American Culture

Frost/Nixon: The rehabilitation of Tricky Dick and what it says about the soul of modern America

My colleague Michael Sheehan recent offered a tip of the cap to a local staging of Frost/Nixon, which starred our old friend Stuart O’Steen. If anything, Mike was understated in his praise of the show and O’Steen’s performance. Anytime the big-city Denver Post says nice things about a community theater production up in the hinterlands of Longmont you know something special is afoot.

After the show, as we waited for a chance to congratulate the cast, my companions and I found ourselves discussing a topic that has come to intrigue me a great deal: the curious rehabilitation of Richard Nixon. It’s probably safe to say that Tricky Dick was one of the most reviled figures in American political history and on August 9, 1974 he became the only president in the nation’s history to resign the office.

There was much about Nixon to hate.

  • The unforgivable  “Southern Strategy” established the overtly racist blueprint for every major Republican electoral success of the past 40 years.
  • His prosecution of the Vietnam War (and its incursions into Laos and Cambodia) sacrificed thousands of lives for military and political goals that were questionable, at best.
  • Then of course, there was that whole Watergate thing.

Hunter Thompson, perhaps the most reliable voice of the American conscience during Nixon’s heyday, painted the man as an epically corrupt political fixer, famously writing that:

If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

I can’t help wondering what Hunter, who died in 2005, would make of the increasingly flattering light bathing Nixon’s memory in the last five years. Frost/Nixon, which debuted on the London stage in 2006 (with a successful film version following in 2008), didn’t let the disgraced former president off the hook by any  means, but its portrayal humanized the beast by looking deeply into the tribulations that shaped his soul. As he squared off with out-of-favor talk-show host David Frost, a man also waging a battle for his professional life and legacy, Nixon almost seemed to be inviting the dagger that would end his suffering. He wanted, he needed, Frost to be a worthy adversary and he promised to be relentless in return. Only one of them could survive, he explained in a booze-addled late-night call to Frost on the eve of the final showdown, and if he was consciously fantasizing about a return to the bright lights of Washington, DC, he seemed subconsciously desperate for the absolution that attended final defeat.

The Frost team finally uncovered the discrepancy in the official record that broke Nixon, forcing an admission of guilt and setting the stage for the apology that ultimately was as important to him as it was to the nation he betrayed. Neither the big-screen portrayal by Frank Langella or the small stage reprise by O’Steen argued for vindication, but both insisted on a measure of forgiveness.

The question, then, becomes why? Why the play? Why the movie adaptation? After all, playwright Peter Morgan could have written about anything. Once he did write the play, audiences could have rejected it. Other troupes, such as the Longmont Theatre Company, could have opted to mount a different show instead, something with more perceived social salience or more box office promise.

I’m a culturalist, and as a result I pay attention to the artifacts of the popular culture. If vampires are in vogue all of a sudden, then it’s probably meaningful. The broad social response to a theme, a trope, a meme suggests something about the collective psyche, and if you’re interested in understanding the society in question it’s a good idea to pay attention to its books, its plays, its music, its games and television and movies.

The answer, then, to why Nixon, why now, seems fairly obvious: His presidency, as twisted and corrupt and doomed as it was politically, was actually the last time we had a White House acting more or less in the best interests of the citizens of the United States. And we miss it. We know that power politics has always responded to wealth, but we long for the days when the sell-out wasn’t so comprehensive, so shameless, so arrogant and sneering. We wish those who control the political and economic direction of the nation would drop a crumb or two every now and then. We hate that corporations are citizens and that money is speech.

Three years ago, during the run-up to the 2008 election, I wrote an article recalling some of the high spots in the actual Nixon record and inviting readers to compare what they saw with the records and platforms of the candidates vying for the White House. The conclusion was unmistakeable, and for many perhaps a bit shocking: “If he were a candidate in the 2008 presidential election, Richard M. Nixon would be more progressive than either the Republican or Democratic nominees.” In truth, he’d have been more progressive than any of the even remotely viable Dems we’d heard from that year, with the possible exception of John Edwards (and the question there, of course, was how much of what he said you could actually set stock by).

Earlier this year I revisited the topic because all of a sudden I seemed to have company. From the wide right we had Bruce Bartlett, who used to work for Ron Paul, Jack Kemp and Bush the Elder, articulating Nixon’s liberalism and arguing that he was to the GOP what Obama is to the Democrats. From the other end of the spectrum we had Noam Chomsky, one of the most outspoken, unapologetically liberal voices in the country, telling a packed house at the University of Colorado that “Richard Nixon was America’s last liberal president.” I pointed to Nixon’s record in both of those posts, and it’s worth repeating the finer points here:

  • He got us out of Vietnam.
  • He was a keen foreign policy type whose diplomatic efforts strengthened our relationships with both established and emerging world powers.
  • He implemented the first significant federal affirmative action program.
  • He dramatically increased spending on federal employee salaries.
  • He oversaw the first large-scale integration of public schools in the South (something the crackers where I grew up were none too happy about).
  • He proposed a guaranteed annual wage (aka a “negative income tax”).
  • He advocated comprehensive national health insurance (single payer) for all Americans.
  • He imposed wage and price controls in times of economic crisis. This wasn’t a terribly good idea, but it was the furthest thing from a conservative idea. Truth is, it was positively socialist.
  • Both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities thrived under his administration in ways they have not since.
  • He indexed Social Security for inflation and created Supplemental Security Income.
  • He created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Office of Minority Business Enterprise.
  • He promoted the Legacy of Parks program.
  • Title IX became law on his watch.
  • Social spending eclipsed defense spending for the first time in U.S. history.
  • He appointed four Supreme Court Justices. Three of them voted with the majority in Roe v. Wade.

If you put Bartlett and Chomsky in a room, this might be the only subject in the world they’d find any degree of agreement on. That someone as intellectually contrary as I can be agrees with both of them, well, that may be the 7th Sign.

So who was right? Hunter Thompson or Noam Chomsky? The answer, of course, is both. In a sane, coherent political climate characterized by service to the well-being of its citizens a crook like Nixon could not be tolerated. We might view the above bulleted list as a minimal set of requirements for the office. There would be nothing special about them and we’d therefore be free to swing away at the character deficiencies of a pol as tricky as Dick. Thompson had a burr under his saddle where Nixon was concerned, no doubt, but his every rant was grounded in truth and his verdict on the amorality of Richard Milhous Nixon was more than justified.

We don’t live in a sane, coherent political climate, though, and from the perspective of the sociopathocracy of our day even a man as vile as Nixon begins to look pretty good. All you really need to consider is that “relativity” thing: we have, in the 37 years since he was chased from Washington with torches and pitchforks, slid so far to the right that the architect of the Southern Strategy, the man who expanded an already-unjust war across a couple more borders, the mastermind behind the highest felony in US political history and the reason why we attach “-gate” to everything that’s even remotely scandalous looks good by comparison. Chomsky certainly couldn’t have felt good about what he told that audience in Boulder, but only a fool walked away thinking the comment was about Nixon.

The odd case of Richard M. Nixon teaches us a valuable lesson about history. As Churchill once observed, history is written by the victors – and those who defeated Nixon wrote a good bit of history. But history books also get revised, don’t they? Unfortunately, we now know, with a vengeful certainty, that a couple generations of contemptible successors can transform a malevolent tyrant into a good and faithful custodian of the common weal.

It’s a lesson we’d be better off without.

9 replies »

  1. Fantastic post, Sam, really enjoyed it. I’m endlessly fascinated by Nixon, precisely because of this: “So who was right? Hunter Thompson or Noam Chomsky? The answer, of course, is both.”

  2. Very nicely done, Sam. But let me just throw out a different perspective or two.

    One thing it’s all too easy for all of us to forget is that plays are not really literature in the sense that novels are literature, and they don’t always play by the same rules. To be successful, a play must entertain, must generally do so in two hours or less (though there are exceptions), and must use dialogue and performance to bring meaning, instead of third-person commentary, character thoughts, or whatever device a novelist may use. It’s often said that a play script is to a play performance as a score is to a a musical performance.

    Morgan’s Nixon has much in common with Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello. The Elizabethan playwrights discovered what the Greeks had discovered two millennia before — moral complexity is far more interesting and revealing than cut-and-dried morality plays. Morgan is writing in that tradition. His Nixon is a supremely talented and able man with terrible flaws that result, ultimately, in wrongdoing. Actors portraying Nixon, and doing their homework, will often use vocal and physical technique to indicate just how self-conscious and insecure Nixon could be as a means of revealing things about Nixon’s childhood that aren’t in the script. The goal, of course, is to present as comprehensible a human being as possible within the context of the script, so that the action makes sense to the audience and, ideally, provokes an emotion or two. With Macbeth, those emotions might be horror and pity, and maybe even a touch of admiration at the manner in which Macbeth decided to die, at the end if the play is done a certain way. And perhaps Frost/Nixon will evoke much the same reactions, though muted a bit.

    So, while Morgan’s play may well be an artifact of popular culture, his choice of Nixon makes perfect sense in the Western dramatic tradition, and his treatment of the character fits right into that same tradition.

    It’s common to hear advice in writing classes that, even if you’re writing about Adolph Hitler, remember that pure evil is rarely very interesting except in pulp fiction and fantasy. If I were to write a play or film about Nixon, I would steer clear of writing him as a pure villain, even if I thought he was. The trick, I guess, is to make a substantial portion of the audience think, “given the same circumstances of upbringing, mixed with those events, I could have made the same choices.” I think it’s a valuable approach for exercising that empathy muscle which is often so badly atrophied.

    As for a longing for the Nixon years, I hear you about current corruption, but I also have a slightly different angle. Following WWII and the successful Marshall Plan, Americans had a sense that their government was good, and could solve things. This feeling probably reached its height with Kennedy. But Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson mired us in Vietnam, the country started to see massive protests from a number of different groups, and Nixon came to power, ending with Watergate, that gave a lot of people the idea that government is corrupt, and maybe always had been. Then we get Carter, who was perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be incompetent. I don’t think it’s an accident that the next person we elected ran against government.

    Perhaps we long for a time like Nixon’s first term when it seemed like there was a place to turn for solutions, and that we had some small measure of influence over those solutions. Now, it seems to many that government is both corrupt and incompetent, and the private sector would sell their children into slavery to add a penny to the bottom line. And we wonder where it all went to hell. I’d suggest that Watergate was the turning point, and that the central figure in Watergate is fascinating for that reason, among many others.

    Once again, great piece.

    • Well put. One of those “comment was better than the post” moments. I have a follow-up post coming at some point where I speculate about what would have happened in the absence of Watergate. If only I had a hot tub time machine…..

      • Thanks, Frank. As you know, I’ve tried to be a guy who brings that cultural insight into the political discussion, but it appears all to often that nobody gets it or sees the connection. Which is frustrating as hell, because that cultural context helps us make sense of so many things we might not grasp otherwise.

  3. Thanks for the insight about the importance of popular culture in the interpretation of political events . I enjoyed your earlier posts on Nixon. This contributes a significant additional observation about the current state of our culture’s lack of understanding of how the past informs the present.

  4. Fascinating and thoughtful post, Sam, and Stuart’s insights add so much to the reading that I may be bringing coals to Newcastle, but here goes:

    What the bastard Nixon did to this country was unconscionable in other ways – he provided a training ground for the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and he provided Reagan with both those two minions and their newly learned insights into how to lie to an entire nation about one’s real goals while positing pie in the sky bullshit as “issues” worthy of the public’s attention: i.e., prayer in schools, “unfair regulation” of everything from media (remember, “the ‘public interest” is whatever the public is interested in”?) to banking – all the while decrying the “evil” of unions and trumpeting the heroism of fascists and theocratists such as the Contras and the Muhajadeen.

    Maybe in 7-800 years audiences will be able to look at a play like “Frost/Nixon” and see it in those literary/theatrical senses that Stuart discusses so well.

    As for me, I’m with Hunter about this role model for the criminal culture that passes for politics and government in our time….