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critic’s notebook

Another look back at Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon in Andy Warhol’s “Vote McGovern.”

Richard Nixon in Andy Warhol’s “Vote McGovern.”

Presidential history holds no greater irony. Richard Nixon, a morbidly private and withdrawn man, left a more extensive and intimate record of himself than any other chief executive. The latest gleaning from that record, the HBO documentary “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words,” airs Monday night. (See review, N7.) The irony seems no less astonishing today than it did 40 years ago, when Nixon became the only president to resign from office. The anniversary of his resignation is Saturday.

This decades-long collision between privacy cherished and exposure endured has generated a kind of literary and cultural annuity — not just to journalists and historians but also novelists, artists, composers. Even Nixon admirers would hesitate to describe him as inspiring — intelligent, disciplined, shrewd; inspiring, no. Yet he has few presidential rivals as source of literary and artistic inspiration.

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Nixon’s the protagonist of Robert Coover’s “The Public Burning” (1977) and Philip Roth’s “Our Gang” (1971), while figuring variously in other Roth novels. He recurs as a kind of boogeyman in much of Philip K. Dick’s later fiction. Roth’s friend Philip Guston made him the subject of a suite of satirical drawings, “Poor Richard.” Andy Warhol was convinced that his gruesome portrait of Nixon, executed in 1972 to raise money for George McGovern, led to his taxes being audited. And no other president is the subject of a grand opera, about his grandest triumph: John Adams’s “Nixon in China” (1987).

Nixon’s interior-exterior conflict produced a kind of psychic torque unlike anything seen before or since on the national stage — stage referring to theater as well as politics. From Gore Vidal’s “An Evening With Richard Nixon” (1972) to Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” (2006) to Douglas McGrath’s “Checkers” (2012), he’s been grist for playwrights too.

The press critic Jack Shafer once described Nixon as “the gift that keeps on giving.” He’s a marvel that way — or even Marvel. In this summer’s superhero blockbuster movie, which is partly set in 1973, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” the actor who plays Nixon, Mark Camacho, gets almost as much screen time as Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart do.

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Camacho won’t get an Oscar nomination for playing Nixon. Two actors have: Anthony Hopkins, in Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic; and Frank Langella, for “Frost/Nixon” (2008). Nixon’s the role that keeps on giving too. Other actors who have played Nixon, with varying degrees of plausibility, include John Cusack (“The Butler,” 2013); Louis C. K. (or at least he wore a Nixon mask in his 2006 video “Searching for Nixon”); Beau Bridges (the 1995 TV movie “Kissinger and Nixon”); and, most vehemently, Philip Baker Hall (“Secret Honor,” 1984). In a special category is Rip Torn, who played Nixon in the 1979 miniseries “Blind Ambition.” This was 15 years before “The Larry Sanders Show.” Watching now, you keep waiting for Garry Shandling to burst into the Oval Office and say, “Artie, Artie, what about the taping? Oh, different taping.”

The extensiveness of the Nixon record is in large part owing to sheer longevity. To find a figure in our history who was as famous during his lifetime for as long as Nixon was during his, you’d have to go all the way back to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And neither of them secretly taped his conversations, as Nixon did, hence the unique intimacy of the record. Warren Harding’s billets-doux to his mistress, released by the Library of Congress last week, racy as they are, pale by comparison as a revelation of presidential personality.

Even admirers would hesitate to describe Nixon as inspiring. Yet he has few presi-dential rivals as source of literary and artistic inspiration.

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The 10,500 hours of secretly recorded tapes made between February 1971 (two months too late to record Elvis’s visit to the Oval Office) and July 1973 are the id-overloaded mother lode of Nixoniana. So often in public this most guarded of men would suddenly act in the least guarded way, as when he declared after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Here on the tapes he was being unguarded in situations where he could reasonably assume there was no need for guardedness. He was crude, coarse, bigoted, suspicious, calculating, trivial, consistently low-minded. This Nixon was every Nixon-hater’s dream — only more so.

The haters had been around for a long time. The Alger Hiss espionage case, with Nixon as Hiss’s chief congressional pursuer, made him a household name in 1948. Nixon’s the one? Running for US Senate (once), vice president (twice), governor of California (once), president (three times), even being named an unindicted coconspirator: Nixon’s the one and only. His 48 appearances on the cover of Time magazine are a record. His New York Times obituary ran to over 13,000 words. For most of what Henry Luce called the American Century, Nixon’s unmistakable features — the spatulate nose, the five o’clock shadow, the deep-set eyes beneath beetle brows — were as ubiquitous as they were familiar.

Vice President Nixon is shown on a TV screen at a Chicago television station as he debated presidential rival Senator John F. Kennedy on Sept. 26,1960.

AP/file

Vice President Nixon is shown on a TV screen at a Chicago television station as he debated presidential rival Senator John F. Kennedy on Sept. 26,1960.

They weren’t the looks of a screen idol, unlike those of his great nemesis, John F. Kennedy. If anything, though, the ungainliness of Nixon’s appearance made him all the more riveting on the screen. It was a face only a mother could love — and no one could ever forget. Nixon, the author of 10 books, was naturally drawn to print. It suited his intellect, which was dynamic, and personality, which was not. Television was naturally drawn to Nixon — natural in the way a raptor is drawn to prey. Uninterested in his intellect, the medium fastened on his personality. Nixon on camera — tense, perspiring, inauthentic — could seem like a car crash waiting to happen. This was as true sitting behind a desk in the Oval Office as being heckled on the campaign trail. There’s a saying in TV news, “If it bleeds, it leads.” No one has ever bled quite the way Richard Nixon did.

That must sound like gross exaggeration to anyone under 50. Anyone who saw Nixon at the time knows better. The HBO documentary includes a classic instance of Nixon’s public maladroitness — what John Updike once called his “slipped-cog manner.” It’s a black-and-white clip from Election Night 1960. “If the present trend continues,” the candidate tells supporters, “Senator Kennedy will be the next president of the United States.” The crowd, as one would expect, responds with dismay. Nixon responds otherwise. No frown or grimace or wan smile: He grins with counterfeit pleasure. It’s as if he doesn’t know how to act. Even the most basic of social conventions (loss means sorrow) are lost on him. There’s something almost extraterrestrial about his response. It’s more unnerving than if he’d started to weep.

Nixon came of age as television did. A man who first appeared onscreen when Fox Movietone newsreels were state of the art would be the beneficiary of “satellite technology,” as the title character sings in the great “News” aria from the first act of “Nixon in China”: “millions more hear what we say . . . / Than ever heard a public speech / Before.” Later a prized interview subject on CNN, Nixon could be said to have played a part in launching Fox News. Roger Ailes, the channel’s founder, got his start in political media working for him, in 1968.

Kennedy may have been president of the McLuhan era, and Ronald Reagan its chairman of the board. But Nixon was the era’s king. To be sure, his was a reign dank and rancorous, like that of his namesake, Richard III. Yet as with Shakespeare’s Richard, the dankness and rancor made the reign transfixing. Certainly, they made for better TV. “Our long national nightmare is over,” Gerald Ford said upon succeeding Nixon as president. For better or worse, so was our winter of televised discontent.

Footage of Nixon is broadcast news’ ultimate human highlight reel: from the Checkers speech, in 1952; to the “kitchen debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in 1959; to the presidential debates with Kennedy, a year later; to numerous addresses and press conferences during his presidency; to the 1977 series of post-resignation interviews with David Frost, the inspiration for Morgan’s play and Ron Howard’s film version. Decades before such things existed, Nixon was his own YouTube channel.

Any such a channel would have multiple affiliates. In 1972, despite winning one of the most lopsided presidential victories in US history, Nixon saw his party gain just 12 seats in the House — and lose two in the Senate. He didn’t have electoral coattails. Personality coattails were a different matter. Nixon was both fascinating and the cause of fascination in others: His associates could be almost as compelling as he was. They ran the gamut, from the world-historical exploits of Henry Kissinger to the nolo contendere ones of Spiro Agnew.

The height — or nadir — of the Nixon White House as repertory ensemble came during the spring and early summer of 1973. With all due respect to “Survivor” (a very Nixonian title) and “American Idol” (another sort of Nixonian title) and “Shark Tank” (that, too), the most mesmerizing reality TV in broadcast history has been the Senate Watergate hearings.

HBO

Nixon as he appears in “Nixon by Nixon”

The Kennedy administration styled itself “Camelot”: a chivalrous court. (It was an adulterous court, too, but nobody picked up on that at the time.) The Nixon administration was something very different, “All the President’s Men”: the supporting cast as costar. In giving that title to their best-selling Watergate book, the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were alluding both to the title of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning political novel about Huey Long, “All the King’s Men” (1946), and (ahem) Humpty Dumpty. They were also foregrounding Nixon’s supporting cast, and rightly so. Shortly thereafter, Hollywood would get into the act. Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film adaptation won four Oscars. No less an authority than Reagan declared that its success helped Jimmy Carter defeat Ford.

Both the book and movie of “All the President’s Men” feel preliminary. It’s not just that they end more than a year before the resignation. It’s also that they include no mention of the White House taping system. The revelation of its existence guaranteed Nixon’s fall. “I gave them a sword,” he famously said to Frost of his Watergate-related lapses. The tapes were the business end of the blade. They removed Watergate from the realm of unprovable accusation vs. equally unprovable denial to the prospect of dispositive fact.

They did something else. Released first as transcripts, and eventually as audio, they exposed Nixon to a degree previously unimaginable for a president — for any public figure, really. ABC Sports had introduced the term “up close and personal” as part of its coverage of the 1972 Summer Olympics. Nixon, an avid sports fan, was surely familiar with it. Now here was the president up close and personal — and not just any president, but one supremely averse to closeness and personality.

Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson had all made secret tape recordings. The extent of Nixon’s taping dwarfed all their efforts combined. Also, none of their systems taped automatically. The devices Nixon had the Secret Service install in the White House, Executive Office Building, and Camp David required no button being pushed — or conscious decision made — to tape. They were voice activated. They were, if you will, stream-of-consciousness taping.

Stream of consciousness is a literary term, of course, and at least once the tapes record Nixon discussing a literary matter. It was one that hit close to home: Roth and “Our Gang.” The novel is an anything-but-subtle satire of the Nixon administration. Its protagonist is named Trick E. Dixon, and the novel ends with his assassination.

Nixon was not amused. He talked about “the Roth thing” separately with his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, and special counsel, Charles Colson, on Nov. 3, 1971, and the next day with Haldeman again. They deplore the book. Nixon does not fail to mention the novelist’s background. “Roth is of course a Jew.” He wonders if the Kennedys might have financed it (Colson demurs) and the next day suggests to Haldeman a way to attack the book. “How about this? Getting somebody to say Richard Nixon . . . has been smeared all of his life, now they’re smearing him as president. They even talked about assassination. That will irritate the [expletive deleted] out of people.” He later notes that the imminent anniversary of the Kennedy assassination makes the plan even more attractive.

Four years after Nixon’s death, Roth published a novel titled “I Married a Communist” (1998), in which an elderly character describes watching the telecast of Nixon’s funeral (“unreal, sham-ridden cant”). It’s a four-page tour de force of dismissal and scorn. Fact and fiction meet public and private, and it’s as if Nixon never went away.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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