Richard Nixon, TV and movie star


Disgraced US President Richard Nixon continues to fascinate as a dramatic figure.

by Will Wyles in TV & Movies

Nixon, politician and unlikely icon
Nixon, politician and unlikely icon

Richard Nixon was the first US president whose entire political career could be mapped out with three decisive appearances on the small screen.

In 1952, as the Republican candidate for the American vice presidency, he went on television to head off a growing storm over allegations that he had received improper gifts. In an unprecedented appeal to the American public, Nixon detailed every aspect of his finances, concluding that the most significant personal gift he had received was a cocker spaniel called Checkers. 

This performance's "aw-shucks" folksiness was only a thin veneer over its ice-cold cynicism, but it worked, outflanking Nixon's critics in the process. This was also the inaugural moment of a new style of confessional politics, later to be played out in the living rooms of democracies around the world and later perfected by Bill "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" Clinton.

Nixon's second defining televisual moment was in debating John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign.

Aware of their opponent's propensity to sweat, Kennedy's people jacked up the temperature in the auditorium leaving Nixon betrayed by his own pores. While Kennedy shone with the confidence that came with his pedigree and matinee good looks, Nixon looked like a petty criminal about to crack under police interrogation. The election was lost. Camelot, Cuba and the Grassy Knoll would follow.

The power of television

Today, presidential debates take place in conditions that are micromanaged to the most minute detail, under intense scrutiny from each campaign group involved.

On his third iconic TV performance, Nixon went from simply bearing a resemblance to a criminal to having to deny that he was one. "People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook," he declared in an hour-long television press Q&A on 17 November 1973. "Well, I'm not a crook."

Crook or not, the tide of the Watergate scandal was lapping at the foot of his desk as he spoke and the articles of impeachment were in the House of Representatives; the game and performance were over, except for one last theatrical flourish, a victory salute from the steps of a helicopter on the lawn of the White House on 9 August 1974.

From staunch Red-baiter to vice president, then as Republican nearly-man, and finally in the leading role, television had been the unblinking arbiter of Nixon's political life. Afterwards, a long post-Watergate exile was to follow, punctuated by a series of books explaining that he, Nixon, the author of his own life, had done nothing wrong.

There was one final television performance to follow.

In 1977, three obscure years after his resignation, the former president was interviewed four times by a young, politically untested British broadcaster named David Frost.

These interviews are long and, for the most part, not very interesting, as either a television or historical record. Their broadcast, however, caused a sensation and catapulted Frost into the first rank of political interviewers. At the end of a retrospective look at Nixon's career and during a delicate examination of the facts around Watergate, Nixon went on tape in these interviews with an admission, faltering and qualified, that he had been wrong. For the first time, he stammered to Frost what amounted to an apology for his role in the Watergate cover-up and the collapse of his presidency.

For America, Watergate was a paralysing trauma on top of the humiliation of Vietnam. Frost's skewering of Nixon was a cathartic necessity, his success in prompting recognition of wrongdoing from the former president a moment of savage, vindictive satisfaction.

Richard Nixon's career had been built on confrontation.

In the 1950s, he pursued the Communist Menace, real and perceived, with the enthusiasm of a true believer. In the 1960s and then as president, Nixon launched an all-out political war on the American Left, the anti-war movement and the counterculture in all its forms (a war not without actual gunfire, as four students protesting against the Vietnam War at Kent State, discovered to their cost). In his moment of supreme power, he even confronted his own party, recognising Mao's China against the fierce opposition of the Right.

In the end though, in the final days of his presidency, Nixon found himself in an unwinnable war against the American establishment old and new; Congress, the courts, the media, and most of the voters. But this master of confrontation, so adept at bearding his enemies in their dens, was also a master of evasion. He was never pinned down, despite relentless efforts from his many enemies. Even the supposed climax of Watergate was an evasion of sorts, with Nixon's resignation to dodge impeachment, and a pre-emptive pardon from Gerald Ford to head off a possible trial of the disgraced former president.

But Frost got Nixon in the end and secured that moment of contrition in his interviews.

In 2007, America got to re-experience that moment, when Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon opened on Broadway. A movie version, directed by Ron Howard, followed a year later and the play ran again in 2010 in Chicago, though it was Morgan's play that was met with critical adulation when it opened at the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London in 2006 (as well as box office success after it transferred to the West End).

Like Nixon, Morgan is a master of confrontation. As a playwright, he has returned time and again to the seminal moments when powerful personalities have clashed - Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Channel 4's The Deal, Blair and HM Elizabeth II in the Oscar-laden The Queen, Lord Longford and Myra Hindley in 4's Longford and Idi Amin and his British doctor in The Last King of Scotland (which Morgan adapted for the screen, winning a BAFTA for his work in the process). The Frost interviews with Nixon were thus a natural addition to Morgan's oeuvre and in Frost/Nixon Morgan retains the key dramatic elements; chiefly a face-to-face showdown between two individuals with mutually incompatible agendas.

As a formula for drama, it is hard to beat.

Once installed on Broadway, Frost/Nixon had a trump card that was not played in London - Nixon himself. More than 30 years after Watergate, and over a decade following his death in 1994, Nixon retained a supernatural grip on the American psyche at the play's opening that continues to this day. Political drama may be as old as drama itself, but Nixon seems to be an irresistible muse for writers.

Again and again, this once former president crops up on stage, as well as on the small and big screens. As an example of this, the centrepiece of the Nixon subgenre of political drama remains John Adams' 1985 opera Nixon in China, first staged in 1987 by Peter Sellars. 

The Guardian described Adams' work as "arguably the most influential opera in 20 years" when it was revived at the ENO in 2006 and it would receive further accolades throughout its staging up to 2019 (and online streaming in 2011 and 2020 by Metropolitan Opera). Nixon in China also established a taste for topicality in opera that has prospered over the past few decades, arguably revivifying and popularising the form. It is hard to imagine that Jerry Springer: The Opera would have even been conceived without Nixon in China, for example.

In the cinema, by far the most prominent example of the ex-president's dramatic influence is Oliver Stone's 1995 Nixon, starring Anthony Hopkins; though television preceded all the big (and small) narratives of intrigue, with Rip Torn playing Nixon in the 1979 miniseries Blind Ambition: The John Dean Story. An interesting symmetry of Blind Ambition is that the role of Dean, Nixon's chief counsel who later turned whistleblower, is taken by a young Martin Sheen, later to return to a fictionalised West Wing Oval Office as the altogether more likeable President Jed Bartlett.

The dramatic line that can be drawn between Blind Ambition, Stone's Nixon and Morgan's Frost/Nixon can only be completed with the addition of another movie: Alan J Pakula's All The President's Men of 1976, which is the dramatisation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's book about how they broke open the Watergate scandal.

Nixon is a near-supernatural presence in this movie, a brooding, malign darkness somewhere beyond the harsh strip lighting of the offices of the Washington Post. He had yet to take on solid form in drama - he was still very much alive, breathing, brooding and smarting, and the extraordinary administrative implosion he had instigated was still wreaking its political impact in the Ford White House. Nixon also saw no apparent need to apologise for the stunning blow he had delivered to America's confidence in its political system on the movie's release.

Television took a swing at dramatising the events of Watergate in 1977's Washington Behind Closed Doors. Even though this was based on an entirely factual first-hand account of the Nixon years written by John Ehrlichman, Nixon's counsel and assistant for domestic affairs, portraying the disgraced president directly proved to be too tall an order for the production. Instead, the book was coyly given a veneer of fiction for TV, with Jason Robards portraying "President Richard Monckton".

In another Sheen-Dean-Bartlett-like synchronicity between the screen and real life, Robards has also played Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant. Plus, alongside his "Monckton" is Robards' portrayal of Nixon's nemesis, the arch-liberal Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, in All The President's Men.

Against the timid background of Washington Behind Closed Doors, Blind Ambition looks courageous. But instead of fictionalisation, it shields itself from controversy through painstaking attention to the facts. Rip Torn, who has always looked like a man born to play Nixon, speaks lines taken directly from the transcripts of the White House tapes.

As yet, however, no writer or director had left their creative mark on the Nixon presidency. Altman took a shot at it in 1984 to produce the somewhat obscure film The Secret Honor, in which a drunken, rambling Nixon explains a bizarre conspiracy that his term in office was a part of. But it was only with Nixon in China that Nixon began to take wing as a dramatic muse, with opera proving itself perhaps the appropriate form for this.

The recognition of Red China by the Nixon administration was diplomacy on a very grand scale. Not since the Second World War had such as large political canvas been painted upon. Only Nixon, one of the few politicians not suspected to be a Soviet plant or soft on Communism by the paranoid Right, could have extended a hand of friendship to the government of Mao Zedong, even though Nixon's eyes were not truly on China at all.

The People's Republic had split with the Soviet Union, and Nixon and Kissinger saw an opportunity to exploit this new hostility to corner the Russians. This was a truly global game of Risk and the sort of counter-intuitive stratagem beloved of librettists.

Musical theatre would play a big part in Nixon's eventual visit to Beijing when the Americans were treated to a performance of one of the fruits of the Cultural Revolution in the form of The Red Detachment Of Women ballet.

Adams turns this extraordinary piece into the centrepiece of his telling of events in Nixon in China. Adams' opera is today acknowledged as a modern classic and is near-certain to endure in the years ahead. The fact that it has been revived most recently in 2019 and then streamed in 2020 is a testament to the continuing interest in the piece, though it was Oliver Stone's Nixon that was the true watershed moment in the Richard Milhous sub-genre of political drama.

It is no exaggeration to say that Nixon's story, from the McCarthy inquisitions through to the Frost interrogation, is Shakespearean in form; a man with true greatness within his grasp is brought down by the flaws of his character. Greed is the undoing of ambition; hubris leads to nemesis, like something out of a textbook on stagecraft. Nixon's role in the popular imagination remains that of a modern Macbeth or even a Richard III. It is in Stone's movie, made 20 years after Watergate and released a year after the death of the former president, that the story takes on its full creative potential.

The enigmatic Nixon persona

At times, Nixon the President always seemed close to self-parody, one of the factors that makes him so appealing in pop culture, and Anthony Hopkins' performance in Nixon thus walks an extremely dangerous line, often appearing exaggerated to the point of caricature. Pathos gives way to high camp on more than one occasion in the movie, but even in its hammiest moments, suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience barely falters.

One might not wholly hold with the seriousness of Hopkins' performance in Nixon, but as a viewer, you do get the sense that Hopkins believes in what he is doing, and that is enough to give what you see a sort of conviction, just as when watching the real Nixon. You might not believe a word that Nixon is saying, but you feel that probably Nixon does, or wants to believe it. The effect is simultaneously parodic and unsettling.

It took two decades before Nixon could be examined closely as a person in drama. That may seem like a long time, but it is also telling that one of the recurring criticisms of Stone's Nixon is that it is too sympathetic a portrayal, rather than too warty. Stone, some said, was attempting to rehabilitate Nixon with his movie. Perhaps, but only to the extent of showing Nixon as a human being rather than a pantomime villain or a figure of fun.

Nixon's approachability in dramatic terms may also have something to do with his fall.

Expelled from the pantheon of the American presidency and thus made mortal, he could, as a result, be approached creatively. Contrast this with the awed respect that American cinema still affords other 20th century presidents. They are nearly always kept offstage, shown only as archive footage.

Stone himself could barely show a glimpse of John Kennedy in his JFK. Kennedy gets more screen time, and the courtesy of being portrayed by an actor and alive, in two movies inspired by the same book about the Cuban missile crisis; Anthony Page's The Missiles of October from 1974 and Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days of 2000. 

The former is unmemorable, although it does feature yet another appearance by Martin Sheen (this time as Bobby Kennedy). The latter is a nauseating hagiography and neither brings any interesting life to Kennedy in the way that Nixon can now be approached.

The drawbridge is still up at Camelot. If the president must appear in a non-historical American movie, they are nearly always fictionalised, even if their underlying presidential "inspiration" is clear.

The Clinton years formed the inspiration for two very good movies in Wag the Dog and Primary Colours (which was based on a hit book with the same title), but in both cases, Clinton is given a fiction fig leaf. There has been no attempt to dramatise the events of Clinton's impeachment, for example, despite its obvious appeal as a dramatic story.

As for Ronald Reagan, he remains far too controversial to approach seriously, even so many years after his presidency. When CBS made its four-hour documentary miniseries The Reagans, it attracted such a storm of controversy for alleged lack of balance that it had to pull the project, broadcasting it instead on a premium cable channel in a less prominent slot following considerable editing.

Frost/Nixon has undoubtedly been aided by the enduring fascination that America has for its 37th president. If anything, the shadow of Nixon has lengthened and darkened in recent years. Reagan exorcised a lot of Nixon-era ghosts, making an exhibition of sunshiny, guileless airheadedness, a world away from Nixon's Machiavellian complexities. Then, good-natured, charismatic Clinton continued the trick, even if the Lewinsky scandal did resurrect the Watergate spectre of impeachment and the Nixon motif of high crimes in the Oval Office.

Nixon's true believers had also been working to keep the flame of their side of the Nixon story alive, as well after the event. In the year of Nixon's death, the classified ads of Right-wing American news magazines were filled with offers for bumper stickers which read "TANNED, TESTED, RESTED, READY - NIXON '96".

Since Clinton, Bush has come and gone with his Iraqi and Afghan conflicts and Trump has fallen to Biden. It may be another 20 or 30 years before dramatists begin to explore any of these three controversial occupants of the White House, though, in the meantime, Nixon will undoubtedly continue to serve as the classic theatrical villain for audiences the world over.

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