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On Nixon

Last weekend, while Nick and his girlfriend Rachel were visiting, we (Nick, Rachel, another friend Sarah) went to see Frost/ Nixon.  Janet stayed home and worked on a talk (which she gave last night at Rutgers), and Jamie stayed home and amused himself, not having much interest in either David Frost or Richard Nixon.  Realizing I had the opportunity, at last, to see The Wrestler, I argued for that, but was overruled by These Rotten Kids Today and their preference for frothy, insubstantial entertainment and/or gratuitous and graphic violence.

Well, I could have done without the narrative embellishment of Nixon’s drunken late-night phone call to Frost, which sounded like it came out of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, but on the whole the movie was pretty utile et dulce, and so way better than Barely Tolerable by the most exacting of old-school standards.  I had two rueful thoughts on the way out.  The first is that the film takes as its climax the moment when Frost gets Nixon to say “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”: Nixon’s associates and handlers, especially Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), gasp and hang their heads, knowing the game is up.  It was a different time, huh?  Because if Dubya were to say such a thing in an interview two or three years from now, you can bet there would be all kinds of fist-pumping and hell-yeahing from the Mayberry Machiavellis.  Alberto Gonzales would hug Karl Rove, John Yoo would clink glasses with John Ashcroft, and Dick Cheney would be so happy he’d shoot someone in the face.

The second follows from the first, and consists merely of the reminder that the Clinton impeachment was only part of the long–term Republican payback for Nixon’s disgrace.  Granted, Clinton’s crimes far outstripped Nixon’s, since they involved blowjobs, which are expressly forbidden in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution (“The President . . . shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, blowjobs, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”).  But it’s worth remembering nonetheless that the wingnuts started planning Clinton’s impeachment years before Monica set foot in the White House—pretty much from inauguration day 1993.  The second part of the plan, of course, was the Restoration—not exactly along the lines imagined by the great Tom Tomorrow, but rather the restoration of the Theory of the Unitary Executive.  (This time with a brand new theory of the extraconstitutional superpowers of the Vice Presidency!)

The film Frost/Nixon closes with the claim that Nixon never saw his reputation rehabilitated, and never appeared again at any state functions, and that’s true.  It reminded me, as well, of a little epiphany I had ten years ago when I realized, upon visiting Washington just after the opening of the Reagan Building and the renaming of National Airport, that the Watergate Hotel is right next door to the Kennedy Center, and that hardcore Reaganauts’ drive to name every building, park, and monument after Ronald Reagan while adding him to Mount Rushmore and kicking FDR off the dime surely had something to do with their seething resentment at the fact that Kennedy’s name is everywhere in American official life and Nixon’s name doesn’t grace so much as a ceremonial punch bowl.  But if the film was trying to suggest that after the resignation and the Frost interviews, Nixon was sent into exile and Never Heard From Again, stripped of any influence over the course of American politics, that’s not quite right, is it.  In some ways we’ve been living with the fallout from Nixon’s impeachment and resignation for the past twenty-five years.  [Update:  or thirty-five, if you, uh, count from 1974.  Sorry about that.  My, how time flies.]

So later that night, before going to bed I peered into the YouTube and found this:

The exchange is reproduced almost verbatim in the film (Frost’s litany is trimmed down a bit, iirc).  And although Frank Langella does indeed do amazing things in the role of Nixon, rendering Nixon faithfully without quite dissolving into him, this clip reminded me that there is one thing Langella couldn’t do. He couldn’t do Nixon’s smile

Check out the very end of the clip, around 1:45 - 1:48.  It is utterly and completely terrifying; it manages to be goofy and chilling at the same time.  It is far more unsettling than Cheney’s smile, because Cheney’s default expression is already a smirk, and when he broadens that smirk and bares his fangs it’s quite clear that he is about to eat your children.  There’s no ambiguity about it.  And it’s more unsettling than Rumsfeld’s smile, because when Rumsfeld smiles you know he’s going to get off another well-timed zinger about how many vases there are in Iraq.  Nixon’s chuckle here is somehow more unheimlich than either, and it is definitely the wrong thing to see just before going to bed.

It’s so odd.  Those of us of a certain age (I was just under 13 when Nixon resigned) remember Nixon scowling and glowering and muttering darkly and sweating and waggling his famous jowls; there’s even a nice meta- moment in the film when Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), “playing” Nixon to help Frost (Michael Sheen) rehearse, lowers his voice, shakes his head, and growls, “That Jack Kennedy, he screwed anything that moved. He had a go at Checkers once, and that poor bitch was never the same after that.” It’s the kind of caricature that everyone associates with Nixon; it helped to make Rich Little famous, and it’s precisely what Langella, to his credit, does not do.  But we forget (at least I forgot) that sometimes Nixon smiled and chuckled and tried to “make light” of things, as he does here with Frost’s damning recitation.

Shudder.

Posted by on 02/12 at 01:29 PM
  1. I think Mickey Rourke would have made a great Richard Nixon myself. Nevertheless, I do want to see the film. Something about the Bush Administration has triggered a range of retrospections on Nixon (Perlstein’s book, the film, more tapes made available, debates on the role of John Dean) and comparisons between Bush and Nixon organized around the question: Who was the most corrupt? I was pretty sure there would never be another figure on the order of Henry Kissinger who would inspire me to hatred (and it is just that ugly), but along came Cheney. This sort of reflection strikes me as crucial for the future of the nation. Can this be the start of a redemptive turn? But all I can really wonder about now, thanks to your fine scholarship on the Constitution, is whether a blow job is a high crime or misdemeanor. If it is the former, then I have clearly missed out on something (dammit).

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  02:46 PM
  2. You ask a difficult Constitutional question, Chris.  It all depends on the fine details of the blowjob in question, which is why the Senate subpoenaed Ms. Lewinsky at a critical stage in the proceedings.

    Off topic, but I think Frost is adducing evidence that Nixon conspired to bribe someone.  You’d think that would fall under Article II Section 4 also, but you’d be wrong.

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  03:08 PM
  3. Politics and constitutional interpretation are suffused with mystery. I felt this kind of confusion when our former Governor (Spitzer --perhaps you’ve heard of him?) was shown the door for having amzingly expensive sex with a prostitute. For the life of me, I could not come up with even an image of what $5,500 dollar an hour sex would be like or entail. Regarding Nixon, the system worked, and this is the most important thing. Nixon left office for lying—a charge far more important than bribery and dastardly enough to blot out any charge of war crimes for the invasions of Laos and Cambodia, and the destabilization of the region that led to Pol Pot and the killing fields. Nixon sure got what was coming to him didn’t he? Let this be a lesson to Philippe Sands and his ilk.

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  03:21 PM
  4. In some ways we’ve been living with the fallout from Nixon’s impeachment and resignation for the past twenty-five years.

    Have we?  Or have we been living with the fallout from Ford’s pardon of Nixon leading to a continuing cycle of dismissal for violations to the rule of law and the Constitution continuing with Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush the Idiot and now, it appears, Obama.

    Posted by Blue  on  02/12  at  03:44 PM
  5. OK, Blue, I’ll take that as a friendly amendment.

    For the life of me, I could not come up with even an image of what $5,500 dollar an hour sex would be like or entail.

    I would think it’s kind of like a five-dollar milkshake, only eleventy-hundred times better.

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  03:46 PM
  6. Nixon is not smiling. He is baring his teeth in anger.
    I wish I could find the cartoon of the Nixon Monument I saw once. It was a bomb crater.

    Posted by Hattie  on  02/12  at  04:05 PM
  7. Hattie, that sounds like a B. Kliban cartoon. It shows up in an article by Norman Holland titled “Why Ellen Laughed” in Critical Inquiry 7:2 (1980).

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  04:43 PM
  8. I felt this kind of confusion when our former Governor (Spitzer --perhaps you’ve heard of him?) was shown the door for having amzingly expensive sex with a prostitute.

    Well, as the contemporary case of Senator Vitter illustrates:

    (1) Though expensive, Spitzer’s sex with prostitutes wasn’t kinky enough (falls under Article I’s Commerce power, which has been delegated by statute to the DOJ in these matters), and

    (2) IOKIYAR (Amendment 28).

    The second follows from the first, and consists merely of the reminder that the Clinton impeachment was only part of the long–term Republican payback for Nixon’s disgrace.

    It didn’t hurt that it completed the destruction of the very notion that Congress should act as a check on flagrant lawbreaking and violations of the oath of office by the Executive.  At least with Iran-Contra, we got showboating hearings and a special prosecutor who had to be derailed with pardons.  Now even a toothless after-the-fact truth commission is pooh-poohed by Serious Bipartisan People. The next Republican president will be secure in the knowledge that there will be no consequences for anything.

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  05:31 PM
  9. Hmmm… I was just under ten years old when Nixon resigned, yet oddly enough the first thought to emerge from the dank crawlspace of my childhood Nixon memories is always, “Sock it to me?”

    There’s not enough day-glo painted Judy Carne in the whole world to erase that image.

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  06:10 PM
  10. Me, I can’t see the Trickster anymore without picturing him at the urinal next to Hunter Thompson.
    As for this:

    There’s not enough day-glo painted Judy Carne in the whole world

    that’s for damn sure.

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  07:33 PM
  11. Nixon is not smiling. He is baring his teeth in anger.

    You know, I think that accounts for the creepy / goofy thing.  And the terrifying thing.

    And I got yer Nixon Monument right here.

    I did think of Nixon’s “sock it to me” moment when I was writing this.  But even then, he wasn’t smiling.  Because that would have broken the television tubes.

    Posted by Michael  on  02/12  at  07:51 PM
  12. Someone should make a film version of The Public Burning, with William H. Macy as Nixon, Alec Baldwin as Uncle Sam, and, of course, Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg.

    Posted by Gary  on  02/12  at  08:19 PM
  13. For reasons that probably don’t stand up under scrutiny, my memories of Nixon are somewhat nuanced (I was 20 when he resigned). I was recently looking up stuff on Nixon’s surreal meeting with Elvis in 1970 (well documented here*) and it contained several reminders of “Nixon the politician” who could charm the voters win an election. First there is the smile in the famous picture (at top of my linked page above), but more telling to me was Nixon’s repeated concern that “Presley retain his credibility” as revealed in the memo for file from Bud Krogh describing the visit.

    *Investigative opportunity for readers of the blog: Nixon came out and met with two of Presley’s “associates” per this picture.They look familiar (especially the guy in the back), but I cannot place them and have not found where they are named.

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  09:23 PM
  14. JP - According to this article, Elvis had Nixon meet his bodyguards, and I believe the one in the back is Sonny West.

    Posted by Gary  on  02/12  at  09:53 PM
  15. Revenge for Nixon? Nixon’s revenge.

    Posted by nnyhav  on  02/12  at  10:02 PM
  16. And yet I think I would drink out of a Nixon punchbowl before I would eat off an Obama plate?  My disdain for commercialism, it seems, is only as strong as my resolve not to let politics lead me to drink.  Not very strong at all, I guess…

    Oh and how about this picture here—Grandaddy Prescott Bush and Nixon sharing a “moment” in some rather dandy hats.  Is that a smile?

    Posted by Derek T.  on  02/12  at  10:11 PM
  17. Your mention of Lewinsky’s “testimony” (The actual vote to have her appear live was defeated 70-30, first vote of the whole affair where Republicans broke rank. However, her deposition *was* played to the chamber and televised.)reminded me of the sealed “sex room” where House Managers kept repudiated hearsay “evidence” of Clinton’s other sexual misdeeds. But I had forgotten how much Tom Delay was involved and his rancid attempt to influence the Senate votes.

    Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the majority whip and the driving force for impeachment in the House, said it would be wrong for the Senate to ‘’short-circuit the process’’ through a quick censure vote, and he said there were ‘’reams of evidence that have not been publicly aired.’’<blockquote>

    <blockquote>’’Before people look to cut a deal with the White House or their surrogates who will seek to influence the process,’’ Mr. DeLay said in a statement, ‘’it is my hope that one would spend plenty of time in the evidence room. If this were to happen, you may realize that 67 votes may appear out of thin air.’’

    Every time I try to move on from the impeachment, I discover something more and can’t.

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  10:23 PM
  18. 14: Thanks, Gary. That certainly looks right (and searching confirms it). Found that the other “associate” was Jerry Schilling, an old friend from Memphis. Here is a clip of Schilling describing some of the circumstances leading up to the meeting.

    Posted by  on  02/12  at  10:49 PM
  19. but all i can really wonder about now, thanks to your fine scholarship on the constitution, is whether a blow job is a high crime or misdemeanor.

    it depends on penile length.  the higher up the woman’s head has to go in the rhythmic process (or, the deeper down her throat, if you want to get ugly about it), the higher the crime.

    Posted by skippy  on  02/13  at  12:47 AM
  20. As a member of the high school pep band I nearly speared candidate Nixon with the slide of my trombone as he entered the local college auditorium for a campaign appearance in the 1968 primaries. He seemed smaller in real life.

    Posted by  on  02/13  at  01:12 AM
  21. Ah, Nixon. I was a sub-adult (a radicalized, precocious teen) during his reign when he visited Omaha sometime in the early 70’s. I was in a group of a dozen-or-so protesters who greeted him at our fair city’s ridiculously named Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backwards, yuck yuck)Race Track* where he exited his limo with that wacky smile only to turn in our direction and immediately break into his more traditional scowl, and just as immediately turn away toward the adoring crowd that wasn’t us.

    I haven’t thought of that in years, but I can still feel the awesome power I felt then when my pitiful, little voice turned power from truth and forced it to flee to the softer crooning of sycophancy.

    Um, why is it that the two modern Presidents that have been nearly impeached/impeached have “blow-job” and “Dick” in common?

    *They raced horses here years ago . . . . Thankfully, it wasn’t a NASCAR track.

    Posted by  on  02/13  at  02:51 AM
  22. Sadly, being one of them thar elder folk, i have never been able to separate Nixon from Kent State.  Thus the very name immediately causes gagging and partial vomiting, coupled with the need to throw something heavy and hard at the next Rethuglican i meet.

    Captcha is ‘summer’, as in tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own.

    Posted by  on  02/13  at  07:45 AM
  23. John Waters moment: I was 12 when I saw Hank Aaron hit is 415th home run while staying at the Watergate Hotel during a dreaded spring-break family vacation.

    No amount of therapy could untangle all the American archetypes that were ricocheting around my impressionable adolescent psyche at that particular moment.

    Posted by  on  02/13  at  08:30 AM
  24. Er, that should of course be 715th home run.

    Posted by  on  02/13  at  08:31 AM
  25. Haven’t we been living with the fallout for 35 years now (not twenty-five)? Apologies for being the social scientist complaining about math in the humanities, but, really, I’m just helping the argument.

    captcha: hands. as in, 7 hands of fingers, not 5.

    Posted by  on  02/13  at  12:56 PM
  26. Right, thirty-five. I do get so confused when the numbers go over eleventy.

    OK, fixed now.  Thanks!

    Posted by Michael  on  02/13  at  02:39 PM
  27. Black Dog -
    You have filled this trombone player with envy.

    Posted by jazzbumpa  on  02/13  at  10:09 PM
  28. The great Paul Conrad, of LA Times fame, spent the best part of the Nixon administration pwning Nixon on a near daily basis.  Even to this day he laughs about it: “His favorite distinction: His 1973 inclusion on Richard Nixon’s Enemies List. His favorite irony: Holding the Richard M. Nixon Chair at Whittier (Calif.) College (1977-78).”

    My favorite collection of his is THE KING AND US, a collection of his Nixon cartoons set to transcripts of the White House tapes.  For me it is the only way i can find to laugh about those dreadful years (including RN’s lovely efforts to help Joe McCarthy in the 50s).

    Posted by  on  02/13  at  11:31 PM
  29. I recall having fun writing a song called “Checkers ate the Tapes” at the time. I watched the Watergate hearings in Ithaca, at the Cornell Student Union to be precise. The night he resigned, we ate Chinese.

    and the winner is captcha word “history”. But of course.

    Posted by  on  02/14  at  12:28 AM
  30. I’m also one of those older folk who associate Nixon with Kent State and Cambodia before Watergate iced the cake.  Not only that, but re: Nixon’s name doesn’t grace so much as a ceremonial punch bowl, there was the Richard Nixon Dumbwaiter.

    Posted by Rugosa  on  02/14  at  12:23 PM
  31. Jimbob: Um, why is it that the two modern Presidents that have been nearly impeached/impeached have “blow-job” and “Dick” in common?

    Nixon had a secretary named Clinton and Clinton had a secretary named Nixon.

    No, wait: Nixon had a dog named “Blow-job,” and ...

    Posted by  on  02/14  at  05:42 PM
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    Posted by  on  02/15  at  05:51 AM
  33. 32: you can believe us all the time!

    Some Bush Administration vets are finding that the wingnut welfare gravy train has dried up and have been forced to apply their talents to other opportunities.

    Posted by  on  02/15  at  11:33 AM
  34. Just wait til Ron Paul hears about this!

    Posted by Michael  on  02/15  at  12:26 PM
  35. Lovely karmic-like synchronicity:
    One of my summer production companies has been located in the foothills of the Sierra for more than 25 years.  It is just up the road from a feedstore complex (and unique school/halfway house for juvenile delinquent kids with cognitive disabilities).  The owner of this conglomerate is one of Richard’s first cousins from the Milhous side of the family (during his sunset years Dick and Pat would occasionally sneak into town to visit).  Over the last decade the feedstore/lumber part of the business has had to keep up with the times, and has become one of the major suppliers of necessary materials and resources for the vast multi-billion dollar green industry of marijuana cultivation (all relatively legal in CA under the county DA’s supervision).  There is something about justice in all this, seeing the hippies stopping at Milhous’s for special fertilizers and organic herbicide/pesticide products.

    Posted by  on  02/15  at  10:04 PM
  36. I have no love Nixon. His treasonous sabotage of the Paris peace talks is enough to damn him in hell.

    But I have come to believe that Nixon was screwed by the same folks who screwed Jimmy Carter’s administration. Russ Baker’s FAMILY OF SECRETS points a big finger at the intelligence community and specifically GHW Bush for Nixon’s audacity to actually think he was President. If you look at the entire cast of characters involved in Watergate, the coverup and fall, at every step of the way there were people with intelligence connections.

    There is nothing to make someone look more guilty than for him to plead his innocence when you are sure that he is guilty. Note that it doesn’t matter whether or not you are correct. Your belief that he is guilty is strengthened by someone’s denial of guilt.

    Anyway, I never thought I’d be defending Nixon, but on Watergate I think he was hosed.

    Posted by Bob In Pacifca  on  02/16  at  04:14 PM
  37. Oh, I dunno, Nixon has plenty of humor in this film, and his smiles are scary—but they’re not maybe used the way you suggest.  It was interesting to read your reaction—I’ve been rather obsessed with this film and have blogged about it and the play almost nonstop, because the play was an incandescent theatrical experience, if you’ll forgive the gushing.  The phone call was a hell of a lot better there than in the film; so was the “not illegal” climax, because you don’t get the cut to the aides that breaks up the tension (people in the movie theater giggled, when I saw it).  All in all, the play benefited from a continuity and simplicity that the film can’t recapture as they move around and cut.

    Posted by Heidi  on  02/17  at  12:45 AM
  38. You have filled this trombone player with envy.
    http://www.downlez.com

    Posted by  on  02/26  at  02:40 PM

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