Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Richard Nixon, TV Star

I admit I didn’t approach John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life with much excitement. After personally surviving the Nixon era, I’d read some books, and watched some movies, and that seemed quite enough for me. But Jack Farrell’s new biography of the only U.S. president to resign from office turns out to be as exciting as the best-crafted thriller. It’s chockful of revelations, many of them benefitting from the recent release of scores of documents and White House tapes to scholars. And Farrell’s taut, vivid prose jolts the Nixon story to life. Here’s a pre-Watergate tidbit involving some early underhanded scrutiny of perceived enemies: “The surveillance yielded little but gossip and traces of bureaucratic jockeying. Nixon and his aides, with a revealing degree of self-consciousness, at long last packed the transcripts up and locked them in a White House safe, where their faint tick tick tick was, for a time, forgotten.” (Yes, this passage reminds me of a screenwriter’s best friend: the ticking clock.)

As a man and a president, Richard Nixon was inspired by movies, particularly Patton, which he watched over and over in times of stress. But at many key points his career was driven by the new medium of television. Farrell details how, in 1952, at the point when his place on the Eisenhower ticket was threatened by allegations of financial misconduct, Nixon turned to TV to make his case to the American people. Though the optics were crude and were improvised on the spot, it worked. He became Ike’s two-term running mate.

Television was less a friend to him, of course, in 1960, when—as the Republican candidate for president—he entered into a series of nationally televised debates with Senator John F. Kennedy. Farrell notes that since Nixon’s entry into national politics in 1950, “the percentage of American households with television sets had leaped from 11 to 88 percent. . . .The audience for the first debate was some 70 to 80 million people, in a country with 107 million adults.” In that first head-to-head, Kennedy proved handsome, articulate, confident. Nixon, done in by fatigue, a bad makeup job, and the public perception that he was ill at ease, could not hope to match the challenger’s poise. 

Nixon lost the presidency in 1960, but was back on the hustings in 1968, at a time of political and social turmoil. Following the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, Nixon’s aides strongly suggested he trade in public appearances for media events, like the “man in the arena” telecasts in which he showed off his political savvy by fielding questions from a panel of voters. As one advisor put it, “The greater the element of informality and spontaneity the better he comes across. We have to capture and capsule this spontaneity—and this means shooting RN in situations in which it’s likely to emerge, then having a chance to edit the film so that the parts shown are the parts we want shown.”  

So Nixon became a president of an evolving media age. Of course, the television cameras were there as the Watergate scandal continued to electrify the public. When Nixon stepped down from the presidency on August 9, 1974, they captured his final words and his final “V for victory” salute. Three years later, beginning on March 23, 1977, they recorded his unprecedented series of interviews with British journalist David Frost. The results were so riveting that they evolved into Frost/Nixon, a 2006 British play that took Broadway by storm. In 2008, Ron Howard directed original stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in the Oscar-nominated movie.

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