Wednesday, January 9, 2013

This Day in Presidential History (Nixon, Avatar of Dark Fiction, Born)

January 9, 1913—Richard Nixon never forget that he was born on this date on a lemon ranch in Yorba Linda, Calif., to parents who suffered extreme financial hardship and the deaths of two children. Many people, afflicted with such early childhood wounds, take their obsession into writing fiction. Instead, the 37th President of the United States has become the subject of such literature—a modern counterpart to Richard III, a symbol of the gain, corruption and loss of power, as well as the darkest impulses underlying the American Dream.

I was reminded of this when I read of piece of fiction published, improbably, in the December 31, 2012 issue of The New Republic. It’s a long excerpt from a novel in progress by Thomas Mallon about the Reagan years. 

I have not read Mallon’s Watergate—nor, for that matter, any of his other reputedly fine historical novels. But this piece—a recreation of what the disgraced former President did and felt at home as he watched the 1976 Republican National Convention—has made me think that I should revise my New Year’s resolutions to include reading at least one of his full works this year.

Here’s just one piquant section of the article:

“Well, thought Nixon, I'm now the only ex-president you've got. He'd buried all the rest of them—Ike, Truman, and Johnson—during his own time in the White House. And he was still, as far-fetched as it might seem, determined to make the most of his singular status, however prematurely it had been conferred. And when [Gerald] Ford became an ex, as he surely would five months from now, you could damn well be certain that Nixon would find a way to outshine the competition.”

That sounds like an entirely plausible glimpse into the mind of one of the most extraordinary politicians of his, or any, time. You can practically hear the resentment, never far from boiling over, and the will to rise again, whether from the political dead or the irrelevance conferred by historians or successors in the Oval Office.

The piece also reminded me just how often Nixon has figured as a fictional character, in one form or another. For whatever dark satisfaction he might have derived from them, these appearances, in quality and quantity, seem to me to surpass even that of his contemporary, friend-turned-rival, John F. Kennedy. Despite all the aspects of his life with the elements of popular potboilers or Greek tragedy, the sunny rich kid from Massachusetts takes a back seat to the dark, poor one from California, an avatar of bottomless bitterness and Faustian maneuvering in the gamy world of politics.

Nixon had his detractors among the culturati even before he became President. (See Gore Vidal’s 1960 play The Best Man, either in written or film form, before the playwright and subsequent directors, in a needless attempt to make it more relevant than it already was, turned his “Joe Cantwell” into a prototype of George W. Bush.)

But once he entered the Oval Office, Nixon was really targeted in thinly veiled satires, such as “Trick E. Dixon” in Philip Roth’s Our Gang. As the scandals associated with his administration grew—and as the full dimensions of his paranoia were revealed—more and more novelists examined his tormented, twisted legacy:

*Full Disclosure (1977), by former Presidential speechwriter William Safire, used his old boss’s metaphoric condition during the Watergate affair—blindness to his culpability in the cover-up—as a literal (and sympathy-creating) medical problem (the result of an assassination attempt) of protagonist Sven Ericson.

*The Company and The China Card, by Nixon’s discarded aide John Ehrlichman, were acts of vengeance against the former President, who was portrayed first as “Richard Monckton” and then as himself, putty in the hands of the ambitious Henry Kissinger.

*The Vertical Smile and Death of a Politician, two novels from the Seventies by Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate), took full satiric measure of Nixon as an unremitting crook.

*Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) created quite a bit of trouble for its publisher, notably because this recreation of the events surrounding the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg featured the future President engaging in an erotic fantasy about Mrs. Rosenberg and being buggered by Uncle Sam.

* In I Married a Communist, Philip Roth took on Nixon both more directly (using his actual name this name) and less so (he is denounced by Murray Ringgold, teacher of Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, who recounts the ex-President’s funeral, a hypocritical tribute to “the man who turned a whole country’s morale inside out, the generator of an enormous national disaster.”

*A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven imagines Nixon as a frustrated fiction writer.

To me, the most retrospectively ironic reimagining of Nixon in fictional form is British author Muriel Spark’s 1974 allegorical satire The Abbess of Crewe, in which an abbey stands for the White House and the title character is Nixon. Spark, a Roman Catholic convert, would live long enough to see her church engulfed in a scandal that, many believed, resembled Watergate in that the cover-up produced even more repercussions than the original crime.

(The accompanying photo shows Nixon in an uncharacteristically carefree moment. It appeared on the day of his "last press conference," in The Los Angeles Times, following his disastrous 1962 campaign for governor of California that, many observers prematurely believed, was his political death.)

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