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January 14, 2009

Tags BiographiesMedia and CultureU.S. HistoryPolitical Theory

Some personal history on my impressions of Richard Nixon:

My earliest memories of Nixon involve Watergate, and my father's outrage that a third-rate burglary would be the stuff of national scandal. He figured it was a racket.

The public school distributed copies of the Weekly Reader, packed with pious propaganda and high dudgeon over the entire incident. I was alone in my elementary school to rise in his defense, thereby outraging teachers and administrators.

It was years later when I threw myself into reading the prehistory: the Hiss/Chambers trials of 1949 and Nixon's role as the leader of the prosecution. Later I learned of his horrible role in creating the EPA and making the dollar pure paper, as well as instituting price controls. As I came to understand war as a species of socialism, the ebb flowed again with appreciation for his role in opening up China and for starting arms talks with the Soviet Union.

So is Nixon someone I respected? Yes. His good-government critics have always disgusted me. At the same time, one has to agree with Rothbard that his impeachment/resignation was a great moment, if only because it demonstrated the vulnerability of the presidency. It discredited the power elite and finalized the break with the old world in which everyone was supposed to love and adore and obey the commander president.

One the one hand, on the other hand … saecula saeculorum.

This is a summary of my own view, so I'm completely dazzled by Oliver Stone's extraordinary 1995 film Nixon, which I hadn't seen until this week. This film further complicates the picture of this man with a portrayal that is brutally honest about his flaws but also surprisingly affectionate in the end. In the course of telling the story, Stone also manages to telescope a revisionist history of the last fifty years of political history.

I can easily imagine that the Stone haters are already screaming at this article: "This film is nothing but a smear rooted in the wacky conspiracy theories. The film strongly suggests that Nixon had something to do with the Kennedy assassination, for goodness sake! How dare you try to shore up the credibility of this Stone loon and his stupid movies!"

Well, you know what? The Stone rendition is not made up. It is drawn from published accounts from people who don't accept the official view of things, and it draws together many threads from different narratives that tell a story that is not entirely implausible. In fact, the workings of power that are portrayed here have much in common with an ancient narrative we associate with Shakespeare's telling of the history of Rome. It also fits with everything we know about power and Washington.

Stone's version of history has Nixon making a deal with the CIA and a powerful group of Cuban exiles in the early 1960s. Following the Bay of Pigs invasion, which the exiles believed was botched because Kennedy was not wholly on board, the exiles arranged for Kennedy's assassination. Nixon was their chosen man for whom they hoped to gain the White House, but they had to clear a path for him to achieve this goal. The group that put him in the White House adored his war on Vietnam but turned on him furiously over his overtures first to China and then Russia, and so unleashed the Hell that ended up bringing him down.

That's the theory. But even if you reject it, there is a solid reason for watching this. Folks today know virtually none of the essential political history behind the Nixon story. This is a great way to be introduced to it all, from Hiss/Chambers through the 1970s and following, even up to Reagan's revenge against Nixon's peace overtures. You will discover important moments in postwar history that are hardly ever mentioned in public school; actually they are darn near forgotten.

There is even much to learn here about Vietnam, the student protests, the end of the war and how strangely uneventful it was, and so much more about the political culture of the time. The presidents' men look and behave exactly the way I remembered them as a child. The whole movie for me personally is a blast from a past that lives in my mind as only a vague shadow.

Anthony Hopkins does an amazing job playing Nixon, and many of his speeches and press conferences are true-to-life recreations. The impression of the man is highly sympathetic to him personally. He comes across as a disordered person, touched by paranoia and vexed by fear. But he was also a victim in many ways — though not in as many ways as he believed. His character in power was frightening; his character as a man was fearful and confused and cold but pathetically likeable in the end.

Young people who demand an explosion every 10 seconds and a sex scene every 15 minutes will find the movie boring, no question. It is heady, smart, and detailed, and the real action here is very subtle and bound up with intrigue and plot. The picture of life in the White House is unforgettable. It is beautifully filmed, but I can easily see why mainstream audiences wouldn't just drink it up. It is a profoundly serious movie.

Call this film fiction if you want, but something tells me that there is more truth here than official histories admit. Mostly what this film teaches is something about the nature of power. Oliver Stone's greatest gift is his refusal to treat the American system as something supernaturally protected from the corruption that has been endemic to all regimes in the history of the world. For daring to reject the civic religion, he is routinely castigated as a Marxist lunatic.

Watch this and see if that reputation holds up in light of this film, which strikes me as a modern classic.

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