lennon, in a quote that smacks of as much truth today in Malaysia as it did when he said:

Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.” – John Lennon.

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