In the late '70s, Madame Tussaud's wax museum in London asked patrons to vote for the top villains of modern times. Idi Amin, the cannibal king of Uganda, made the list, and so did Jack the Ripper, the Victorian rapist and murderer, and Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, perhaps the most systematic murderers in history.
Oh, and Richard Nixon.
The further we get from Nixon's nadir-and the closer Bill Clinton approaches his-the more the sense of outrage wears off. Long before Nixon's death in April 1994, the former president worked assiduously to rehabilitate himself, writing books and speaking out to whomever would listen, chipping out of the marble of history a man who appeared to be a master statesman and strategic thinker. At his funeral, he was elevated to saint status by the adoring masses, some 42,000 of whom stood in line up to eight hours for a glimpse of his casket. The media and politicians joined in, picking up where Nixon left off in his self-invention, making spirited attempts at historical revisionism, forgiving the sinner without loving the sin. (Most of the media, that is: seemingly alone, the OC Weekly's Matt Coker wrote a column for another newspaper in which he recounted Nixon's crimes-and received a multitude of death threats and a corporate ass kicking in return).
Indeed, the only realm where President Richard Milhous Nixon remains "Nixon" is in the arts. Robert Smigman's animated shorts on Saturday Night Live feature the familiar Nixon caricature-jiggly jowls, bags under the eyes, perpetual 5 o'clock shadow. Even the generally sympathetic Oliver Stone biopic featured a Nixon who ultimately devoted most of his time to pill popping and roaming through the West Wing in the pre-dawn hours. Artists apparently have long memories.
And now, there is Keith Reddin's new play, But Not for Me, which opens for previews Tuesday at South Coast Repertory Theatre. The play, Reddin's fourth world premiere at SCR but his first this decade, explores the personalities behind one of the most influential elections of our time: the 1950 U.S. Senate race in California, in which Nixon defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas. One of the first elections to use a media advertising blitz in order to sell a candidate, the victory propelled Nixon into the national spotlight and into the arms of Dwight Eisenhower, who picked the senator as a running mate in the 1952 presidential election.
But in the senate campaign, Nixon's red-baiting and anti-Semitism also earned him a legion of enemies, a nickname-Tricky Dick-and a legacy that followed him to his grave.
So, it follows that if this play is set during the campaign in which Dick first got really tricky, the Nixon we see onstage should be a devious, underhanded, win-at-any-cost bastard, and Douglas should be the liberal Democrat do-gooder who was blindsided by his lust for power, right?
Well, yes. And no. And the playwright is as surprised as anyone that the Nixon and Douglas he discovered weren't the creatures of popular myth.
"I set out thinking Nixon was the bad guy and Douglas was the victim. That's always been the standard story," says Reddin. "But the more I examined it, the more complicated it got. I learned that there were no easy heroes or villains. They were a lot closer than further apart. They were both brilliant people who were self-destructive."
But Not for Me's first act is set a week before the election in a room in the Beverly Hills Hotel, hours before one of Nixon's most effective tricks: surprising Douglas at a speech before an audience seeded with hecklers. An anxious Nixon (Greg Stuhr) is joined by a hard-drinking Roy Day (SCR founding artist Richard Doyle), a former newspaper-advertising salesman and longtime confidante. The men discuss all things political: strategy, the future of America, Nixon's terrible taste in ties. This Nixon is fiercely ambitious and already reveals hints of the everyone's-out-to-get-me paranoia that would surface as he climbed the political ladder. But he also possesses a backbone. He's a man who does seem to genuinely care about the nation's future but doesn't seem to care too much about how he goes about protecting it.
"I'm not pissing on Nixon's grave," says Reddin, who describes himself as politically Left and who has written several sharply barbed political satires to prove it, including Life During Wartime, the source for the film The Alarmist. "But I don't back away from anything he did because, no matter what anyone in Orange County might say, he did nasty things and ran an incredibly brutal campaign. But I do think I'm being fair. This isn't a cartoon Nixon. It's not the Watergate Nixon. He's a 36-year-old, two-term congressman-a very young, energetic, just-starting-out politician."
The second act is set a week later, also in a room in the Beverly Hills Hotel. It's election night, and now it's Douglas (Linda Gehringer) and her husband, screen actor Melvyn (Dan Kern). They are faced with the prospect of monumental defeat. The Douglas we're introduced to is hardly the woman we might expect. She's combative and accusatory, and she's getting progressively sloshed.
"Douglas was no saint," Reddin said. "She wasn't robbed of the election because of Nixon's tricks. The fact is she was a very difficult person to deal with. She was harsh, judgmental and unpleasant in some ways. And a lot of Democrats didn't like her. She lost a state-wide election in a state that was two-thirds Democrat."
This is the second Reddin play launched at SCR that uses historical events to comment on contemporary situations. Rum and Coke, staged in 1985, used the botched Bay of Pigs invasion as a metaphor for U.S. involvement in Central America. But that was a wild farce; this time, Reddin is going for reality. He conducted copious research, including a visit to the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, where he was the first artist/writer to view recently released memos, correspondence and other documents from the campaign. He estimates 90 percent of what characters say in But Not for Me was actually said by the key participants at some time.
But the accuracy doesn't stem from Reddin's desire to write a documentary-style play. It's a product, Reddin says, of his acknowledgement that the truth is truly bizarre. "In this case, the truth was as dramatic as fiction-if not more so. The more I researched, the less I had to make up because it was so complex, fascinating and puzzling."
Equally fascinating is the fact that this play is being produced at all. SCR is generally an apolitical theater, and a play about a controversial chapter in Nixon's life is bound to produce shock waves. "South Coast Repertory is definitely taking a risk," Reddin says. "This is still Nixon country, and anything that's going to shake the preconceptions is a gamble. A lot of theaters wouldn't touch this. They're afraid political plays are going to make their subscribers angry, or they feel their audiences don't care about history and politics. I tend to give audiences more credit than that."
Ultimately, what Reddin hopes to accomplish isn't to vilify or revise Nixon's character, but to wonder. "I've always been perplexed by this man," he says. "Just like in 1972: he was going to win this election. He was going to win big. He was the right man at the right time, a brilliant debater and politician who didn't have to resort to the types of things that went on. So my challenge as a dramatist is different from a historian's. I can try to understand what the motives were, to present the facts and then go deeper. Not to put myself in his category, but it's what Shakespeare was doing with his history plays."
And if anyone could appreciate a story as tragic, epic and compelling as Richard Nixon's, it'd be Shakespeare.
But Not for Me at South Coast Repertory Theatre, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6-Dec. 6. $25-$43.
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