Sunday, April 22, 2007

Nixon Culture

Several books, a multitude of documentaries, one opera, and one college course later, my interest in late former President Richard Nixon does not wane. Neither, apparently, does the artistic community's. Last year I had the great luck to view a dress rehearsal of the widely-performed opera Nixon in China, which features an interesting, haunting, beautiful score. Nixon still stands out, in my opinion, as a rare tragicomic man in an era where leaders are seldom painted as momentous figures, and such a person is never more intriguingly explored than he is by a good artist (except maybe if explored by a good biographer).

Thus comes another installment in the saga of Nixon as art, the recently-New York debuted Frost/Nixon, depicting the series of interviews conducted by the British personality David Frost from 1977. I'm going to have to make a special trip to New York to see this one, not that it takes much to get me to New York, but the New York Times's review of the show, which is complete with a dramatic stage shot of a blown up, eerie Nixon bust--or what the Times reviewer Ben Brantley calls "some grotesque mythic creature in uncomfortable captivity"--is too tempting. Moreover, Frost/Nixon stars two acting greats, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen (aka the guy who always plays Tony Blair), who have both inhabited their share of political figures in performance roles, and it is written by Peter Morgan, screen author of last year's terrific examination of modern celebrity The Queen.

Still, I'm a little worried that Frost/Nixon will capture the Frost interviews with the easy knowingness of hindsight. It is tempting to view the build-up to such an event as if we already knew what was going to happen, and although from what I have read about the actual event, the Frost interviews were regarded as momentous by both sides, Frost did not seem to anticipate that he would have to trick Nixon into not evading answers, and Nixon did not seem to anticipate that Frost would treat the interviews as an opportunity to nail down the ex-president on the what did he know-when did he know chronology of Watergate. Unfortunately, the Times reviewer finds that Frost/Nixon indulges in hindsight bias:

Much of what happens behind the scenes, as Frost’s team prepares to take on the notoriously slippery Nixon, has an improbably na├»ve, college studentish air. (“Hey, guys, let’s put on a show to humiliate Tricky Dick.”)

And what a description of Langella's portrait of Nixon, which sounds like an apt incarantion of Nixon:

Throughout the production Mr. Langella’s Nixon has come across as a man of quick intellect, maudlin sentimentality, vulgar wit and studied social reflexes that have never acquired the semblance of natural grace. You are always aware of someone who struggles to conceal not only a defensive self-consciousness but also a cancerous anger and fear.

On another note, I've noticed in the last few years that there is an aching nostalgia for Nixon. Several scholars and observers of course have chronicled his progression, in the conventional historical view, from conservative lout to the last and most unappreciated New Deal/Great Society champion. Lest we forget, his penchant for invoking executive privilege to a constitutionally-endagering degree, which evokes a certain occupant of the White House whose tenure most of us have come to know and despise. Although Nixon himself may seem a more sympathetic figure than George W. Bush and the impact of Nixon's terms in office may not seem as bad as that of the Bush presidency--and the corruption of the current bunch is indeed unsurpassed--Nixon's lawlesness set the precedent for indiscriminate use of executive power. For that, we are foolish if we succumb to nostalgia--the simple belief that things were easier back then--and end up longing for another crook to replace the current one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nixon in Heaven
by Harry Shearer

(If necessary, look for the link under his April 15 show.)

~ hm