Saturday, April 19, 2014

Why Nixon?

I've finished reading the exhaustive, the enormously-illuminating, the thoroughly-researched, the continually-fascinating Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage by Will Swift, and I find myself yet again craving more about Richard Nixon. Despite extensive chores still to do today, such as cleaning the mirrors, sinks, and toilets in the two bathrooms of this apartment, and vacuuming in the bathrooms and in my parents' bedroom so their mattress can be turned and their new sheets put on, I put Frost/Nixon, starring Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, in the DVD player to watch for the umpteenth time. I'm also thinking about Oliver Stone's Nixon either after that or in the days to come, since I also have that on DVD. And on hold on my library card is 31 Days: Gerald Ford, The Nixon Pardon, and A Government in Crisis by Barry Werth, to reread, and The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews by James Reston, Jr., whose writing I was in awe of the first time, and a second reading might spur me to order it for my collection afterward. Oh, and I also have the C-SPAN documentary series on DVD about all the presidential libraries, including Nixon's, which I went to once when my family and I existed in Southern California (though we went to the Reagan Presidential Library more often because of the beautiful, expansive view from the replica of the South Lawn, as well as the incredible potato chips made fresh at Reagan's Country Cafe, pretty much the main reason we went there toward the end of our years in Southern California), as well as the American Experience: The Presidents DVD set, which includes a documentary about Nixon.

In my floating book collection (books I haven't read yet that may or may not become part of my permanent collection), I have JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President by Thurston Clarke, and 1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America by David Pietrusza, who makes these historical events come vividly alive again, as if they were happening again.

This past week, I read Eleanor And Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman edited and with commentary by Steve Neal, and I always eye David McCullough's biography of Truman, which sits on the same shelf of the bookcase on the left side of the wall directly next to my reading chair. And of course, Robert Caro's epic look into the life of LBJ prods and pokes at me, while I hate not being in New York City so I can see Bryan Cranston play LBJ in All the Way. Andrew Jackson hangs around the edges, and I would like to know what FDR's presidency was like for him in the middle years, not the famous final ones.

Why is it then that Nixon keeps taking control of my passion for presidential history, even booting out William Howard Taft for a time, even though I want to know if Taft truly did not want to be president and if his wife, Nellie, pushed him into it because she wanted to be First Lady? Why am I consistently fascinated by a dark, shadowy figure who regained some measure of political respect in his later years, with his brilliant foreign policy analysis?

It's got to be the contradictions and the complexities of the man and his presidency, wondering if he was a good president, if he would have been even better had it not been for Watergate? My dad insists that he was a good president, but he just got caught. Well, there was the increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, but I still wonder how much of that was him. I read from conflicting sources that he either spearheaded the legislation for both or that others led the charge for it instead of him, and all he did was blankly sign his name to them. I don't know. Is it even possibly to find the clearest, unvarnished truth about Richard Nixon? Probably not. But in my reading, I would hope to get as close to it as possible, what sounds reasonably certain, and Will Swift comes close in Pat and Dick, particularly in focusing on his and Pat's marriage. I was curious about what their marriage was like when the Checkers speech happened, and Watergate, and his years in political exile. I got my answers to all those questions, seeing a marriage that used to be considered cold and distant, and there were moments like that, but they never lasted long there. There seemed to be a love that didn't need public confirmation, that was content to just be. Of course, I was born during President Reagan's re-election campaign, so these books and those documentaries and the footage to be found online are all I have to learn more about Nixon's life and presidency and post-presidential life. I do have my parents' insight to some degree, but my dad's insight only goes so far, and my mom's insight isn't extensive, being that she wasn't as interested in politics as my dad was at that time, in seeing history being made right then and there.

It's like with Frost/Nixon, which places Nixon (Langella) in the hospital at the time that Gerald Ford pardons him on television. Not true, according to Will Swift, who simply states that "On Sunday morning, September 8 [1974], Pat and Dick drove through Southern California fog on their way to the secluded and lush 220-acre Palm Springs estate of their friends Walter and Lee Annenberg. While they were en route, President Ford addressed the nation on television, announcing he was granting Nixon a full pardon for all offenses he had committed or might have committed during his term in office."

A shot of the Nixons driving to Palm Springs, intercut with a shot of Gerald Ford granting the pardon, then the pardon speech as a voiceover during that shot of the Nixons driving, wouldn't have been as dramatic as Nixon lying in that hospital bed from that attack of phlebitis, slowly opening his eyes as he hears Ford grant him the pardon, as is portrayed in Frost/Nixon. Any historical movie should not be taken as gospel anyway, but should hopefully fuel interest in learning more about the events potrayed. As I read that bit from Swift, I remembered that scene in Frost/Nixon, understood the dramatic license taken, and moved on. To at least understand history, if not convinced that the truth is apparent, you have to read so many different perspectives. And while I strive to read more about Richard Nixon, to understand more about him, to see the extent of the Constitutional peril he brought upon the country, Calvin Coolidge remains ignored. Rutherford B. Hayes finds himself sitting next to Ulysses S. Grant and both are eyeing Coolidge warily in the same ignored space, be it a parlor or a bar or whatever in my imagination. I imagine that people had the same visceral reaction as they watched the Watergate hearings. They were hooked on them, just as I am through all this history of a man who was not easy to know to begin with. The reason I'm so passionate about presidential history is because I want to know how these men handled being in power, suddenly having these great responsibilities thrust upon them, whether through elections or taking over from their mostly-slain predecessors (William Henry Harrison seems to be the sole exception, dying from pneumonia). I've always seen the presidents simply as men in powerful positions. They've obviously changed in many ways by the time they leave office, but they're still like you and me. Still human. Still getting up in the morning like we do. Still getting dressed like we do. Still eating like we do. Who were they before they became president? Who were they after? In the cases of Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and eventually Obama, who are they now? Do they wish they were back in that Oval Office, even those Constitutionally ineligible now? Or are they relieved to be done with all of that, content in their roles as elder statesmen, just like Nixon eventually became?

It all matters to me, and yet, I keep going back to Nixon. Maybe it's trying to understand how he could be so cynical about all the groups and particular people he lambasted in those recordings in the Oval Office, the inherent racism. Where did it all come from? How did the insecurities develop? I know some of it, but I still want to know more. It's not so much a search for the truth about Richard Nixon, without all the competing viewpoints, but more fascination with how it's not easy to really know. One book will say this, and another book will say that, and another book will come far out of left field to presume this. I feel like I should be reading about Bill Clinton's presidency because that's the one I grew up in. I was 5 when George H.W. Bush became president, and then 9 when Bill Clinton took office. Now would be the right time since enough time has passed in order to really consider it from all different angles.

But Nixon remains at the center of my passion for all this. It could also be because he was brilliant, but the insecurities and the nastiness (though mellowed years later) crowded it out. Did one emotion dominate the others for a while? He was known to become depressed at times, so how did it affect him during the presidency? There are so many questions, and not all of them will yield easy answers. I know that for sure. For me, it could be that the search is endlessly interesting. I want to know many presidents' administrations from beginning to end, possibly all of them if I hopefully live long enough (I'm hoping for well over 100 years old), but perhaps I want to start with this one because it was a mysterious administration at the same time. A political monolith, as his handlers tried to present.

So I will watch Frost/Nixon later. Maybe even Nixon to marvel at Anthony Hopkins again. There are still lots more books about Nixon that I haven't read, including his memoirs, so once I get out of the way of Watergate (which seems impossible, but it still confounds me enough that I at least want to understand more the entire arc of it before I move on to earlier events of his presidency, including his attempts to end the Vietnam War) after 31 Days and reading James Reston, Jr's book again, I'll get to those.

Or maybe it should be like a wheel. Spin it and find out which president I should spend time with for a while. Because I have a feeling if I keep this going, I'm never going to get to the others. Not that I haven't read about FDR and Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln and William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the others already, but just like Nixon, I want to know more about them too. I'll extract myself somehow. Eventually.