We Were Obsessed with Secrecy
“I don’t come from a political family. I didn’t think about the possibility of becoming president of the United States.” This was always Richard Nixon’s story, that his pursuit of a political career was unexpected and perhaps accidental, that he had nothing handed to him and came from no dynasty. It’s a story that can’t explain the man’s ambition or foibles, but still, it persists within the intricate history of Richard Nixon.
All to say that when you hear it again, at the start of Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words, it doesn’t sound new or revealing, but rather, creepily familiar. And as Nixon speaks, in archival footage, the frame is tiny, framed as TV within TV (the film is premiering on HBO, 4 August), and then further illustrated by a series of photos: Nixon as a baby, Nixon’s mother and father, his dad’s service station and his childhood home in Yorba Linda, California. At once mythic and mundane, these images introduce the film’s version of Nixon, built of found video footage and also bits from the White House tapes, combined to reveal the contradictions between the carefully-staged-for-TV Nixon and the fearful, frightening person who ran his mouth in the Oval Office.
“The taping was done for the purpose of the historical record,” Nixon asserts in an interview from 1983. Using voice-activated technology, he adds, “Everything was taped, which of course was probably stupid.” Probably. Peter Kunhardt’s documentary goes on to assemble snippets of that everything, from 1971 to 1973, closing on the resignation, the well-known footage of Nixon (hands raised in his signature victory “V"s), and his wife Pat boarding Marine One to leave behind the White House one last time.
The route to that exit takes on an awkward structure, with historical markers (“China”, “Moscow”, “The Press”) slipped in between recordings of Nixon complaining to the usual minions—Haldeman, Erlichman, Kissinger, Butterfield, and Haig—sometimes about one of them to another. (The film notes as well that only a few of these visitors to the Oval Office were aware of the taping system.)
The effect of this arrangement is at once predictable and jarring, Nixon’s personal brutalities laid alongside his public achievements. “If you listen to all of it,” John Erlichmsn says early in the movie, you’ll see “The strangest collection the strangest paradoxical combination of any man I ever heard of.” This sounds likely, but of course Nixon by Nixon is not “all of it”, but selections from the 3,700 hours of secret recordings now available. And so, while the picture it provides is certainly strange and paradoxical, it is also limited.
That picture emerges in a series of juxtapositions, each clearly condemning Nixon. He wants to control his public image and yet, he insists, “we were obsessed with secrecy”, as if his obsession was everyone’s, even in the White House. He’s set against the press, in the form of several reporters he names, and in Daniel Schorr, who testifies here before Congress regarding the FBI investigation into his background. “The administration has set the country against us,” Schorr says in archival footage, “If they discredit the press, then it doesn’t matter much more what they say.”
Here and elsewhere Nixon by Nixon complicates its title, in the sense that it’s not only an indictment of the president “in his own words,” but also, a rendering of how he did himself in by his own actions and assertions. Cut to an interview with Dan Rather, who wonders aloud about Nixon’s perceived lack of “personal warmth and compassion.” “My strong point is not rhetoric, not showmanship, not big promises,” Nixon submits. It is instead, he insists, his “performance” in office.
And so, the contradictions are at once clear and covered over. They emerge again in Nixon’s desperate search for a precisely timed end to the war in Vietnam, so as to ensure his reelection and somehow accommodate the preposterous claim to Peace with Honor. In conversation after conversation about the war, his voice indicates frustration with Haldeman, Admiral Thomas Moorer (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whom he instructed, “I want the military to shape up!”), and Henry Kissinger. During several of these discussions, the film shows bombing footage accompanied by melancholy strings.
Such images—critical of policy and personalities in their own way—lead eventually to the infamous scene at the White House when Nixon introduced the Ray Conniff Singers (“If the music is square, it’s because I like it square,” Nixon smiles broadly on TV), only to be horrified when one of the singers held up a sign calling for an end to the bombing and made a brief statement: “President Nixon, stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation. Bless the Berrigans and bless Daniel Ellsberg.” And with that, the Singers start singing.
Cut to a shot of Nixon, smiling as he talks on the phone, with subtitles along with the tape of his conversation with John Mitchell: “Wasn’t that the goddamndest thing you ever saw?” As Mitchell mutters along in agreement at the president’s upset, Nixon calls her “way out, probably a Communist. But I don’t think it was an accident, I think it was a plant.” The camera pushes in on the smiling Nixon photo, then dissolves to a reel-to-reel recorder, spinning. As the Secret Service looks into her background, he says, “They are going to have to be sure we’re not persecuting the bitch.”
By this point, you’re aware that Nixon by Nixon is unable to represent either the “historical record” of Nixon’s imagination or Erlichman’s “strangest paradoxical combination.” And so Nixon remains elusive, a puzzle for his era and his legacy.