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Watching the Watchdog: My Brush With Richard Nixon

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

If Richard Nixon, 36th and 37th president of the United States, had lived another 19 years he would have reached his century this week.

But he didn't. Instead, he died back in 1994.

For those who've forgotten or never knew, Nixon was the only U.S. president in history forced out of office. He resigned rather than face impeachment for trying to cover-up the infamous Watergate scandal.

Tim Knight was a news and documentary producer for ABC News in New York when he sort-of met Nixon. Here's the story.

Washington, D.C., May 16, 1970: Yesterday I'm in Oakland, California, at Black Panther headquarters shooting a documentary on the very lean, very mean, very Black Panthers who want power to the people and want it now, if not sooner, and you better believe it, honky motherf*****r.

Today, I'm at the appropriately named White House, in Washington D.C., directing an interview about the Panthers with Daniel Patrick "Benign Neglect" Moynihan who is all pink and plump and affable and is special adviser to the President of the United States, who is leader of the Free World.

We finish the interview. The crew pack up their gear, head for the Press Room. My reporter, Edward P. Morgan, one of the old giants of American TV journalism, hangs back to schmooze with Moynihan about old times. I wander off, find my way outside.

A small crowd gathers behind barriers across the lawns at the White House steps. I join the back of the crowd.

A dozen U.S. Marines in full ceremonial dress carrying rifles, amble up the steps, form two ragged lines. They look desperately bored, like they've done this a thousand times before and would really rather be somewhere else. Somewhere more interesting. Like a war.

Clearly, someone very important is expected at the White House.

I want a better view. So trying my best to look as if I belong here, I stroll around the crowd and the barriers holding them back, up the side of the White House steps to stand right behind the Marine guard. Along the way, I do my ever-watchful Secret Service act -- scrutinize faces in the crowd, examine the trees at the end of the lawn, that sort of thing.

It's always a good idea to look as if you have official business here because this is the place they keep the power and are very nervous about strangers.

The White House front doors open and flunkies unroll a red carpet along the portico and down the steps. A US Marine captain, in full-dress uniform complete with medals follows them, lugging a domestic-type carpet sweeper.

The guard of honour watch and smirk while their captain ignores them, carefully sweeps the carpet.

When it's appropriately clean he carries the carpet sweeper back inside.

--------------------

Richard Milhaus Nixon, 37th President of the United States, Leader of the Free World, walks out the White House all alone, between the ranks of the guard of honour, along the red carpet to stand at the top of the steps. He's maybe five feet from me.

Nixon looks at me. I look at him. He gives me a sort-of-nod. The sort-of-nod you give someone you sort-of know, but aren't sure. I sort-of-nod back.

The president, the guard and I stand there and wait for our very important visitor.

I study Nixon. There's a peculiar meanness about him, a tightness, a holding-everything-inside type of narrowness. I can't work it out until I realize that Richard Milhaus Nixon, 37th. President of the United States, Leader of the Free World, is nervous.

Who on earth is this visitor who can scare the President of all the United States, the most powerful man on earth?

The White House gates swing open. The first of a prowl of long, black Cadillacs glides up the drive. The guard of honour comes to attention.

The third and longest of the long, black Cadillacs stops at the bottom of the steps. The Marine Corps captain steps smartly up, opens the rear door, salutes.

I glance back at Nixon. Little beads of sweat shine on his forehead on this cool and gentle Washington morning. His eyes dart around like a snake's tongue. A smile like a snarl is painted on his face.

He has to literally force his body to walk, uncoordinated, like a puppet on strings, down the steps towards his visitor.

Out of the longest of the Cadillacs comes a tiny brown man in a British Field Marshall's uniform. He's around five feet, four inches, fragile and old.

--------------------

His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah, Emperor of Ethiopia, Elect of God, revered by Rastafarians as God Incarnate, who traces his dynasty all the way back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, has come to visit Richard Milhaus Nixon, 37th President of the United States of America, Leader of the Free World.

For a long moment, the Emperor of Ethiopia stands there in the cool sunlight in front of the White House, looking up at the President of the United States. He's close to 80 years old, but he radiates power, strength, enormous confidence, complete control. From another time and for all his grievous faults, this tiny, ancient, often brutal dictator is still a lion among men.

Richard Nixon, keeper of the nuclear button, holder of more power than any man who ever lived, half-bows, puts out his hand. He's a used-car salesman greeting a powerful client, fearful he isn't good enough to make the sale.

Haile Selassie hesitates for a moment before they shake hands and mutter words to each other.

They walk back up the steps together. Richard Nixon, still smiling that awful snarl-smile, and Haile Selassie, the most powerful man on the steps, walk past the guard, along the clean red carpet. And disappear into the White House.

There is no doubt who is the Emperor and who is the used-car salesman.

--------------------

Years later, in another movie in Trench Town, Jamaica, on a hell-hot night in a bar where you drink Red Stripe from the bottle and buy cigarettes by the one, I'm drinking with my friend Jabulani Tafari who is on one of the stars of my TV journalism training workshop.

Two speakers, so big they could fill a cathedral, beat out Bob Marley.

Every time I hear the

crack of a whip

my blood runs cold ...

Jabu is a gentle man with dreadlocks down his shoulders. He talks of peace and love and has defected from your world and my world to the Rastafarian world.

He honors Haile Selassie as God, and rests his spirit with Jah.

I remember on the slave ship,

How they brutalized my very soul ...

A rude-boy, big like a mountain, tries to sell me ganja to kill a whale.

Slave driver,

The tables have turned ...

The Marley song pounds out like blood in the temple and the Rasta men and the rudies and the la-la girls and the higglers in the place sway and lean to the throb of it. A chicken struts and pecks for food on the dirt floor.

Catch-a-fire

You're gonna get burned ...

My friend Jabulani Tafari listens to the story about the president and the emperor, eyes deep and blooded in the shadows.

"I understand", says Jabu. "And I have a question. Did the journalists ... did you ... report the story that way? Did you say those things on camera to your network, ABC, about Nixon? About the used-car salesman?"

"No."

"Why not?"

'"I guess even journalists don't always report everything we see."

"That is the truth, mon ... " says Jabu. "That is the truth. Peace and love, mon ... peace and love."

This column is adapted from Tim Knight's book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition at Lulu.com.