A song about a difficult romance recorded a decade after the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency seems, at first, an odd choice as the background for the opening credits of the documentary Our Nixon. But the lyrics of Tracey Ullman’s They Don’t Know are actually stunningly appropriate:
You’ve been around for such a long time now
Oh, maybe I could leave you but I don’t know how …
Nearly 70 years after he burst onto the national political scene and nearly 40 after he departed it in disgrace, Nixon continues to fascinate both his admirers (who, no matter what you’ve heard, still exist in profusion) and his detractors.(who, unquestionably, are legion). No White House has been more recounted or analyzed than his, to the point where it might reasonably be wondered what’s left to say.
Yet the splendid Our Nixon, airing on CNN Thursday ahead of a theatrical release next month, will almost certainly prove irresistible to Nixon lovers and haters alike. Less a conventional documentary than a video scrapbook of his presidency, it evokes a such crazy quilt of emotions and memories that children all over America are going to be wondering why their grandparents are crying or throwing shoes at the TV or both.
The backbone of Our Nixon, and the source of its title, are 500 reels of 8mm home movies shot by three presidential aides, chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic-affairs advisor John Ehrlichman and appointments secretary Dwight Chapin, all of whom went to prison for their roles in the Watergate scandal.
Little of the film has ever been seen by the public; it was all confiscated by the FBI during the Watergate investigation, then filed away and forgotten for the next four decades. The footage is often narrated by Nixon himself in excerpts skillfully drawn from the infamous White House tapes by filmmakers Penny Lane and Brian L. Frye. It’s also supplemented with television news accounts of the day as well as interviews given by Nixon’s aides years later.
The result is a blend that’s sometimes funny, occasionally poignant and fitfully horrifying. There are flashes of a Nixon rarely glimpsed or perhaps even suspected: Chapin’s recollection of entering the Oval Office to find the president wiping away tears after writing letters to soldiers killed in Vietnam. Or the brief, tender shot of a beaming Nixon dancing with his daughter Tricia at her White House wedding.
Other scenes strongly support the contention of the president’s aides that they didn’t get fair treatment from the press: Haldeman’s sputtering disbelief as CBS reporter Mike Wallace casually asks if the Nixon White House can be compared to Hitler and the Nazis. (No, Wallace doesn’t mention where Nixon hid the concentration camps.)
But there are also embarrassments for the president and his men, both personal and political. Had Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, really never seen a tangerine before? Apparently not, from the baffled distaste on his face as he bites into an unpeeled one during the president’s historic trip to China. And Nixon’s off-camera reaction as a member of the Ray Coniff Singers breaks into an anti-Vietnam-war rant during a White House concert can only be imagined.
Other moments resonate unexpectedly with the present. As Nixon and Henry Kissinger try to parse why disaffected Pentagon aide Daniel Ellsberg would have leaked the Pentagon Papers — “He’s always been a little unbalanced,” Kissinger muses — it’s eerily easy to imagine a similar White House conversation today over Edward Snowden or Wikileaks.
What’s perhaps less imaginable is that anybody in the White House is plotting to burglarize the offices of the psychiatrists of the leakers, as Nixon did with Ellsberg. One of the most disturbing moments in Our Nixon is a conversation between the president and Ehrlichman after the Watergate burglary has been linked to the White House.
But I didn’t know anything about that, Nixon insists plaintively, to which Ehrlichman retorts: Yes you did. It seems an obvious lie, but in a later interview, Ehrlichman says Nixon may really have believed his own words: “He could persuade himself of anything.”
No kidding. Listen in amazement and disbelief as Nixon tries his hand as television critic, offering this description of a new show called All in the Family: “Two magnificent handsome guys and a stupid old fellow in it. They were glorifying homosexuality. …You know what happened to the Greeks. Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was a homo, we all know that. So was Socrates.”
“But he never had the influence that television has,” Ehrlichman adds helpfully.
Not that the president’s men didn’t sometimes give him sound advice. In one scene, a home movie camera pans the Oval Office, lingering oddly on telephones and power cords. Overlaid on the soundtrack is an aide explaining to the president how the newly installed secret taping system will work.
“Mum’s the whole word,” says Nixon. “There may be a day where we have to have this.” Chips in Haldeman: “Just don’t tell anybody you’ve got it.”