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.

Feeney contends that Nixon had a unique capacity among US presidents for constructing narratives around himself. He renames Nixon’s memoir, Six Crises, ‘Six Star Turns’, and notes that its subject ‘presents himself throughout as if he were an actor whose only interest for the audience is when he’s onstage playing a part’. In that sense, Nixon was the key politician of the media age. An enthusiastic amateur thespian in college, married to a sometime movie extra, Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives in time to participate in the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee investigation into the Hollywood Ten. (As the most intelligent member of the committee, he exacted especially grovelling testimony from Jack Warner, who promised to make amends for the sin of Mission to Moscow with a series of anti-Communist movies.)

Congressman Nixon made his national reputation during the following year’s investigation into Alger Hiss, the first Congressional hearings to have a national audience. He defeated the liberal one-time film star Helen Gahagan Douglas in a mudslinging race to be California senator and, not yet 40, was nominated to run in 1952 as Eisenhower’s vice-president. Accused of dipping into a campaign slush fund, Nixon saved his candidacy with a televised address known as the Checkers Speech. Appearing just after I Love Lucy, in front of more people than any politician in history, Nixon worked the living-room like a sitcom paterfamilias. Liberals saw in him the personification of televisual duplicity, clever hucksterism and crass manipulation, but to much of the public he appeared as a plain-talking, two-fisted American Joe – not unlike Frank Lovejoy in I Was a Communist for the FBI.

The movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck called the Checkers Speech ‘the most tremendous performance I’ve ever seen’. That Nixon lost the presidency to Kennedy eight years later, thanks in part to his disastrously unappetising appearance in the first ever televised debate, epitomises his ambivalent relationship with the medium. In Nixon’s Shadow, David Greenberg argues that Nixon was the first American president pre-eminently concerned with the construction of his image.[*]

Unlike Kennedy, his nemesis, Nixon was a self-made man; he didn’t have the benefit of an extremely wealthy and well-connected stage-father. He essentially managed his first campaign himself and, though abetted by aides typically recruited from advertising and public relations, he would continue to do so. Yet his image-making frequently backfired, as it didn’t for Kennedy or Reagan. That, too, is part of his fascination.

There are three Nixons in Nixon at the Movies: the subject (both performing and performed), the spectator and the phantom. Treating him as an American archetype, Feeney hunts for doppelgangers in a succession of Hollywood movies: Nixon is the crooked insurance salesman in Double Indemnity and the good-natured naval officer in Mister Roberts (John Ford was Nixon’s favourite director). These conceits are barely sustainable, and at times desperate. As Feeney has it, Sweet Smell of Success is not only the movie that Nixon might have made had he been a movie director (‘the movie that aims to show what journalism is really like’), but a movie in which Nixon can be extracted from both the powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and the eager publicist Sidney Falco.

More productive is the notion of Nixon as an avid, solitary consumer of movies. Feeney devotes a chapter to the most famous of Nixon’s celluloid obsessions, the biopic Patton, which he screened at least three times in the weeks before his invasion of Cambodia in April 1970. Nixon had been reading a biography of Patton the previous spring, and the general had already figured decisively in the president’s career: had Patton’s supporters persuaded him to run against Jerry Voorhis in 1946, Nixon’s political trajectory would have been stalled.[†] But it is Nixon’s unabashed enthusiasm for Patton: Lust for Glory that would seem to have had world-historical consequences. William Rogers, then secretary of state, called the president a ‘walking ad’ for the movie. The White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, advised his young aides to see the film to get a handle on Nixon’s mindset. Kissinger saw it as a sign that he had gained admittance to the inner sanctum when he was asked to join Nixon, John Mitchell (the attorney general) and the Florida businessman Bebe Rebozo on the presidential yacht for a martini-fuelled, pre-invasion cruise down the Potomac River. ‘The tensions of grim military planning,’ Kissinger later wrote, ‘were transformed into exaltation by the liquid refreshments.’ The outing was capped by a White House presentation of Patton; it may have been Nixon’s second screening of the day.

Given the frequency with which Nixon watched movies, and what Feeney suggests of his belief in the medium’s magic, his viewing log provides any number of provocative juxtapositions. Nixon screened the ‘dirty Western’ Hang ’Em High on the day he had the ‘smoking gun’ conversation with Haldeman in which they discussed ways to stop the FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary. Hang ’Em High’s star, Clint Eastwood, became the nation’s top box-office attraction in 1972 – and the president’s new favourite. He screened six Eastwood vehicles, including Dirty Harry, during his re-election campaign and appointed the actor to the National Council on the Arts. He requested Fail Safe when the US was on nuclear alert during the Yom Kippur War, and two days later, as the House of Representatives began its impeachment inquiry, he chose Hitler: The Last Days. A few months after that, he began his final year in office by screening the Kennedy-assassination exposé Executive Action at Camp David.

Nixon was also a character in his own movie – or rather, in ours. Feeney is rightly taken with the president’s legendary post-Kent State, pre-dawn visit to the young protesters camped out at the Lincoln Memorial. Eye-witnesses described the president’s befuddled appearance and possibly alcohol-sodden sentimentality: surrounded by bewildered students, he droned on about football and Neville Chamberlain, unable to make eye contact. For Oliver Stone, who dramatised the event in his clumsy 1995 biopic, this was the moment Nixon received the revelation of what Stone called ‘the Beast’: even though he, the president, may want peace, the system won’t let him stop the Vietnam War. Feeney, more astutely, understands that Nixon was not agonising over his situation so much as living out a key scene from Mr Smith Goes to Washington: James Stewart’s character alternately represented his ‘naive’ opponents Voorhis and McGovern, and his own idealistic self.

Nixon’s most dreamlike performance came four days before Christmas 1970, when Elvis Presley (who’d written the president a six-page letter requesting a meeting and suggesting he be made a ‘federal agent-at-large’ in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) was ushered into the Oval Office. Presenting himself as an ardent patriot and fellow Patton fan, Elvis denounced the Beatles as anti-American. Nixon nodded in agreement and added that those who used drugs were also in the vanguard of anti-American protest. Perhaps taken aback, Elvis assured the president that he was on his side and, in fact, had been studying Communist brainwashing as well as the drug culture for the last ten years; he asked Nixon for a Bureau of Narcotics badge (for his collection) and, at the conclusion of the meeting, hugged him.

In his account of the greatest photo opportunity in American history, Feeney identifies son-of-the-South Elvis as the personification of Nixon’s new Republican majority. Nixon and Elvis were ‘soulmates’: both were poor boys, devoted to their mothers, and both were 1950s icons, rendered hopelessly square in the new world of the 1960s. ‘It is each man’s overwhelming sense of social isolation, his being an emotional prisoner – Nixon of his own awkwardness and insecurity, Elvis of his astounding popularity and fame – that makes their meeting so fitting.’ A ready-made Pop Art collage, it consecrated absolute celebrity, the President and the King.

The presidency, Norman Mailer observed during Nixon’s 1972 bid for re-election, is ‘a primitive office and inspires the tribes of America to pick up the modes and manners of their chief’. Two genres that thrived under the Nixon presidency were the law-and-order policier and the political conspiracy film – both of which merged with the ongoing social spectacle. ‘Just as Watergate helped shape the paranoid thriller,’ Feeney notes, ‘so did the paranoid thriller help shape the public response to Watergate.’ For him, the masterpiece of the mode is Francis Coppola’s The Conversation, but his strongest chapter is devoted to All the President’s Men, a Nixon movie in which Nixon never appears and ‘a thriller in which nothing actually happens’. It was the first movie that Jimmy Carter screened in the White House.

Nixon’s United States was a realm of reciprocal conspiracies: his paranoia led him to increase surveillance on black militants, student radicals and other opponents of the Vietnam War; that surveillance in turn justified and fuelled popular paranoia. In opposition to the ‘righteous outlaws’ of the counter-culture, Nixon cast himself as a ‘legal vigilante’, the inspiration for Dirty Harry and other beleaguered lawmen. And as the Vietnam War was being waged as a form of manifest destiny, a third Nixon genre (not much analysed in Nixon at the Movies) surfaced: a kind of terminal Western, characterised by unmistakable weariness even in its enhanced carnage and desire for vengeance. Nasty and depressed, the Nixon Western was founded on an aggravated sense of racial and generational division. The typical setting was a shabby, morally bankrupt town, though in these films even the natural world seemed as blasted as an inner-city ghetto. Every farmer was a potential killer. America was the province of mixed-up murderous kids, religious crazies, profit-hungry entrepreneurs, duplicitous con artists and twisted loners.

Nixon himself suggested the origins of these movies in praising Chisum at a time when, as he saw it, liberal tolerance for rampant righteous outlaws had infected the populace with juvenile delinquency – or worse. Allowing that Chisum was ‘basically another Western’ (though ‘far better than average movies [or] average Westerns’), Nixon permitted himself to wonder why it was that the genre had continued to survive year after year: ‘This may be a square observation, [but] the good guys come out ahead in the Westerns, the bad guys lose.’ Chisum, in which John Wayne played a godlike rancher, was Hollywood’s first serious Billy the Kid movie since Arthur Penn’s 1956 adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Left-Handed Gun. Although much concerned with issues of law and order, it is not quite an establishment Western. In it, Billy is (initially) among the good guys and, for a while, Wayne’s protégé. The villains include many authority figures, including a rapacious capitalist who owns the territory until Wayne inevitably takes the law into his own hands and punches him out of a window to his death. Nixon was concerned that it encouraged young people, however unintentionally, to glorify criminals:

I noted, for example, the coverage of the Charles Manson case when I was in Los Angeles, front page every day in the papers. It usually got a couple of minutes in the evening news. Here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason. Here is a man, yet who as far as the coverage was concerned, appeared to be rather a glamorous figure, a glamorous figure to the young people.

‘As Mr. Nixon recounted all this, his face darkened, his eyes flashed, his voice grew more intense,’ the New York Times noted. The reporters ran for the phones as the president concluded his remarks, all but knocking him down in the stampede. In court the next morning, a smirking Manson displayed the Los Angeles Times headline: ‘Manson Guilty, Nixon Declares.’ In the mid-term elections that autumn, Nixon campaigned as America’s sheriff and ran against the nation’s teenage Mansons.

The Nixon Western came to fruition in 1972 and early 1973. Movies such as The Culpepper Cattle Company and The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid took aim at cowboy authority and righteous outlaw alike. Robert Aldrich’s brilliant Ulzana’s Raid evoked the last stages of American involvement in Indochina: the demoralised soldiers, the hostility towards the brass, the pervasive cynicism. John Huston’s Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean embraced the legal vigilante as the sole alternative to Woodstock depravity and the hypocritical gentility of the corporate state. The outlaw young were de- and remystified in depressed left-wing statements such as Dirty Little Billy and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

The ultimate Nixon Western, Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, opened in April 1973. Its mood of exhaustion is palpable. Prices were rising and the dollar falling but, hunkered down in the Oval Office, Nixon was concerned with a more immediate assault: the Senate Watergate investigation was about to go public. Ron Ziegler, the White House press secretary, declared previous Watergate statements ‘inoperable’; the next evening, Nixon went on TV to inform the nation that his personal investigation into the break-in and cover-up had yielded ‘major’ – as yet unspecified – findings.

Two nights later, Nixon told Ziegler that the Watergate investigation was distracting him from his job: ‘I sometimes feel like I’d like to resign. Let Agnew be president for a while. He’d love it.’ Nixon had begun morbidly to imagine his own political demise. Meanwhile, having invented the legal vigilante, here was Eastwood playing another sort of silent majority avenger: ‘They’d never forget the day he drifted into town,’ High Plains Drifter’s first print advertisement promised over a low-angle image of the star cocking a revolver with a barrel even bigger than his Dirty Harry magnum.

Eastwood’s no-name Westerner materialises out of the shimmering heat to enter the High Sierras town of Lago through its graveyard. The unearthly whine suggests that he has returned from the dead … or Vietnam, perhaps. No one spits in Eastwood’s face, but his reception is as hostile as any that could be imagined by a returning veteran. The townspeople gape as he rides down Main Street; he need only enter the saloon to be insulted as a ‘flea-bitten range bum’. This craven settlement has no morality; these pioneer Americans are truly contemptible. (John Wayne would criticise High Plains Drifter for maligning the ‘true spirit of the American frontier’.)

In the sour aftermath of US disengagement from Vietnam, the Western had finally given the war a viable myth. Nixon screened High Plains Drifter at Camp David three days after the televised Watergate hearings began. Would he have been comforted? As punitive as Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter offered the spectacle of quasi-divine punishment visited against a gutless, guilty town that hires – or, rather, drafts – men to do its dirty work and then discards them. Its subject was the resentment that Nixon had trafficked in throughout his political career. One can well imagine that he sincerely believed it.

[*] 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.