ideas, history, culture.

Sign-up for the Age of Division newsletter.

Richard Nixon, TV and movie star

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

Richard Nixon.
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 what was then an unprecedented appeal direct 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. The "aw-shucks" folksiness of this performance 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.


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 fervour 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 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 a