Thursday, September 5, 2013

40 More Years: "Our Nixon," and Everybody's

A scene from Penny Lane's Our Nixon

I’m not the best person to pass critical judgment on the virtues and defects of Penny Lane’s documentary Our Nixon, which was largely cobbled together out of hundreds of reels of home-movie footage shot during the Nixon presidency by H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Nixon’s special assistant, Dwight Chapin. (Haldeman was especially renowned as an amateur movie historian during his time as part of Nixon’s inner circle; a handful of his home movie footage was included in the 1995 CD-ROM edition of his published White House diaries.) Lane’s intention seems to be to invite audiences to re-examine their preconceived image of Nixon by seeing him, in unguarded, “personal” moments, as a human being, while including just enough of the larger context  in the form of TV interviews with Nixon’s abettors and enablers and snippets of the Watergate tapes  to remind us just who it is we’re watching. It’s not easy to get a clear emotional read on how the director feels about any of what she presents, but I’m guessing that, when she chose her title, she didn’t intend to remind anyone of the title that was given to Hans-Jurgen Sybergerg’s epic experimental film when it opened in the U. S. in 1980: Our Hitler.

Writing about Our Nixon when it played earlier this year at the Hot Docs festival, Kevin Courrier wrote that “what resonates most about” the movie “is the way it touches our fascination with visual documentation. If the Kennedy family also obsessively filmed themselves, their footage went on to create the attractive and appealing myth that would come to define the Camelot of the Kennedy years (the very images we stored and savoured that would be later overshadowed by murder and loss).” I can get behind that, though for me the fascination of seeing Nixon in these homemade glimpses of him in his White House prime is closer to the Patterson footage of Bigfoot: a monstrous, near-mythological creature seen in his native habitat.
John Ehrlichman, from Our Nixon
That’s not politics talking, either. In the popular imagination, Nixon’s political standing is still where it was a few years after he departed the White House: in flux. Even before he died, Beltway bloviators who are personally hurt by the idea that anyone might think the voters ever made a mistake in an election had started buffing his reputation, and some of the angry young journalists  such as Ron Rosenbaum  who, back in the ‘70s, would have vied for the honor of carrying his head on a pike down Pennsylvania Avenue are now old farts who like to brag about how they've “matured” and now feel sympathy for the man’s moral compromises and are grateful to his successor, Gerald Ford, for having pardoned him for any and all offenses and thus spared the country from “tearing itself apart.” But popular culture has made up its mind: if it’s a cliché for a hero with a good-citizenship bent to take inspiration and spiritual nourishment from a thought or image of Abraham Lincoln, then it’s Nixon would be most likely to appear, in a puff of sulfur, sitting on a character’s shoulder if he needed encouragement to stuff a ballot box or circulate faked photos of his opponent burying a litter of puppies alive. (In an issue of the comic book series Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Mike Allred, the weirdo cult DC Comics character Prez, “the teenage president,” receives a visitation from Nixon, who invades his bedroom to prepare him for future political success by telling him all about the dirty facts of life.) When I was in junior high, long after Nixon had left the White House, every classroom wiseguy thought he could do an impression of Nixon, though none of them  all right, none of us  really sounded anything like him. We sounded like Dan Aykroyd doing Nixon, because that was the Nixon we grew up with.

Nixon was a mythic liar, in ways that later Presidents can’t match; Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush said at least as many untrue things, but both of them had that Forrest Gump appeal of seemingly magically untouched by learning anything that might have violated their belief systems, and they didn't leave behind recordings of their every utterance in the Oval Office. We know Nixon was lying, as we don’t know for sure about them, because we can hear him actually saying that he knew better. And because we know he wasn't magically untouched by learning, or magically anything else. He was a plodder, driven by insecurity and anxiety, and, with the possible exception of the first President Bush, more miserably uncomfortable in his own skin than any other man who rose to his station in the twentieth century. He was an intellectual with a classical-liberal belief in government, but one who hated intellectuals and liberals because he always believed they were looking down on him.

So he surrounded himself with thick bullies and thugs, who were flattered that such a man would want to keep them around, so he could feel superior to them. That hyper-awareness or any slight, combined with his inability to take any comfort or strength from what he really was  or to fully embrace a fantasy identity, the way George W. Bush, having been sized up by the world as a spoiled drunken preppy, happily redefined himself as a cowboy  made Nixon seem unusually shifty, which is probably what made him such catnip to political cartoonists such as Paul Conrad, Ralph Steadman, and Robert Grossman. (He came as close as anyone ever would to bringing out the werewolf in Herblock.) He brought out the political cartoonist in actors, too  even actors as great as Rip Torn (who played Nixon in the TV miniseries based on John Dean’s memoir Blond Ambition) and Jason Robards.

Robert Vaughn and Jason Robards in Washington: Behind Closed Doors

One of the first big post-resignation Nixon dramas was the 1977 miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors, which grew out of ABC’s desire to have something to show for having bought the rights to The Company, a CIA novel that John Ehrlichman had pounded out to help pay for his legal fees. The miniseries aired just a few months after Robards had been presented with an Academy Award for playing a dashing, plainspoken Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men; here, he’s “Richard Monckton,” a rapacious vulgarian who falls up into the seat of executive power. Robards’ Monckton grins wolfishly at the perks that come with his power and glowers peevishly at anyone who talks to him of ethics or moral responsibility; he chews up the scenery, and practically bays at the moon. But however shallow and hammy Robards’ performance is, it’s also a gleeful demonstration of how much fun undiluted Nixon-hating can be, especially when the alternative is watching Cliff Robertson in one of his dutiful, walking-dead performances as the  get this  principled director of the CIA. Washington: Behind Closed Doors is now available on DVD, but it will probably never be as much fun again as it was in 1977, when Americans were unused to seeing people dancing on the graves of their former leaders. (There’s also a dying but still salty LBJ figure, played by Andy Griffith.)

The greatest live-action Nixon cartoon is still Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, a one-man movie starring Philip Baker Hall as Nixon in exile. One night, he locks himself in his office, switches on the tape recorder, and starts to narrate the story of his life and career, between shots of booze. (There’s also a gun in the room; the conceit is that, once he’s left his final testimony behind for posterity, Nixon will do the right thing and blow his brains out.) Sweating and cursing and breaking down, Hall’s Nixon rants about Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, about Kissinger and Salvador Allende, about his devotion to his own mother and about how he drove Pat on her dates with other men, rather than allow her to simply dump him. His guilt and shame keep raging and swelling inside him, but in the end, his hatred is stronger than his self-hatred, and he concludes that it’s the American people, who voted him into office, “not once, not twice, but all my goddamn life,” who bear the real guilt for his sordid past. He puts the gun away  “If they want me dead, they’ll have to do it themselves.”  and, thrusting a fist into the air, shouts “Fuck ‘em!” over and over, while Altman pans across his image on one video monitor after another. Secret Honor, which was filmed at the University of Michigan, was made during the eight-year period when Altman concentrated on directing filmed versions of plays, and it’s as respectful of the stage space as any of those films, yet it’s one of the most visually dynamic of all Altman’s works. He uses those videos screens and the paintings and photographs and other artifacts of Nixon’s past to set waves of history crashing against the crumbling rock face of Hall’s performance. The office is both the America of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s and Nixon’s crypt. Altman somehow manages to entomb the audience with him without the movie ever seeming claustrophobic.

Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen in Oliver Stone's Nixon

Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) is twice the length of Altman’s movie, and cost God knows how many millions more, but it never conveys anywhere near as much about the man – and not just because, in the kind of automatic “Get me this week’s Academy-certified Greatest Living Actor to do justice to this great part!” genius move we've come to expect from Stone, it casts Anthony Hopkins, an actor who could pass for a member of an extraterrestrial race more easily than he could pass for American, as the most self-consciously American of all Presidents. In lieu of a convincing Nixon, Stone tries to put his stamp on the material by providing a new theory that allows for a sympathetic attitude toward the Wolfman of the Watergate: Nixon, as a bright-eyed young thing suddenly realizes as she looks into his rheumy old eyes, never had any choice but to be what he was, because “the beast” – some ineffable combination of fate, The System, and his campaign contributors – wouldn’t allow him to be a great man. When Stone’s movie opened a few months after Nixon died, reviewers who had feared that it would be mean to the dead old thing breathed a mighty sigh of relief; its sentiments were perfectly in keeping with those that newly “mature” Boomer pundits had been putting forth all year, and Stone was praised for having, yes, matured from a cartoonist and propagandist into a “a bold portraitist.” Personally, I suspect that Stone’s head has never fully left 1971, and that he decided to show sympathy for Nixon because, not having noticed what everyone else his age had been saying for years and years, he thought that pitying Nixon in 1995 would shock the shit out of people.

Whether or not everyone who takes the “poor old Dick” line is aware that it’s now the responsible conformist view, not everyone has the stomach for it, thank God. Not long after Nixon died, the sainted Matt Groening contributed an editorial to the Simpsons comic book, assuring young readers that, no matter what they might hear in the weeks and months to come from sentimentalists, morons, and moral equivalists, the late President Nixon was a bad, bad man, and they should know it and remember it and tell their children and grandchildren. Groening would later have Nixon’s preserved and still-malignant head elected President on his sci-fi cartoon series Futurama, so he could keep kicking him well into the next millennium. For those who prefer horror to sci-fi, there’s Ron Howard’s film version of Peter Morgan’s play, Frost/Nixon, in which Frank Langella comes as close as anyone ever has to suggesting what Dracula would be like if he liked ketchup on his cottage cheese.

Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
Frost/Nixon is based on the story of how, looking to get on the comeback trail, pave the way for his official rehabilitation, and flog his 1979 memoirs, Nixon agreed to sit for a series of TV interviews (in exchange for $600,000) with the then-faded entrepreneurial broadcast figure David Frost (played by Michael Sheen). The movie is watchable, and its penny-ante story of a couple of guys trying to use each other to claw their way back into the limelight has more drama than Stone could find in any given thirty or forty years of American history, but it’s the by far most harebrained of the many plays, TV scripts, and screenplays that Morgan has torn from the pages of recent history (The Queen, The Deal, The Last King of Scotland). He and Howard pump up the drama by making way too much of the importance of the event; Frost is surrounded by advisors who keep lecturing him that, if he blows this, and fails to nail Tricky Dick to the wall, he will walk away exonerated for all time, and that will be that.

In the end, Nixon offers the morally inane defense that “When the President does it, it’s not illegal,” and Langella, as soon as the words are out of his mouth, mimes the inner torment of a scoundrel who knows that he’s revealed his filthy soul for all the world to see, and the jig is up. What really happened was that Nixon did say that  it was the only defense he could have offered, and was always implicit in his definition of “executive privilege”  and then kept rambling (and there will always be plenty of people who agree with him, including some, like Dick Cheney, who get the chance to carry that attitude into the halls of power). It was a revealing moment, but not surprising enough to qualify as an earthshaking one. More ludicrous by far is the moment when Nixon greets Frost before an interview and asks if he did any “fornicating” over the weekend. When Frost told this story in his book about the interviews, he described it, plausibly, as a sad-funny example of Nixon trying to be a regular guy and speak the language of men, something he was plainly not cut out for. In the movie, it’s presented as a masterly chess move, something Nixon does to throw his opponent off his game.

Trying too hard to cut Nixon some slack, or not giving him credit for being an awkward man capable of unhappiness, are both examples of traps filmmakers fall into from caring too much, still, about the guy and what he represents. A couple of years ago, Doctor Who visited America in the late ‘60s and met Nixon in the Oval Office, and what should have been a classic encounter between two pop-culture titans was a washout: The Doctor Who creative team, which is composed of people who are both young and British, didn't seem to have a clear idea of who Nixon was, only that his name seemed to have some special powers. It was  reminder that, someday soon, the world will be made up of people who are too young to remember when your feelings about Richard Nixon were supposed to tell the world what kind of American you were, and whose side you were on  and whose side you weren't.  In years to come, Nixon will show up in movies and TV shows set in a certain era, but it’ll be like when President Grant appears in a Western; if it weren't for the name and the prosthetic nose, he might as well be Jimmy Carter. The past isn't dead, William Faulkner said, it isn't even past. Pop culture has other ideas.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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