Richard M. Nixon was one of American history's most powerful figures. Recalling events etched in U.S. memory, this three-hour program explores a fateful mix of strength and weakness that ... See full summary »

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Richard M. Nixon was one of American history's most powerful figures. Recalling events etched in U.S. memory, this three-hour program explores a fateful mix of strength and weakness that made him president, and then brought him down. Events revealing Nixon's distinctive signature in American politics, from a meteoric rise to Congress to the presidency and the morass of Watergate, unfold in three parts: The Quest, Triumph, and The Fall. This is the first of three parts. Written by Anonymous

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8 October 1990 (USA)  »

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Straight Man
17 November 2010 | by See all my reviews

The impression you get from these episodes is that of a man from modest circumstances, born in a small California town, who rose to political prominence and finally the presidency, not by charm or the exercise of interactional social skills, but by resilience, an ability to see several steps ahead in the chess game, and a deep need for achievement.

Like Hemingway's frozen carcass of a leopard near the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, no one has explained exactly what Nixon was seeking at that altitude. He was raised as a Quaker and remained one all his life, and Quakers simply don't strive for celebrity. His father seemed to try his hand at a dozen trades without notable success. His mother was motherly.

This three-part series is one of several attempts to unlock the man. Steven Ambrose, one of Nixon's biographers, hated him but, half way through, came to feel sorry for him. The same thing happened to Oliver Stone when he was making his movie, "Nixon." His early campaigns were exceptionally aggressive. Their main thrust was to label his opponent a communist sympathizer. He described his rival for the Senate, Helen Douglas, as "pink right down to her underwear." Perhaps that's one of the reasons for the attitude of some of the press towards Nixon. Nowadays, of course, it looks like pretty tame stuff. Late in his presidency, after he had expanded the decreasingly supported war in Vietnam to Cambodia and Laos, his popularity plummeted and he was inundated by criticisms that were as petty as any that he himself had made of others. I was around at the time, and peripherally aware of politics, as who could not be, and recall his being loathed for his taste for cottage cheese with ketchup on it, which makes about as much sense as accusing a president of using a teleprompter. And there was a collective gasp when tapes revealed that Nixon used (expletive deleted) in his strategy sessions. BFD.

One of his chief disadvantages is that he wasn't photogenic. That cartoon-like ski-slope nose drew more attention from political caricaturists than Bill Clinton's bulbous proboscis. And during the 1960 presidential campaign, there appeared a widely publicized photo of Nixon's opponent, John F. Kennedy, in a boating shirt and white duck trousers, grinning and walking barefoot through the tiny waves of Cape Cod, his hair windblown, looking relaxed and radiantly fit. Nixon tried to duplicate the photo. What resulted was a sullen man in a shirt and tie, neatly creased trousers rolled up a bit for the camera, trudging dutifully, along the sand in wingtips. He couldn't do it. He wasn't an elite East Coast glamor boy. He was one of his own constituents, the silent majority, only not so silent.

Yet he did some remarkable things as president. He visited China, for instance, the most populous country on earth, because he recognized that sooner or later SOMEBODY would have to do it. His visit also gave him leverage for his talks with the USSR that finally slowed down the growth of nuclear arms. He was quite deliberate about his decisions. That's what I meant when I said he anticipated the next couple of moves in the chess game.

His favorite movie was "Patton." He watched it over and over. And his admiration for this pugnacious, proud, never-give-an-inch general was symptomatic. He inherited the war in Vietnam and had made known during the 1968 campaign that he had a secret plan for ending it. He hadn't, but he called in Henry Kissinger and together they began peace negotiations with the enemy. But General Patton's image seemed to haunt him. "The first American president to lose a war" was what worried him, although Madison had already effectively lost the War of 1812 against Britain. The same impulse that drove him to the political pinnacle seemed to compel him to expand the war on his own, against the advice of those few who influenced him, so that it became, not Johnson's war, but Nixon's war. In the end, he was able to withdraw all of our troops -- a feat in itself after ten years of unremitting bloodshed -- by "Vietnamizing" it. When South Vietnam fell, it was humiliating, but not as humiliating or as costly as it might have been.

Opening China, putting an end to the logarithmic growth of nuclear weapons, ending the war in Vietnam, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, and some of Nixon's other achievements are of extreme importance. It's doubtful that a liberal could have accomplished as much.

And yet he was brought down because of a small-time burglary of Democratic headquarters in Washington. The president himself knew nothing about it at the time it happened, but insisted on managing the resulting scandal in a way that involved his staff and, finally, himself. He was innocent at the beginning and shouldn't have touched it with a ten-foot pole. He would have had the plausible deniability that Ronald Reagan had during the Iran/Contra affair. But this was one move in the chess game that he didn't anticipate.

As part of the PBS boxed set on "The Presidents," this one is as good, as thorough, and as accurate as any. Well -- a minor point, but the film claims Nixon had a secret recording device installed in the Oval Office. The device was there alright, but Lyndon B. Johnson had it too. At the same time, and for the first time, I wonder about the Nixon episodes if they don't paint a darker picture of the man than they might. It's hard to pin down "bias" in a documentary. It may be the narrator's tone of voice. It may be reflected in the particular still photos or video clips that the editors have chosen. Or maybe the man himself was deep in shadow. Or it just might not exist except in the viewer's head.


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