In November 1962 Richard Nixon’s political career was over. He had narrowly been defeated by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential Election, and had then gone on to be roundly beaten by Pat Brown in the race for Governor of California. Nixon, who had built a reputation as a hard-line and prickly rightwinger and bludgeoned his way in a mere 14 years from freshman congressman to his party’s nominee for president, was finished.
Six years later, Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States. But that’s not the interesting thing. The Nixon elected in 1968 was not the same Nixon of ’62, but The New Nixon, a moderate middle of the road reformer who wanted to reunite the country after the divisions of the LBJ years, and had a plan to get the country out of Vietnam. He was a conservative, alright, but a small “c” conservative who wanted simple stability and law and order. That was the image, anyway, and it worked, to such a degree that Nixon was reelected in 1972 in a massive landslide.
I write all this having recently read an interview with Michael McDowell in the Sunday Indo, where he was pressed (and didn’t rule out) a return to political life. I worked with him on three campaigns, and I have always been amazed how his public persona is so different from his private one, or at least, his relaxed one. The curious thing is that Michael McDowell’s gut political instincts are closer to the mainstream of the silent working taxpaying majority than almost anyone else in his political generation. Yet one would struggle to find an Irish politician who had more difficulty in communicating those values to the people most likely to vote for, and gain from, those same values. He certainly didn’t help himself by bandying about ideological labels (socialist!) that mean nothing to so many Irish people. He also made the mistake, as John Gormley is also doing now, of assuming that the public will know and appreciate the good works one is doing in government. He failed to communicate in a digestible way the huge reforms he introduced in the prison service and oversight of the Gardai, and instead let his opponents brand him an extremist.
Could he return? Is there room for the New McDowell? It’s not impossible. People fail to realise that his well attended campaigns in Dublin South East were made up of people with a strong loyalty and indeed friendship towards him personally. If he can clearly identify a message, a set of values that the great private sector battlers who are too well off for welfare but not well enough to cheat on their taxes can identify with, the people who worry about paying the bills, he may yet.