I’m not American, but I feel a strange fascination with Richard Milhouse Nixon. He’s a figure of almost Shakespearean complexity, driven to phenomenal heights and fantastic accomplishments, but never able to do enough to placate the insecurity gnawing at him. I had the pleasure of reading Conrad Black’s rather even-handed summary of his life and career last summer, and he seems as much a mystery as ever. The recent news item about another of his paranoid ramblings has grabbed media attention, but I’m amazed that there doesn’t seem to be much debate over the true impact of Nixon’s Presidency beyond the obvious shadow cast by Watergate. What is the American fascination with painting Nixon as a villain or a fiend? Why can he not embody something just a tad more complex?
I’ll begin by observing that Richard Nixon was a very odd man. He was known to hold bizarre opinions about his opponents and conspiracies about various groups and minorities – but these were usually only expressed in private under the influence of alcohol. The ill-advised tape recorder in the Oval Office means that we got to hear these private moments out loud – something that would be considered out of bounds with almost any other public official. The public Richard Nixon was a very different man. He vigorously enforced civil rights and he opened relations with foreign powers. He was the first US President to engage in environmentalism.
These professional accomplishments (which outshine anything that his successors Ford or Carter managed to accomplish) tend to be glossed over in any character study of the man. Oliver Stone’s Nixon features a relatively sympathetic portrayal by the ever-brilliant Anthony Hopkins, but still glosses over how a man that paranoid and insecure managed to rise to the position of the most powerful man in the world: he was extremely capable at what he did. Similarly, Frost/Nixon looks at the man as an awkward and hard-to-relate-to individual (by no means an unfair depiction), but at the end it glosses over the fact that he remained a man of some influence – advising Reagan and Clinton and making informal liasons to the foreign powers he so skilfully courted, while remaining a sought-after ‘talking head’ and political pundit. It instead depicts a man ended his life doing nothing but golfing (which would surely have been his own personal hell, given his ridiculously high handicap and how Eisenhower used to humiliate him by bringing him golfing).
And those two are the kind portrayals. I have a soft spot for Billy West’s protrayal of the character as a disembodied head in Futurama (“Knock-knock! I’m baaack!”), because the character is protrayed as relentlessly over-the-top. Even Watchmen (adapted for the cinema this year) got the boot in, making Nixon’s fifth term a distopian reality for eighties America. It doesn’t help that Robert Wisdom does an awful impersonation and isn’t aided by prosthetics, but I find it hard to buy that Snyder cites the character as the core of the graphic novel’s moral ambiguity. It’s a clever and complex book, but Nixon is presented not as a cynically capable leader, rather as the embodiment of the distopian alternate present.
American popular culture seems to have embraced Nixon as a shorthand for an unspeakable evil, seemingly convinced that there were no merits from a Nixon White House. It really concerns me that the bulk of the people who identify Nixon as this tyrannical villain cannot give the particulars of the very scandal that drove him from government, and if they can it is based on some flawed notion that Nixon was operating crack squads to smash into hotels and oppress the opposition, when his involvement remains much more tangental than all that and on a similar scale to the powers exercised by Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy during their administrations. The real tragedy is that he could not control the creature he courted, much as he could not control his own sense of inferiority and insecurity.
I consider Nixon to be a flawed character, but one of the most interesting of the last half-century. It is interesting that almost all portrayals of this former President in popular culture have fixated on his failings, rather than even-handedly evaluating his whole time in office. Universal condemnation of the man would ring a lot truer if the we were presented with a complete (or at least rounded) view of the man.