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Thursday, February 12, 2009

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.


Posted by Michael on 02/12 at 01:29 PM
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