Nixon, The Home Movie

Nixon’s Bright Young Men

NIXON HALDEMAN

The Super 8 seems to have been invented to capture the nostalgia of unchastened idealism and youth. When Richard Nixon entered the oval office in 1969, he brought with him a small team of young, ardent acolytes – Dwight Chapin, HR (“Bob”) Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman –who came equipped with their Super 8’s, obsessively filming everything for posterity, for history to hold witness to how they changed the world. A recent documentary, “Our Nixon”, uses footage from these reels to show us the tragic trajectory of these bright, young men, who entered the White House with sincere if somewhat naïve ambitions and convictions, and ended up in prison, co-conspirators in an affair that traumatized a nation and helped undermine the sanctity of the American presidency.

Much like the Nixon tapes, unsealed to the public in 2011, these home movies – 500 reels only recently released by the National Archives – let us peer into the machinations and idiosyncrasies of Nixon and his inner circle. There are few presidents who continue to elicit such a morbid curiosity and desire to climb inside another’s head, to understand how and when Nixon’s ambition and distrust of “the liberals”, Vietnam protesters, and the New York Times and Washington Post, turned into delusional paranoia, lies and criminal acts. A few years ago, the English playwright, Peter Morgan, wrote a play and  movie Frost/Nixon, which revisited this fixation with Nixon’s states of mind, his understanding of his own guilt and the motivations for his actions. “Our Nixon” does something similar, and casts a wider net, giving a fuller picture that includes those who worked around Nixon and very much enabled and abetted him.

The almost campy home movies, of the groundbreaking trip to China, nervous backstage smiles at the inauguration, a meeting with the pope in Rome, sitting with the President as he watched on television the landing on the moon and phoned to congratulate Neil Armstrong, dignitary dinner parties, and Sunday poolside idylls, give us a gauzy view of Eden before the fall.  We see genuine camaraderie and sense of purpose, an eagerness to capture every moment of this great long ride into changing the world.

As a poignant counterpoint, the film uses archival footage from the era and from subsequent interviews with the three men, after their terms in prison for their roles in Watergate, when famous talk show hosts, such as David Frost and Mike Wallace, asked the questions on everybody’s mind. The ambition and lack of any real healthy skepticism or irony glimpsed in the home movies come through for Haldeman and Chapin especially, who even in the latter day interviews seem to sincerely believe they were on the side of right. In one interview, in the early 1980’s, when asked about the crimes of Watergate, Chapin says, “I just don’t see it that way,” that is was some kind of a “sinister era of criminality” or that people in the Nixon White House were trying to “rape the country of its democracy.”  Mike Wallace and other interviewers’ questions are often delivered with explicit incredulity and indignation – everyone seemed to take Watergate as a personal betrayal.

Nixon did also employ more skeptical and world wise advisors, including Henry Kissinger and Leonard Garment, the latter a liberal Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn who has just passed away and was for years assumed to be the real identity of Deep Throat because of his more sophisticated and less dogmatic attachment to President Nixon. Both provided a dimension to the administration that seems significantly missing from the inner circle portrayed in the film. It wasn’t a completely isolated echo-chamber filled with lackeys. But Nixon, from within a thickening fog of paranoia, increasingly only listened to those most keen to please him, his trio of young men. They would continue to prop up his growing angers and delusions, and perhaps before they realized it, he would ask them to resign for doing just that.

While the film does not offer any new insight into “what actually happened,” nor intend to, it does provide a portrait of young, ambitious, unfettered ideas about power and government and the role of the president, and much in the film resonates with power and policy today. But it also importantly, reminds us, both through these men and the event of the day, that the  late 60’s to early 70’s marked an era of so much shattered idealism and seemed to have ushered in a more cynical resentful political dynamic. Watergate, and these three men, embodied both the heady idealism and its near total destruction.

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