Simon Winchester’s road to the White House began in the unlikely surroundings of a jungle camp in Uganda.
Working as a field geologist, he read a book by Jan Morris – then known as James – and began a correspondence with the author, who encouraged him to make a radical career change and go into journalism.
Winchester joined the Guardian in 1969, first as a regional reporter in Newcastle, then as Northern Ireland correspondent in Belfast, where he covered the Bloody Sunday massacre. In 1972 he was posted to Washington as America correspondent, based in an office shared with Newsday on Pennsylvania Avenue, three minutes from the White House.
His working life was dominated by the break-in that year at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex and the ensuing political scandal, which eventually brought down the president, Richard Nixon.
Winchester covered countless congressional hearings into Watergate, racing to meet print deadlines in London. “It was nose to the grindstone,” the 76-year-old recalls from his home on a small farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. “There was lots of day-to-day coverage and then, every two or three weeks at a decisive moment, a biggish feature.”
He was one of five journalists covering America for the Guardian. By the time I moved to Washington – also after a spell in Africa – to fill Winchester’s considerable shoes more than four decades later, that number had multiplied many times over but so had the demands of a 24-hour digital newsroom.
My reporting on Donald Trump’s wild 2016 election campaign and wrecking ball presidency included frequent contributions to news, analysis, features, blogs, podcasts, videos and social media. His late-night rage tweets ensured that Washington became the city that never slept.
To attend Trump’s campaign rallies was to be surrounded by a raucous crowd worshipping a demagogue while booing and jeering “enemies of the people” like me. To sit in his coronavirus taskforce briefings was to feel like a plane passenger strapped in as the captain announces that he intends to fly blind through a mountain range.
I was lucky enough to gain access to the Oval Office a few times and shout questions at Trump, who always seemed a little intrigued by my British accent. Winchester had been in the famous room too when it was Nixon sitting behind the Resolute desk. He got to know the White House officials Ron Ziegler, HR Haldeman and John Ehrlichman as well as Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose tenacious reporting joined the Watergate dots.
Winchester says: “The sort of Washington WASPy [white Anglo-Saxon Protestant] elite were very pro-Guardian. Alastair Hetherington’s editorial denouncing the Suez crisis, which of course lost us 100,000 readers, really appealed to America and so we were quids in in the state department because we were seen to have taken the right approach, and towards Ireland as well. We were a much-loved paper. Fred Emery, who was the Times bureau chief, didn’t get quite the affection that I think we got.”
In August 1974 Winchester was heading off for a family holiday in Canada when he got wind of the news that Nixon’s resignation was imminent, so he dropped everything and raced back to Washington.
“We were on the White House lawn when the helicopter, Marine One, took off with this defiant gesture, this big wave from Nixon, and I remember going back to the office and doing a sort of silly thing. I think that happened at about 10.30 in the morning then, knowing the speed of Air Force One heading west for California, we worked out that he would be over Carbondale, Illinois, at 12 o’clock when his resignation took official effect.
“So I rang the mayor of Carbondale and I said: ‘I’m from the Guardian, I wonder if you’d comment.’ I think he was very sorry for Nixon; he was a nice man, though. So that remains one of the better pieces I did on that whole saga. It ended it with something of a flourish.”
The vice-president, Gerald Ford, took over, promising that America’s “long national nightmare” was over. Winchester recalls: “The mood was certainly not euphoric – I’d say it was more akin to having an aching tooth pulled, bringing a wave of relief coupled with the knowledge that you are still going to have to bite down.
“No one had much confidence in Gerald Ford, who was evidently a decent enough politician, but not endowed with the degree of cunning (especially in matters foreign) necessary for dealing with the world’s complexity.”
I recall a similar collective exhalation last November when, after some agonising days of vote counting, Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. It was not so much about Biden euphoria as the relief of a leaden weight being lifted off the chest: Trump was on his way out and the US had survived the biggest stress test of its democracy since the civil war.
I watched Trump get impeached twice by the House of Representatives and get acquitted twice by the Senate. Nixon quit before he could be impeached, becoming the only US president ever to step down. Trump expressed admiration for his fellow Republican and adopted his “law and order” playbook.
Does Winchester see parallels between the two? Up to a point. “To me Nixon, yes, he was a fairly crooked politician and a man with all sorts of personal problems to do with overweening ambition and all the rest of it but nonetheless, compared to this chap, he was a figure of historic importance, not least because of the whole opening up with China, which is tremendously important.
“He achieved something positive and more than one: he presided over the ending of the war in Vietnam. One can say very little positive about Trump but one can say a lot positive about Nixon.”
Like Biden, Ford was seen as a safe pair of hands who could restore calm and normality and perhaps even make politics boring again. But when Winchester got to see the new man up close, he noticed some jitters beneath the surface.
“I was in the White House when President Ford came over and I always remember he was more nervous than we were. He came over shaking the hands of all the correspondents in the press room and he certainly shook mine three times. ‘Very nice to meet you,’ and then, completely unaware, ‘Very nice to meet you’. Not that I’ve shaken a lot of presidents’ hands, but I’ve shaken one of them at least three times.
“But I did not cover myself with glory a month later when Ford pardoned Nixon on 8 September 1974, because, instead of being in Washington, I was actually covering Evel Knievel attempting to jump over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho.
“I got a terrible wigging, particularly when [foreign editor] Ian Wright said: ‘The problem, Simon, is that had he killed himself then it might have made the front page, but the fact is he merely injured himself. Page 13. You might as well just use Reuters, so come back to Washington immediately. Don’t be so silly again.’”
Winchester covered Ford’s defeat by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election, then moved on. His next posting was India correspondent: he drove the family Volvo all the way from Oxford to Delhi via countries including Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He moved to New York for an unhappy stint with the Daily Mail, then returned to London for the Sunday Times, and later rejoined the Guardian on a freelance basis in Hong Kong.
In the late 1990s Winchester moved to New York and focused on a career as an author, penning several successful books. He became a US citizen a decade ago and started a newspaper in his small Massachusetts town, where he is also an elected official (salary $150 a year). “But oddly enough, I’m vaguely thinking that America is not quite what I was hoping for back in 2011 and wondering whether to go home. My wife and I every day discuss whether we’d like to go live in Devon or stay on here.
“We have 536 people who voted in the election; 200 of them voted for Trump and, looking at the Massachusetts firearms licence applications, a very large number of them are quite heavily armed. The guy that went past a couple of hours ago sanding my road because of the ice and so forth is a Trump supporter and he carries a gun and he knows where I live. That sounds like paranoia speaking, but it’s something I’ve never felt before.
“I know if I went to Ilfracombe or Bideford or Taunton, despite Brexit and the stain Nigel Farage has left on the body politic in Britain, people are not likely to be quite so potentially violent. So that does trouble me a bit.”