The title isn’t altogether accurate. It’s true that “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words,” which airs Monday, has no narrator, and most of the words in the HBO documentary are spoken by the 37th president. He’s heard on the recordings that he secretly taped between February 1971 and July 1973. There’s news footage of speeches and press conferences. He talks in interviews from a decade after he resigned from office. The 40th anniversary of that resignation is Saturday.
We do hear other speakers, though. Some are on the tapes — White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, national security adviser Henry Kissinger, Attorney General John Mitchell, among them — and some are contemporary news anchors and reporters (the sideburns Dan Rather had back then!).
The journalists’ presence would not have pleased Nixon. His antipathy for the press is legend, and “Nixon by Nixon” reminds us that this legend was fact. “The press is the enemy,” he tells Kissinger. “The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. Write that 100 times on a blackboard and don’t forget it.”
The Nixon on display here is almost unrelentlingly dark and duplicitous.
“The Jews are, are born spies,” he says of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers (and whose parents were Christian Scientists). “You can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you.”
Mexican-Americans, he says, “do have some concept of family life, at least. They don’t live like dogs, which the Negroes do live like.”
“Plant two guys on him,” Nixon says in response to Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s request for Secret Service protection. “We just might get lucky and catch this son of a bitch and ruin him for ’76.”
Seeking government documents said to be at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, Nixon orders their immediate retrieval. “I want it done on a thievery basis. Goddammit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”
“A thievery basis”: At least the man is honest in his dishonesty. Except that he isn’t. We hear him telling Kissinger he wants dikes in North Vietnam bombed. Then at a press conference, he replies to a question about such bombing. “We have orders out not to hit the dikes.”
This is one of several instances of Nixon saying one thing in private and the opposite in public. It’s a shortcoming of the documentary that no dates are given for the statements. What period separated them? People do honestly change their mind over time — Nixon going to China being a highly pertinent example.
There are moments of wonderful, if inadvertent, comedy. Nixon asks Mitchell if William Rehnquist, whom he’s going to nominate to the Supreme Court, is Protestant. The attorney general says yes, then jokes that perhaps Rehnquist could be baptized — presumably, as a Catholic — right away. “Well, baptized and castrated — no, they don’t do that,” Nixon mutters. “Circumcised — no, that’s the Jews. Well, anyway, whatever he is, get him changed.”
For anyone of a certain age, hearing all this (right down to White House counsel John Dean’s deathless Watergate formulation “We have a cancer within — close to — the presidency”) is like old times. For younger viewers, it must be revelatory. They just don’t make presidents like this anymore. Which is a good thing — mostly.
Mostly? A larger shortcoming of the documentary is that it shows Nixon in an almost unrelievedly unflattering light. His presidency had substantial achievements to go with the failures and fiascoes, and he was a far more complex man than the relentlessly grim bozo seen and heard here. The documentary includes a snippet of a 1982 interview with former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman. Future historians will consider Nixon “the strangest paradoxical combination of any man I’ve ever heard of,” Ehrlichman says, “and they’ll be right.”Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.