Before I tuned in Our Nixon on CNN last night, I received an email from the Richard Nixon Foundation with the subject line "Our Nixon is Not My Nixon." We then learn Ben Stein, the only former Nixon speechwriter to win a part in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and one of Dick's top aides, who shot some of the home movies seen in the new documentary, are having Our Nixon conniptions. I actually agree with them.
I mean, Nixon was, of course, a paranoid scoundrel who mistakenly believed his presidency trumped the U.S. Constitution. And he was a such a liar--to the American people, to his own aides, to himself--something captured beautifully when Our Nixon director Penny Lane layers grainy footage over scratchy audio from the infamous Oval Office tapes to capture part of a conversation between the president and White House Counsel John Ehrlichman.
After Nixon nervously reminds Ehrlichman that he did not know about the attempts to cover up the Watergate and Pentagon Papers' break-ins, the head of domestic council essentially tells his boss, "Yes, you did. ... Remember when I told you ...?" Nixon stammers both agreement and denial that he knew, and Ehrlichman is later heard in a post-presidency interview noting Tricky Dicky had a keen knack for making himself believe his own bullshit.
But as Stein writes for The Daily Beast, you can hit CNN and Lane with the liar stick also. Producers had claimed the Super 8 footage shot by Ehrlichman, Nixon Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and White House Deputy Assistant to the President Dwight Chapin had been under lock and key for 40 years since being seized by the FBI ... until surfacing now (or immediately after that smug Brit who took Larry King's seat). Actually, reports Stein, the footage has been in the possession of the Navy and available for general viewing.
And, Stein adds, more--and, in many cases, less-flattering-to-Nixon--footage in Our Nixon comes from newsreels, television news broadcasts and the president's own recording system. Whatever is shown is not used to shed more light on the complicated president and three of his men, Stein maintains, but to do what we in the news, punditry and pop culture businesses have been doing for years: blaming and shaming Dick.
"His accomplishments, especially in peacemaking, were stupefyingly important. We live in a world Nixon built," Stein writes.
"Yes, without question, Nixon did things wrong. But to focus more or less exclusively on them is to greatly distance oneself from the truth. There is plenty of error and bad in every president, indeed every human, and to focus overwhelmingly on that is not history. History is history when it is complete and balanced. When it's not, it's propaganda."
Chapin, writing on the fawning Nixon Foundation site, also brings up the false way the Super 8 footage is being marketed by CNN and the failure of "[t]he talented and ambitious film maker" to, as Lane promised, "let our never before seen Super 8 movies tell a story about the young, enthusiastic and ambitious staff who were privileged to have such an up close and personal access to an amazing time in American history, and who were unknowing of the fate that would change all of their lives."
He later writes, "While the film's expressed desire is to highlight the stories of the three Nixon staffers by use of our movies, the film, in my opinion, barely explores our years together, and doesn't even come close to portraying or presenting 'our' Nixon. It seems to me (of course I cannot speak for my deceased colleagues [Haldeman and Ehrlichman] and friends) that this film is more about using our personal videos as a cloaked angle for a particular --and predictable--pre-existing view of President Nixon."
Come on, my fellow Nixon-hating Americans, even we have to admit that it is smarmy and out-of-context to take personal films shot with one purpose in mind and use the footage for the exact opposite purpose. It's only our Nixon if the "our" refers to CNN and Lane, not the Super 8 shooters.
Then again, new filmmakers have been doing this (and winning awards doing it) for years. Not to compare Hitler to Nixon (heh), but haven't we seen Der Führer's home movies used in documentaries that slam the dictator? Did any of his former aides come out of hiding to complain? And, more importantly, how did their Bueller auditions go?
If a documentary based on the home movies had come out like valentine roses with the thorns stripped off to present Nixon in the best possible light, it also would have been, as ol' Ben Stein put it, propaganda--possibly approaching the thickness of what's served by the Nixon Foundation in the gift shop of the National Archives' Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.
But if Our Nixon had started with that generation's new day in America and stuck with the three guys throughout the administration's darkest days, we might have not only had a better idea what was going on then but now. Because if they thought the "Silent Majority" and the rest of us lived in two different worlds back in the day, they had became parallel universes by these post-9/11 times.
Speaking of which, the best scene in the documentary comes after Nixon introduces the Ray Conniff Singers in the East Room of the White House by saying, "If the music is square, I like it because it's square." One of the young ladies who walks onto the stage unfurls a cloth "Stop the Killing" banner and urges Nixon to "please stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation." It was brilliantly courageous.
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Not in Our Nixon is Nixon's play-by-play, courtesy of his tapes:
Of course, if the young lady had done that now, she'd be rotting with "her hair down to her waist" in Guantanamo.