Nixon Now!

Richard Nixon’s entire political career was dedicated to convincing the American people that their eyes were deceiving them.  Unlike almost every major political figure in the modern era, Nixon could never hide his pathological lust for power or his crippling inferiority complex from the public.  That constant five o’clock shadow, the beads of sweat hanging from his upper lip, the hunched shoulders, his whole physical being radiated a naked hunger that should have sent John Q. Public running for the hills.  So the man who got the nickname “Tricky Dick” when he was still in congress, spent twenty years, first as Vice President, then in a succession of desperate bids for the presidency, trying to hide behind a slickly crafted television image.  Journalist Joe McGuiness wrote an entire book, The Selling of the President, 1968, about Nixon’s loyal army of image consultants (including a young, casually racist Roger Ailes) and their Herculean efforts to make RMN seem like a regular guy who wouldn’t rip the throat out of your grandmother for the keys to the White House.  It shouldn’t have worked, especially after Nixon’s spiteful kiss-off to the press following his defeat by Pat Brown in the 1962 California gubernatorial election.

That barely-restrained bitterness, that shark-like smile, after a decade in the national spotlight keeping his demons at bay, the sting of electoral defeat (his second in two years!) weakened him too much to keep the guard up for another second.  He just had to let the jackals in the press know how he felt before slinking into what he had to have thought at the time was political oblivion.

But after the Kennedy assassination, the ’64 LBJ landslide, the  explosion of the anti-Vietnam and Civil rights movements, as America slide towards all-out generational conflict and nervous breakdown, Nixon’s particular brand of white middle class resentment began to look strangely appealing to that soon-to-be named “silent majority.” Still, if only for the benefit of his enemies in the press, Nixon still had to rehabilitate his image if he wanted to be taken seriously as a candidate in 1968.  What better way than to give the impression that he had a sense of humor about himself on a hip young comedy show?

Thanks to the mood of social unraveling, Nixon didn’t have to tone down his bile too much to appeal to the alienated middle class white masses.

Nixon was also aided by the human willingness to give our political figures the benefit of the doubt.  There’ s no way Nixon is as grasping and twitchy as he seems. After a narrow victory over born chump Hubert Humphrey and a first term marked by mass murder in Southeast Asia and widespread illegal surveillance and political dirty tricks on the homefront, Nixon had loosened up enough to make a play for the young people in 1972 with his uncharacteristically upbeat “Nixon Now!” campaign.

Nixon won in a historic landslide, and would have gone on to a triumphant second term chock full of visits to China, Paris Peace Accords, and an economy held together with baling wire and scotch tape just long enough to keep from collapsing on his watch.  Then, thanks to a third-rate burglary, some shoe leather reporting, and, most importantly, the revelation of the existence of an Oval Office taping system, Nixon’s true nature, which was just as paranoid and vicious and rage-fueled as that upper-lip sweat suggested back at the 1960 presidential debate, came oozing to the surface.

It was the fall-out from Watergate that created the modern character of “Richard Nixon” that we all know and love from innumerable film and television representations.  Because the Oval Office tapes were made public, we know more about the inner life of Nixon than any other president, and what we know comports to a remarkable degree with the slew of exaggerated physical tics and almost monstrous facial features that always suggested a terrible inner turmoil.  In short, he’s an actor’s dream. Playing Nixon gives an actor the chance to let fly with all the theatrical gestures that have been out of style since Brando.  When you’re playing Nixon, though, playing to the rafters IS playing it realistic, and it’s no wonder that a slab of honey-baked ham like Anthony Hopkins jumped at the chance to slick his hair back and bare his incisors in Oliver Stone’s Nixon.

Even the great character actor Philip Baker Hall, who has had a late career renaissance playing desperately unhappy men in P.T. Anderson movies, let loose with both barrels when he played Nixon in the 1984 one-man show directed by Robert Altman, Secret Honor.

For all the mugging and overacting that goes into these performances, they’re driven by a fascination with the character of Richard Nixon that comes from having lived through the dramatic pageantry and horror of his political career.  It’s that fascination that drives the scaberous satire of Altman and the overly earnest operatics of Oliver Stone.

For the generation that came after Watergate, Nixon’s pathos, not to mention awareness of the real damage he caused to America and the countless lives he destroyed, no longer registers.  Instead, we are left with only the caricature. In 1999, a couple of screenwriters who were less than ten years only when the Watergate hearings happened made the film Dick, in which Dan Hedaya turns Nixon from a tormented, crypto-fascist mass murderer to a cartoon goofball.

It’s an iron-clad law of nature: yesterday’s tragic and mighty historical figures will become tomorrow’s one-note punchline.  (In case you weren’t aware, Nixon’s first name is also a slang term for the male reproductive member)

Thankfully, the good people at Futurama remember enough about the real Richard Nixon to ground their comedy in a sense of the historical context.  Anyone who’s read the Oval Office transcripts of Nixon talking to Kissinger about the possible deaths of civilians in Vietnam, saying “You’re so goddamn concerned about civilians and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.” would totally believe that he’d sell our children’s organs to zoos for meat.

It’s sobering to realize that the image of Nixon as a paranoid sack of whiskey and hatred has only survived to become cliche because we all got a chance to hear him speak behind closed doors on those damn tapes.  Regardless of the butchery in Southeast Asia, the rampant domestic spying, the casual corruption, the seething racism and anti-semitism, all of Nixon’s worst traits would have remained a mystery in the absence of the Watergate tapes.  The Watergate scandal itself would likely have gone away without seriously damaging Nixon’s presidency if Alexander Butterfield hadn’t spilled the beans to congress about the existence of the taping system.  Without the unprecedented exposure of his most private conversations, Nixon would probably have retired at the end of his second term as a respected elder statesman and foreign policy guru…sort of like Henry Kissinger.  It makes you wonder how old Hank would have fared if we could have had a listen to his phone calls.

  1. March 14, 2010 at 5:20 pm

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