The image of Richard Nixon is very powerful in society. Media are anxious to explain that the cynicism many Americans feel toward the Presidency, or politics in general, began at Watergate. Of course, the truth is far from that. Rather, and perhaps because of the media itself, cynicism toward politicians and political institutions had been on the rise for decades. ( One wonders if it has indeed been simply constantly high. ) In any event, discussions on Nixon inexorably return to this figure so closely tied with corruption, scandal, and disgrace.
Nixon was elected to two terms as President of the United States, and the second election by a blowout margin. Nixon’s policies were quite moderate, especially by today’s standards. Though a Republican, he supported price controls and other odd interventions to the economy. Though once a strident anti-Communist, he opened and formalized relations with the People’s Republic of China, engaging one of humanity’s most terrible butchers, the Chairman. Though elected to end the Vietnam War, he eventually fought it with relish, engaging in a spectacular set of foreign policy manipulations that brought America to the very tip of success. For all these reasons, and many more, Nixon is a character whose reality has not been fleshed out in standard media. In recent times, however, some have made more compelling portraits of the man, whose inner struggles and manifest contradictions might finally be brought to a more tempered and artistic fulfillment.
First, Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, does wonders for rehabilitating the man as a complex human to be studied — a man whose colorful and turbulent persona demands understanding. Black, who is perhaps best known these days as a Thatcherite persecuted for questionable financial decisions, renders as magisterial a portrait of Nixon as might be possible in the current time. He does not gloss over the darkness, and he wallows not too long in the light. As Christopher Wilcox writes in the NY Sun:
This is by no means the last word on the 37th president, but it is a magnificent one-volume summing up of his efforts on the world stage and, as such, provides a clearer picture of Nixon and his times.
Although I have not read the book fully, as it is 1100+ pages long, I have read several long portions of it in the library and look forward to purchasing it eventually perhaps for an… extended vacation. Black’s painstaking research and attention to detail well-serve the subject. However, if you’re like me, you want a biography more like American Caesar, William Manchester’s magnum opus and one of the finest biographies of any man yet written (it helps that the subject is Douglas MacArthur, about whom one can never say too little or exaggerate too much). Lots of drama, lots of glorification, and maybe even a touch of hagiography every now and then. You know, kind of like an opera.
If you are like me, then, you are in luck! For the other recent and compelling portrait of Nixon comes in John Adams’ Nixon in China, an opera recently performed in Denver, and four years ago in St. Louis. ( If you missed it, and I have a feeling you did, fear not for it will be released on CD “next winter” supposedly. ) According to The New York Times, in its second review of the piece:
The opera, it may be recalled (or inferred from its title), is based on President Richard M. Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China in 1972, though it plays out more in the psyches of the principals than in the action itself, which is chiefly ceremonial. And what dominates the Nixonian psyche in Alice Goodman’s libretto is a consciousness — a sort of split self-consciousness — of history in the making.
James Robinson’s production stresses that inner dimension in several ways, using what he calls “the romantic bluish glow of the television screen.” Rather than monumentalize, as aspects of Peter Sellars’s original production of 1987 did, Mr. Robinson tends to miniaturize, through images running almost constantly on as many as a dozen television sets spread across the stage. And those images, mostly from news video of the actual meeting in China, enhance the sense of history made in the moment.
Alas, perhaps this is too nuanced for me and I might have preferred the 1987 production. In any event, I think these productions bode well for our culture’s ability to cope with media-inflicted distortions and still arrive at the truth, warts, glories, and all. This post should not be read as one in the “Politicians as Artists” series, as such an assessment of Nixon’s art is well beyond even this critic at the time. The shades and echoes of the man must grow more full yet.