Subject, Spectator, Phantom

J. Hoberman

  • Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief by Mark Feeney
    Chicago, 422 pp, £19.50, November 2004, ISBN 0 226 23968 3

The summer of 1970 was the winter of America’s discontent. Most of the nation’s colleges had been forced to shut down early in the wake of the Kent State massacre; anti-war protesters battled construction workers in the streets of New York; self-proclaimed political prisoners attempted bloody escapes; middle-class students planted bombs and robbed banks.

In August that year, Richard Nixon took a break from a four-day conference on crime control to address reporters. His subject was the spell that outlaw behaviour had apparently cast on the youth of America. In a characteristically sideways rhetorical manoeuvre, he began with a disclaimer:

What I say now is not to be interpreted as any criticism of the news media. What I say now is simply an observation of the kind of times we live in and how attitudes develop among our young people.

Over the last weekend I saw a movie – I don’t see too many movies but I try to see them on weekends when I am at the Western White House or in Florida – and the movie I selected, or, as a matter of fact, my daughter Tricia selected it, was Chisum with John Wayne. It was a Western.

FDR was known to admire Myrna Loy and Ike to enjoy watching shoot-’em-ups; underdog Harry Truman had been inspired by Frank Capra’s 1948 State of the Union and, as the son of a sometime Hollywood mogul, Kennedy was groomed for glamorous stardom. But no American president before Nixon had ever made a public pronouncement based on his experience of a movie, and, Ronald Reagan’s professional interest in the medium notwithstanding, no president since Nixon has been so faithful a film fan.

Nixon occupied the White House for 67 months. Over that time, according to Mark Feeney’s Nixon at the Movies, he saw 528 movies – an average of nearly two a week. The rate stepped up once Watergate began to darken his presidency in 1973. Chisum was a quintessential Nixon entertainment. The Western was the president’s preferred genre; his favourite star was John Wayne. And Nixon’s disquisition on Chisum was quintessential, too. As Feeney points out, the president prefaced his analysis with a reflexive falsehood: ‘I don’t see too many movies.’ (Later, he would claim never to have dozed off, even once, at the cinema.)

Nixon at the Movies sounds like the title of a novel, and the book isn’t without its literary qualities. Parsing Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, Feeney notes that he ‘presents himself as a sort of Germanic Jeeves, unflappable and long-suffering, who again and again saves the day for his maladroit employer, a malevolent, egregiously Middle American Bertie Wooster’. Essentially, it is a work of criticism devoted to Nixon as ‘Melvillean isolato’. Given his evident pathology and penchant for inadvertent self-disclosure (including the Watergate tapes), Nixon is a gift to artists of all persuasions.

Nixon’s beetle brows and mirthless smile were made for caricature. In the 1950s, the Washington Post’s political cartoonist Herblock portrayed the then vice-president week after week as an unshaven thug, while Walt Kelly cast him as a villainous polecat in the comic strip Pogo; Andy Warhol produced a silk-screened Nixon with skin as biliously green as the Wicked Witch of the West and, in a riotous series of drawings, Philip Guston transformed the president’s ski nose and heavy jowls into a glumly expressive set of male genitalia.

Nixon’s personality was even richer. Gore Vidal parodied him in his 1960 play The Best Man and, beginning in the late 1960s, an impressive roster of American writers, including Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Philip Roth and Garry Wills – whose analyses of Nixon, Reagan and Wayne blazed the trail for Nixon at the Movies – took him on as a character. Pundits have searched for literary antecedents (Uriah Heep, Tartuffe, Richard III), but Nixon is Nixon: socially awkward yet fiercely other-directed, humble but grandiose, combative yet clueless, suspicious, secretive and endlessly self-revealing; the strangest personality ever to lead the Free World. What actor could resist him? Nixon’s paranoid self-pity, sonorous gloom, unctuous rage, cheesy neuroses, failed regular guy-ness, morbid sensitivity, hunger for approval, unprincipled opportunism and iron-butt single-mindedness have provided material for such distinguished hams as Jason Robards, Rip Torn, Philip Baker Hall and Anthony Hopkins.

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[*] Norton, 496 pp., £9.99, November 2004, 0 393 32616 0.

[†] Voorhis was beaten by Nixon in his bid for re-election to Congress in 1946.