Donald Trump's first Cabinet meeting prompts Richard Nixon 1974 flashbacks

FOOTAGE of Richard Nixon at his wife Pat’s funeral in 1993 show the former US president clutching the hand of a man as he struggled to stay composed.

Not many people recognised the man that day. But psychotherapist Dr Arnold Hutschnecker had treated and supported Nixon from the 1950s when Nixon was vice president, leading Hutschnecker to privately, and later publicly, recommend that “mental health certificates should be required for political leaders”.

In a 1972 opinion piece in defence of Nixon, Hutschnecker argued that just because a man was neurotic, it didn’t mean he couldn’t be a great leader. He didn’t canvass the idea of a neurotic woman becoming a great leader, of course. It was 1972 after all. It would be another 44 years before America decided it wasn’t ready for a woman, neurotic or not. 

Hutschnecker said a man’s ability to overcome any neuroses to become a great leader got down to his “personality structure”, and whether his “drive to power is motivated by creative or destructive forces”. It was about “whether he wants to serve the people or whether he needs the people to serve him and hisambition”.

And so we cut to early this week, Donald Trump’s first Cabinet meeting and what could have been a great American spoof of a Kim Jong-un leader’s suck-up in downtown Pyongyang, except it was real.

One after the other some of the most powerful people in America sang for their supper while Trump ponced and preened and I started to think back fondly to George W Bush. (It’s okay. I slapped myself around the face a little, had a shower, re-read some of Bush’s speeches about invading Iraq and came to my senses.)

One after the other some of the most powerful people in America sang for their supper while Trump ponced and preened and I started to think back fondly to George W Bush. (It’s okay. I slapped myself around the face a little, had a shower, re-read some of Bush's speeches about invading Iraq and came to my senses.)

But that’s where we are now. Criticise Bush all you like (thanks, I do), but he would have deferred to the Almighty and given praise to Jesus if one of his Cabinet had said, as Trump’s beleaguered chief of staff Reince Priebus gushed this week, “We thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda.”

All heil the Dear Leader, in other words. Frank and fearless advice, it wasn’t. 

I was 14 years old and sitting in a campervan at Tennant Creek in August, 1974, when a radio within earshot said Nixon had resigned. I remember it clearly because I was reading a bumper American Life or Look magazine at the time which was given over to the final throes of the Nixon administration.

It was all there in those fabulous American magazines throughout that turbulent period, and I couldn’t get enough of them. They detailed the original Watergate break-in in 1972, immediate links to the White House, the Washington Post investigations, Nixon’s attempt to shut down an FBI investigation, the taped Oval Office conversations, the Senate Watergate televised hearings, the cover-ups, Nixon’s sacking of the special prosecutor, the “smoking gun” tape with Nixon talking about blocking the Watergate investigations, impeachment moves and finally, the resignation, with Nixon saying “I have never been a quitter”.

Until that day. And here we are, in 2017, and it feels like 1974 all over again, except the president’s on Twitter.

In his wonderfully-researched and critically-acclaimed book, The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, author Anthony Summers applied facts to the mythology of Nixon that sprang up after his death, and white-washed the assault on American democracy that Nixon’s presidency represented.

Summers detailed what senior officials did in the extraordinary final months of Nixon’s administration, when the president’s drinking, paranoia and apparent determination to dig in, despite the terrible damage being done to the country, led to serious concerns about what he might do to remain in power, even if impeached for obstructing justice.

Defence secretary James Schlesinger and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, air force general George Brown, remained in close contact from late July, 1974, after a rambling diatribe by Nixon at a Joint Chiefs meeting earlier in the year where the country’s most senior servicemen were concerned their president was feeling them out about “whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power”.

The two discussed “if the House voted impeachment and the Senate trial process was long and drawn out and going unfavourably for the president, could the president get an order down to the end of the military establishment without our knowing it?”

They reassured themselves that the “normal process” would prevent the president ordering troops to stage some kind of weird final defence against his own people, but Schlesinger took many practical steps to ensure a “bloody mess” didn’t occur if Nixon ultimately went rogue, including finding out where, and how mobile, the closest defence units were.

The Arrogance of Power was published in 2000, and I haven’t read it through for a few years, but it’s fascinating to look back at that wild time and watch what’s happening in Washington today, while projecting where it might go for Trump.       

In his 1972 opinion piece Arnold Hutschnecker asked the question: “Is there one man of stature who has not gone through the tortures of the damned and who has not gone to the rim of an abyss before his upturn to a meaningful and creative life began?”

Trump’s arc hasn’t included tortures or abysses. He’s a narcissistic American deal-making void. This week’s Cabinet meeting – and the fawning of those at the table – was a weird, but powerful, warning.