Secret Honorby Bill Tuomala
"He chose to orchestrate the tapes like a great drama. He chose secret honor."
Lyndon Johnson was president when I was born, but Richard Nixon is the first president that I can remember. Six presidents have succeeded him; but in terms of sheer disposition and temperament, Nixon remains the most compelling president of my lifetime. In comparison:
Ford - too Midwestern, too brief
Carter - too nice, too Christian (non-wackjob variety)
Reagan - too dawdling, too Alzheimer's
Bush I - too wimpy, too privileged
Clinton - too broad, too slippery
Bush II - too spoiled, too mama's boy
Not that Nixon was compelling or intriguing in a way that is laudatory. He just had the best all-around makeup for armchair American history buffs like me: the paranoia, the smarts, the arrogance, the sweatiness, the Gesture. (The Gesture was the double peace signs held aloft, just like Ozzy Osbourne on the cover of Black Sabbath Vol. 4.) Hell, he even grew sideburns in an attempt to relate to the kids! Then there's all those all those quotes and catchphrases that have become part of the national fabric: "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more." "I'm not a crook." "Silent majority." "Peace with honor." "Enemies list." "A third-rate burglary." His White House was staffed with assorted questionable (at best) characters like Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Liddy, and the Plumbers. Add to that their criminal dirt of break-ins, bag operations, and dirty tricks, and the Nixon administration fits into a certain early-seventies cinematic vibe that brings to mind great movies like The Godfather and The French Connection.
Speaking of cinema, when it comes to movies dealing with Nixon and his presidency, All the President's Men did a superb job of revealing the Watergate crime and cover-up and how two reporters broke the story wide open. Oliver Stone's Nixon, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, did a solid job as a historical biography. Dick showed how Nixon is ripe for satire, with Dan Hedaya's comedic approach matching Hopkins's dramatic portrayal.
But the movie that best captures Nixon as we imagine him behind closed doors is a mostly-forgotten movie from 1984 directed by Robert Altman called Secret Honor. Philip Baker Hall portrays Nixon in a one-man performance. Wearing a smoking jacket, drinking, occasionally wielding a pistol, and recording himself (natch); Nixon states his case to an imaginary judge as to why Watergate had to happen, that he caused it for very specific reasons.
As he unravels while revealing his political past and those who he has had to serve, eventually Nixon discloses that he contrived of Watergate to prevent: 1) the Vietnam War from dragging on for years, and 2) the nation's slide into fascism by 1980.* The eventuality of these events were dictated by his behind-the-curtain masters. This isn't revisionist history, it's a plot device - and a good one at that. It's also why the makers warn us in the opening credits that this Richard M. Nixon is a "fictional character," and that the movie is both "not a work of history" and "a political myth."
But the movie's Watergate intrigues pale before Hall's performance. His Nixon is drunk and paranoid; alternately yelling, laughing, and begging. In a documentary accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD, Hall says he played Nixon as someone with the "inability to finish a thought in a normal way." He storms, curses, rants, and pleads his way through a mesmerizing acting triumph. It has to be seen to be truly believed.
* Insert your own Reagan quip here.