By P.H.I.Berroll
When Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency, I was a college sophomore. His years in office overlapped most of my adolescence. Perhaps that was the reason — beyond his conduct while in the White House — that I hated him as I have not hated any other President, even Ronald Reagan, before or since. Most teenagers have a degree of hostility toward their fathers, and the President is the ultimate patriarch, Big Daddy to the nation. Certainly Nixon himself embraced that concept when he declared in 1972 that “the average American is like the child in the family.”

But then, Nixon always provoked strong feelings. The term “Nixon-haters” enjoyed wide circulation, while I cannot recall seeing “Johnson-haters,” “Carter-haters,” etc. in print. And while few outside his immediate family could be said to love him, those who defended him did so with undying passion, up to and beyond the end of his disgraced presidency. (Just consider Bob Dole, not exactly known as a Sensitive Guy, breaking into tears while speaking at Nixon’s funeral.)

And this is why anyone expecting Oliver Stone’s film Nixon to be a straightforward recitation of historical events was bound to be disappointed. Any treatment other than a no-frills documentary would have to include an emotional component. Any filmmaker who lived through Nixon’s presidency would find it difficult to keep his own personal feelings out of the film — particularly Stone, who has become famous (or notorious) for grafting his own obsessions onto his subject matter.

And it’s not surprising that Nixon has provoked strong – and often negative – reactions across the political spectrum. On the right, George Will has compared Stone to Leni Riefenstahl; the centrist Richard Reeves has denounced the movie as “pretty shabby stuff…the man who made [it] seems to have tunnel vision.” And the left? I have a friend, a veteran of SDS and the 1968 Columbia strike, who refuses to see the film. It has nothing to do with his feelings about Nixon – he just has no respect for anything Stone has to say on the subject.

There is, undeniably, something in Nixon to offend everyone — too harsh for his defenders, too “understanding” for his attackers. And I doubt that Stone would want it any other way; he has always operated on a visceral level, without apology. But too many critics have been unable or unwilling to consider the film on those grounds. They have, instead, couched the discussion of Nixon in terms of accuracy, condemning Stone for allegedly rewriting or fabricating history. Such attacks were to be expected after Stone attempted such a rewrite in JFK (1990). It’s not surprising that he would be held to a higher standard than other filmmakers when dealing with historical events. As with Nixon himself, his enemies have their reasons, and they are legitimate.

But that doesn’t mean that their objections are entirely fair. As John Dean, one of several Watergate figures who served as a consultant to the film, said in an interview: “(W)hen people see Schindler’s List (or) Apollo 13, they don’t ask these questions.” Or, one might add, when they see Danny DeVito’s Hoffa or Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. It all seems to depend on the subject matter, or the director’s reputation.

Certainly, Nixon has plenty of distortions, inaccuracies, and what David Letterman used to call “writer’s embellishments.” Stone implies that Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) was connected to the Bay of Pigs invasion; there is no evidence of this. Stone isn’t content to repeat the allegation that J. Edgar Hoover was gay; he shows Hoover (Bob Hoskins, about twenty years too young for the part) provoking boyfriend Clyde Tolson by flirting with a cute Latino houseboy. And while I am no fan of Henry Kissinger, was it really fair to have Paul Sorvino play him as a devious, amoral bootlicker with no redeeming qualities? (At the other extreme, the recent cable-TV movie Kissinger and Nixon depicted him as a sensitive peacemaker — and Nixon as a bloodthirsty, football-obsessed buffoon whose opening line is “Where’s my Jewboy?”)

But Stone has not claimed to present the verbatim historical record; he wants to convey the emotional truth of Nixon and those around him. Of course we have no way of knowing what Nixon and his wife said to each other when they were alone; but the exchanges between Hopkins and Joan Allen’s bitter, defeated Pat Nixon jibe with everything we know about their troubled relationship. And he also, at times brilliantly, shows the connection between Nixon’s twisted psyche and the larger currents of the society in which he lived.

Nixon ran for office eight times; he won all but twice. Obviously, this was not because of his wit, charm, or good looks, or simply because a majority of the voters agreed with his specific policy positions — or through a combination of good timing and slick p.r., as many liberals would like to believe. Nixon’s genius was in his ability to plug into the darkest emotions of his audience — the fears and hatreds which (try as he might to suppress them) he felt as deeply as they. And those feelings, as Stone shows us, were rooted in Nixon’s Southern California childhood.

By all accounts, Nixon’s early years were grim. His beloved older brother, Harold, died of tuberculosis, as did a younger sibling, Arthur; many observers believed he felt guilty for having survived. Nixon’s father was a humorless, bigoted petty tyrant. His mother, Hannah, was famously described by her son as “a saint.” But it was a saintliness like that of Lady Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited — an implacable self-righteousness, guaranteed to drive her family crazy. In the film, Hannah (Mary Steenburgen) sets impossible standards for her son; she reacts with pleasure when young Richard pledges to be “your humble dog.” (In reality, Nixon said this in a letter to his grandmother, but we get the point.) Both parents preach a gospel of hard work and absolute self-reliance, where nothing is to be expected from other people — what you have, you earn for yourself. “Strength in this world,” says Hannah when Harold dies. “Happiness in the next.”

Such a worldview lends itself all too easily to intolerance and mean-spiritedness toward those who do not live by the same standards. Nixon often described his family as poor, but more accurately, they were lower middle-class — the kind of people whom historians and liberals tend to downplay, or forget completely. They were not the noble, compassionate poor of The Grapes of Wrath; like many Californians, they would have disdained Steinbeck’s Okies as lazy parasites who had failed because they had loose morals or didn’t work hard enough. These were the Americans who never accepted the New Deal, preferring a crude Social Darwinism to Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of a mutually supportive American community.

Though Nixon’s own views became more refined during his years in Washington, he never forgot his roots, and his people knew it. “People vote not out of love, but fear,” he says in the film. The politics of fear, and resentment, was always the key to his appeal — resentment of the despised Other, be it those on the bottom of the economic ladder or the liberals and intellectuals who championed them. (Nixon never went after minorities, but he didn’t have to; his audiences knew that the people he attacked were often members or allies of those groups.)

It was no great stretch for Nixon to brand many of his opponents as “un-American.” On a certain level, he truly believed this. They were in opposition to the established order, which provoked his authoritarian streak. They were often critical of the fairness of American capitalism, and such criticism was anathema to him. Rich liberals, reporters who seemed to share their attitudes, the Eastern Establishment (“They don’t trust us… because we speak for the American people”), the “spoiled rotten” college protesters who need “a good old-fashioned trip to my Ohio father’s woodshed” — all were linked in Nixon’s passionate hatred. He achieved success by channeling and exploiting that hatred. But when he gave it free rein, as he acknowledged in his final speech to his White House staff, it eventually destroyed him.

There are moments in the film when Stone gets off this track. At times he indulges in simplistic Freudianism (Kissinger: “Can you imagine what this man might have been had he ever been loved?”). At others, he attempts to show Nixon as a schlemiel at the mercy of more powerful players — Hoover, the Mafia, the CIA, etc. In a sense, he was, but of forces less vague, and less monstrous, than Stone suggests.

Stone gives us silly, invented sequences where Nixon visits a sinister cabal of Texas billionaires (led by “J.R.” himself, Larry Hagman), who ply him with liquor and loose women to get him to do their bidding. But I wish he had depicted the actual meeting of a group of Southern California businessmen in 1946. These men operated quite openly, and they respected the American system of government; but they hated the New Deal, unions, and any other restrictions on their right to make a buck. They chose a young lawyer and Navy veteran to do their bidding. Richard Nixon did so, with no reluctance, by smearing and demonizing his opponent. And the die was cast, as inexorably as for Macbeth or Richard III.

That first campaign, and the decade of failure and frustration that preceded it, are worthy of a film in themselves (Young Mr. Nixon?). But Stone did not intend his film to be the last word on its subject — at the end of Nixon, we are told that of the 4,000 Watergate tapes, only 60 have been made available to the public. This film is a useful starting point, but there is a great deal more to learn about this man, and what he represented.

In one scene, Howard Hunt (Ed Harris) calls Nixon “the darkness reaching out for the darkness.” That the line is another of Stone’s inventions is ultimately beside the point; what matters is the essential truth of the comment. And the darkness did not die with Nixon. Bush and Dole, Gingrich and Buchanan – more than a few of his successors and acolytes successfully exploited it. We ignore this at our peril.

Originally written for Tikkun magazine, 1995.

Download PDF