Friday, 21 June 2013

OUR NIXON: THE TRICKY DICK WE KNEW AND LOVED

There is a moment, watching the home movies of Tricia Nixon's wedding, when I wondered what similar Super 8 footage of Sonny Corleone's marriage might reveal. Our Nixon, which shows tomorrow at London's Open City Docs Fest, is built around home movie footage shot by H.R. 'Bob' Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, three of President Richard Nixon's closest aides, three of his most loyal and devoted followers, all of whom would wind up in jail, cut loose by their hero on his way to becoming the only American president to quit in office.

The footage provides behind the scenes looks at some of Nixon's biggest moments, including the China visit, and his most important speeches. Context is set by clips from network newscasts, and by post-prison interviews with the three home movie makers. When I reviewed Nixon's Shadow, a book about his image (you can link to that review here), I asked whether, in Doonesbury's words, a new generation would recoil as they ought to, and now the same question holds true. But here the answer is more ambiguous.

The answer is that the footage is so infused with the adulation of the cameramen that it's almost hard to realise what is going on. Worryingly, I even found myself admiring Tricia, something I never did when I was young. My feeling was that viewers who were not there would not feel the almost visceral impact of Nixon on the times, and it is impossible for the documentary makers to summon that up from the past. Still there are surprises, the biggest one for me being a small protest by two of the Ray Conniff Singers when they performed at the White House. This was the 'square' music Nixon preferred, and the tiny banner of protest, and the heartfelt Christian plea they make for peace does more to set Nixon and Co. into context than any news reports.

Two things help make Penny Lane's carefully structured film work for an audience to whom Nixon is a blank slate, or worse, pace his posthumous re-evaluation, a statesman. One is the personality of the three aides, who are so obviously out of step with their own and our time as to exude mistrust even as they try to appear ingratiating. These are frat boys, squares themselves, Greg Marmalard and Doug Neidemeyer from Animal House gone from frat house to White House. It was Dwight Chapin's frat buddy Donald Segretti whose 'dirty tricks' on the 1972 election campaign got Chapin dumped, but also allowed the press a chance to ignore the bigger issues of government spying and malfeasance.

That took place under Ehrlichman, who was in charge of putting together the 'plumbers' unit, designed to counter White House leaks. Ehrlichman post-prison is easily the most engaging of the three: one of the real highlights of the film is a commercial he made, and which was quickly withdrawn, for ice cream. He says it's 'unbelieveably good' and then smirks 'and believe me, I'm an expert on that subject'. Stay through the credits to see it.

Haldeman was truest of true believers, cast as Martin Borman by his critics, all brush cut and Rumsfeldian arrogance. He gives an interview about his children calling his hair out of fashion, and, like his boss, admits he is. In his most telling quote, he speaks of their arriving in Washington with 'no great ideological thrust or noble ambition'. Once out of prison, he's rocking a carefully styled 70s do, but it doesn't change him at all. He still denies the truths the Watergate tapes reveal, that he as chief of staff was engineering a major cover-up, and unlike Ehrlichman, who doesn't seem surprised he never spoke with Nixon again, Haldeman seems hurt by his abandonment by the Tricky One.. You almost feel sorry for him. You feel even more sorry for his wife, who shows up in a few shots, always looking like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The second thing that helps us understand is a series of taped conversations which sometimes reflect on the footage already shown. The last of these, when an obviously drunken Nixon calls Haldeman after the speech announcing his and Ehrlichman's 'resignations', is telling. Nixon curses what he's done, but also asks Haldeman, whom he's just cut loose, to call round to get reactions to how his speech went for him. We've previously heard both his need for approval and Haldeman's unwavering willingness to provide that. And we still can't shake the feeling, as we do when we hear Alexander Butterfield explain to Nixon how the recording devices work, and Nixon saying 'there may be a day we have to have this' that Nixon, even drunkenly, was speaking for a record, double-accounting for posterity.

There's a fascinating discussion as Nixon, and Ehrlichman deconstruct a TV show they can't identify, but is All In The Family, the American version of Til Death Do Us Part, and how it glorifies homosexuality. Nixon takes the lead: 'You don't glorify homosexuality on public television. You know what happened to the Greeks. Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was a homo, we all know that. So was Socrates.' 'But he never had the influence television has,' adds Ehrlichman. 'The last six Roman emperors were fags,' Nixon begins, and Ehrlichman cuts him off with an explanation of 'fatal liberality' that Haldeman finally cuts short. Speaking of that, the discussions of Henry Kissinger, his duplicity, and his penchant for pillow talk, are fascinating. Haldeman later explains that Nixon feels it's OK for Kissinger to 'be a swinger in New York, Florida, or California, but he should not be in Washington.' He advises 'not to put him next to the most glamorous gal anymore, but to seat him next to some intelligent and interesting woman instead.' This was the White House in 1971.

Along the way there are other amusing cameos and side views. Ehrlichman's camera reveals in great detail the bidet in an ornate Paris hotel bathroom. Daniel Moynihan pops up in the foreground as Nixon's helicopter takes off. John Kerry speaks on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against The War during the March on Washington; this is the footage that the 21st century equivalent of Nixon's frat boys, Shrub Bush and Karl Rove, would use against him relentlessly 40 years later. When Nixon complains no one's called to congratulate him on a speech, and Haldeman says Nelson Rockefeller has, Nixon says 'well, the hell with him!'. And there's celebrity TV interviewer Barbara Walters, interviewing Haldeman, and carefully grimacing when he says history will judge Nixon as one of the great presidents; the grimace, of course, filmed later as a reverse.

But most important are the glimpses of the real Nixon, whose gloating at the press reaction to his announcement of peace with North Vietnam, a peace that never arrived, is a masterpiece of hypocrisy. This is what I grew up knowing, instinctively about Nixon, and what Our Nixon allows a new generation to acquire at its own pace, and learn, as mine did, to recoil.

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