Wednesday, September 2, 2015

My Nixon Obsession

This fear-mongering Nixon ad is perhaps the ur-text of modern conservatism

I have had for many, many years now an inordinate obsession with Richard Nixon.  I think it started when I was a child in the 80s, and I would look through my uncle's old Mad magazines from the late 60s and early 1970s when I visited my grandparents' house.  They were merciless to him, and from those old magazines I began to develop both a more cynical eye and an understanding that Nixon had been a nefarious president.  In grad school, when I should have been spending all of my time on my dissertation on nineteenth century German history, I was also checking out books from the library like Nixon At The Movies.  (It is a must read for Nixonologists and fans of film from that era.)

That interest continues to this day.  I just recently got an early birthday present from my wife, a copy of Tim Weiner's new One Man Against The World: The Tragedy Of Richard Nixon, and have been enjoying it.  One of my absolute favorite Twitter feeds is @dick_nixon, which speaks in the voice of Nixon as if he were alive today.  The author masterfully replicates his tone and opinions, and gives me a pretty accurate picture of how the man would be responding to today's events.

None of this, of course, explains why I have been able to maintain this obsession.  Deep down, I think it had to do with the fact that he perfectly represents the American dream's dark side.  Nixon came from a poor rural family but managed to go to Duke law school.  Afterwards he could not get a job at any of the top New York law firms, despite his obvious intelligence and ability.  That gave him a lifelong hatred of the Ivy League establishment, a sentiment I share to a less unhinged extent.  (People who act as if the they are to the manner born and get high positions of power despite being complete mediocrities make my blood boil.)  Nixon, using the dogged tenacity of a Horatio Alger character, pushed his way into politics, taking down Alger Hiss and getting elected vice-president before the age of forty.  He then lived out the drama of rejection and redemption, so beloved in Hollywood films.  Nixon lost the 1960 election, was soundly beaten in his bid to be governor of California in 1962, and ended his post-defeat press conference with a bridge-burning tirade at the assembled reports.  Six years later, after working tirelessly to assemble donors and supporters, he managed to make a comeback and get elected president.    While president he managed to make major diplomatic breakthroughs with China and the USSR and managed to win reelection in 1972 with a massive landslide.

Of course, the seeds of his downfall had been sewn by a "third rate burglary" at the Watergate Hotel and by a whole host of related, illegal activities on his part.  To go from a resounding reelection to resigning in disgrace less than two years later is an amazing story.  (Relatedly, he proclaimed "peace with honor" in 1973, which was followed two years later by the fall of Saigon.)  What makes it interesting to me is that Nixon did it to himself through his paranoia and negativity.  He was so insecure about beating McGovern that he resorted to illegal tricks and financing when there was absolutely no need.  He spent several years continuing the war in Vietnam only to get a settlement that he could have achieved on his first day in office.

His negativity drove him to great heights, and it also dragged him down, quite a story.  It's also scary if you think about it, because the thought of what Nixon could have done without his self-destruction is rather frightening.  Even with his time in office cut short he illegally expanded the war in Southeast Asia, used the FBI to attack political dissenters like the Black Panthers, manipulated elections through his associates' "ratfucking," had his cronies break into the office of whistleblower Daniel Ellsburg's psychiatrist, supported the coup against Allende in Chile, and took massive and illegal campaign donations in what basically amounted to bribery.  (People who say other presidents who abused power were "just as bad" as Nixon are fools.)  The man who did this was elected president twice, and the second time his opponent only won one state and DC.  If anything, Nixon is a symbol of how a malevolent authoritarian can not only take over the reigns of the American government and wield power, but do so with the mass approval of the voters.  Who would not be obsessed with that?


Anonymous said...

Curious if you saw Oliver Stone's "Nixon" and what you thought of it.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

It's been a long time. I saw it when it came out, before my knowledge of the man was that extensive. Hopkins doesn't look like NIxon, but he acts him out very well. I think Stone gave him a surprising (and appropriate) level of humanity. The JFK assassination stuff he threw in was silly, though. I also tend to think that sprawling biopics are never that great. The good ones focus on a particular moment in a person's life (like The Damned United, my favorite biopic.) I would love to see a movie just about the election of 1968 or 1972. Maybe an adaptation of Hunter Thompson's Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail.