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Mr Dubcek's dangerous corner;
The (at the time of writing) prospective encounter between the two first elevens of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia on Czech soil is not quite the Czech diplomatic coup it has been painted. Rather, it must give the greatest grounds for concern. It is true that the Kremlin's old-fashioned sabre- rattling smacks of desperation. On their performance to date the Czechs' new leaders can be relied upon to retain their sang- froid while the tensions mount, and the most likely result of the latest Russian antics will to further to undermine the position of their friends in Prague. Nevertheless, although he enjoys a clear majority both among the people and within the Central Committee of the Czech Communist party, Mr Dubcek knows that he can count only on four of the other ten members of his present politburo. Of the remainder, four are little better than creatures of the Kremlin, while two sit on the fence. Yet it will not be easy for the Czech Prime Minister to refuse the demand for a confrontation between the two full politburos now that the Russians have conceded his demand that it should take place on Czech soil. There are even those who argue. that he would have been better advised to go to Russia, in which case he could have restricted his delegation to those on whom he can rely to support him. Unfortunately, the dangers of such a course—that those who left would not return, or that their enemies would stage a putsch against them in their absence were too great. And when the meeting between the two politiburos does take place the Russian strategy will evidently be to demand the dismissal of certain named officials—among them General Prchlik, President Smrkovsky and Dr Cisar—and the stationing of Russian troops along the frontier with West Germany to block the way to West German `revanchists.' Although the first point contains the real substance of the Russian objectives, while the second is only the shadow, it is the second which will cause Mr Dubcek trouble. The accusation that he and his friends are 'soft on fascism' is the one that his old-guard enemies within Czechoslovakia can find it respectable to support, whereas they would find it embarrassing to be seen supporting the proposition that the Russians should choose senior officials of their government and armed services. Mr Dubcek is likely to counter with an assurance that Czechoslovakia is perfectly capable of looking after her own western frontier. and prove the point by strengthening it forthwith.
The Russians' hope must be that the four old-guard members of the Czech politburo will support them in insisting on the stationing of Russian troops, and that the two fence-sitters, like the Tory politician who always voted with the lady with the largest hat, would also come down on their side. Mr Dubcek would be forced to give way; the Russian troops would encounter resistance from the populace; the opponents of the Prime Minister would be expected to announce that he had lost control of the situation and had therefore been dismissed; and the Russians would have been given the excuse they are seeking for active military intervention.
All this may happen. But there are other possibilities. Mr Dubcek may feel able to reject the demand for a full meeting between the two politburos, in which case the Russians would be faced with a choice between straightforward invasion, without any pre- tence of an invitation or of provocation, and a climb-down. Or at least the two fence- sitters in the Czech politburo may be persuaded to line up with the reformers. Or, in the last resort, Mr Dubcek, having felt obliged to acquiesce in the return of Russian troops, might succeed in persuading his countrymen to accept them and still retain control of the situation. That would avail the Russians little: for it is Mr Dubcek and his friends who worry them, not the state of their frontier with West Germany.
In Cabinet we started with a neat Stewart lecture on Czechosloakia where all this week a ghastly crisis has been blowing up. There's no doubt that Czehoslovakia is now threatened by the Russians with exactly the same crudity as Hitler threatened it with in 1938, and yet there is hardly a shimmer of indignation in this country. In 1968 people here can work themselves up about Biafra and Vietnam, but Easterm Europe is written off to the Russians.
So we had the Foreign Secretary with his tidy little report and when it was all over he asked for questions. Nobody around the table had a question to ask so I asked one; Have the Czechs approached us in any way or approached any Western country? I was told there had been no approach. "All right then", I said, "Then I would like to know one further thing. If the Russians do march in and the Czechs ask for aid, what will happen?" Immediately Denis Healey [Defence Secretary] and Stewart said there would be no response whatsoever and that they must fend for themselves. It makes me shiver a bit. At least when Neville Chamberlain said of the Czechoslovakian crisis in 1938 that it was "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing", most of us were deeply shocked. Now we all know about Czechoslovakia, but we avert our eyes from just as brutal a tragedy as that earlier one. So no more was said and I was made to look rather an old fool.
Talking to Mr Nixon is like talking to his manager. But then, since he has so long had to make do without either great property or conspicuous talent, he has had to become his own manager.
Mr Nixon has always been difficult to translate because the best analogy for his career is with baseball, a sport which has never really travelled beyond the western hemisphere. The enduring managers in baseball were seldom conspicuous as players; one is inclined to think, observing their careers, that a period of disaster and neglect was necessary to make the game an obsession for them. Baseball can be rather a bore to the player who never failed at it; Joe DiMaggio, a god undimmed seventeen years after his retirement, seldom watches a baseball game unless invited. But men who failed in mid-career scuffle and struggle to keep some link with it; they may not make the best managers, but they are the most obsessive ones; they will talk to anyone so long as it is about baseball. They disappear but they always return.
Mr Nixon has had the same vicissitudes in career: a long stewardship, a great chance coming his way and missed by a matter of inches, the discarding and the forgetting, the brooding alone over the techniques of better players, the learning of the game by watching it, and now the returning, more manager than player. The experience makes Mr Nixon, within the limits of the playing field, the most obsessively intellectual of the candidates. A morning with him is naturally all about the game.
He assumes that he won the Republican nomination in the Oregon primary, when every eye was focused on Governors Rockefeller and Reagan and there was little to be seen there. He talks about vice-presidential candidates in terms that are the ultimate mark of assurance; Mr Nixon can choose the man who will do him the most good in November, while his rivals still have to use the vice-presidential nomination to bargain with aspirants who might give them delegates in August.
Ronald Reagan's name suddenly intrudes into his discussion. That would be an odd notion for him to entertain. The enduring base- ball managers are tactically orthodox above all else; and a Nixon-Reagan ticket would seem a dangerous rightward tip in what ought to be a very delicate balance. 'But let me be devil's advocate for a moment,' Mr Nixon says. 'They're worried about George Wallace. They think Reagan would help with that. And then there is television. I almost never look at it; I'm a reader. But they say he is magic on that box.'
They are the delegates, the owners. One use of failure is that its victim never forgets how dependent he is on the goodwill of proprietors; Mr Nixon has learned to sit and look respectful when a delegate talks about the game, because his views expressed, however inexpert, are the property of a man who can always hire a new manager and who is talking to a manager who is expendable as a player. The way to survive is to listen intently to the owner and to take just enough of his advice not to lose too many games.
Listening to the owner brought Mr Nixon where he is, of course; if there is a danger that he will go no farther, it is that he may have been persuaded by what he listened to largely out of courtesy and necessity. He stays out of trouble remarkably well, but, when he slips, it is from talking too much like the average delegate to a Republican convention. He owes his present security as a candidate for the nomination to their votes. But there is real danger to him as a candidate for election if he does not rise above their opinions.
A few weeks ago, quite suddenly and surprisingly, he took a hard line on the Soviet seizure of an American plane—and then dis- covered that the soft line of our State Department had proved swiftly efficacious. A few weeks ago he went before the American Bar Association with a routine assault on the Supreme Court for coddling criminals and was surprised to find so much hostility to these views in an audience until now dependable in their acceptance.
There has been an infusion of radicalism, however transient, into a host of American institutions until now safely conservative. We cannot say for sure how deep it goes; Mr Nixon himself is plain confused. His passion, after all, is for the game itself; one charm of the game is that, for most of his career, it has been fairly predictable; if a manager did A, he used to be able reasonably to expect B to follow. But C has been following A much too often this season. Mr Nixon does not know— none of us do—that, if he goes to the right, he may not find that the country had wanted a slightly leftward candidate or that if he goes to the left, he may not find that the electorate wanted him to go right.
It is not a situation where authorities can do him much good; he has one expert who thinks that Governor Wallace will get 25 per cent of the vote unless Mr Nixon provides a satisfactory alternative; and he has another, quite as heavy with documents, who is sure that Governor Wallace cannot survive the summer as a serious menace and that Mr Nixon should disregard him and makes his peace instead with Democrats of the left.
Mr Nixon is being as dependent as the rest of us on his instincts in these matters. In the end, one thinks, his instincts will lead him to attempt to appease those persons who distrust him the most; it always has. His vice- presidential choice would then be someone with a fashionable interest in liberal solutions to the problems of the cities. He will talk about Governor Reagan until he is absolutely sure of the delegates and then he will settle for someone more modern, like Senator Percy of Illinois.
It is not very easy to say what sort of President he will be. The game which so obsesses him is different from all others because victory does bring with it special responsibilities. No one asks the coach of a team contesting the World Cup what it will do after it wins. So Mr Nixon's view of the office tends to turn a little vague; the eyes, until now so alive and focused on computation, drift towards the middle distance and look at something unknown and beyond the game and its ordered simplicities.
'Think,' he rouses himself, 'of the wonderful things that will happen in the next eight years. A new Europe, perhaps a third force there and the talks with the Russians and in Asia, the emergence of Japan and the strengthening of a ring of buffer states around the South-east Asian ring and then the talks with China.'
So there is a Grand, if imprecise, Design left in him after all. There is no thought here of the lesson of failure, because failure was never accepted. He can begin to think that, even now, he could become part of the mystery which hangs about the great players. 'It was said of Lincoln.' he remembers, 'that he saw not just the horizon but things that lay beyond the horizon.'
And the eyes searched earnestly for whatever it was the great players saw.
'I told my staff one night,' Mr Nixon said, 'that politics is poetry and not prose. I know that sounds funny from me.' It does not sound funny at all. When a game becomes an obsession, it is poetry to the one obsessed, however prosaic he may seem to us.
In Cabinet itself we had another rather futile discussion on Czechoslokakia. We had already know that whatever the Russians did in Czechoslovakia, we should not intervene. All we learnt this morning was that on his own initiative the Russian Ambassador had come to ask Michael Stewart to join an inter-Sputnik organisatiion of a singularly unimportant kind and then, just when he was leaving the room, had said "I want to talk to you about Czechoslovakia." I found out later that the russians had given their Ambassadors in every country instructions to make an identical approach in order to test Western reactions.