"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

22 April, 2008

Examining the Image: Nixon in China

Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the U.S.A., died 14 years ago today in 1994, at the age of 81. This image shows Nixon and his wife, Pat, sharing a joke with Chinese Premier Zhou EnLai, during the historic 1972 visit which initiated a gradual thaw in Sino-American relations. This is not the place to go into details about what came to be known as "Ping Pong Diplomacy" but to make a point of just how time and history can blunt the shock of the original appearance of any image. For most Americans, steeped in the paranoia of the Cold War, the news that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had secretly visited China in 1971 was scandalous enough. To see the President of the United States sharing jokes with the "enemy", shaking Mao by the hand and toasting the Peking regime at banquets, shook many Americans to the core. The ground-breaking trip passed into legend, not least because it became the subject of a minimalist, critically well-regarded opera by American composer John Adams, with libretto by Alice Goodman. Nixon's record was overshadowed by the Watergate scandal and the threat of impeachment in 1972-1973. It all ended ignominiously with his resignation - the first by a president in office - in 1974. Nixon was pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford but the spectre of Watergate still obscures many of his diplomatic achievements, not least his role in negotiating a ceasefire with North Vietnam, his moves towards detente with the Soviet Union and key role in the limitation of strategic arms and, of course, his historic visit to China.