Phantom of the White House | The Nation


Phantom of the White House

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"We now live in a culture that's hyperaware of the construction and manipulation of images in politics," David Greenberg writes in Nixon's Shadow. "The notion that our politicians regularly mislead us with manufactured and manipulated images is an underlying premise of much political commentary today." Led or misled, infuriated or entertained, we are all connoisseurs of image construction--just as we are experts at watching television.

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J. Hoberman
J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, now reviews online for Tablet, NYRBlog and Artinfo. His...

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Greenberg is not the first to recognize that America's post-World War II--which is to say, post-TV--political culture has become increasingly and even self-consciously preoccupied with stagecraft and authenticity. Each in his way, Norman Mailer, Marshall McLuhan and Daniel Boorstin responded to the 1960 contest between the uncannily glamorous John Kennedy and his unlovely rival Richard Nixon with a critique of our new media-driven democracy and the impact of political image-making.

For Greenberg, however, it was Nixon who would be the first American President pre-eminently concerned with the construction of his image. One might argue that Kennedy got there first, but unlike JFK, Nixon was a self-made man without the benefit of an extremely wealthy and well-connected stage-father. Nixon, Greenberg points out in his illuminating book, managed his first campaign even more than his campaign manager did--and, although abetted by aides typically recruited from advertising and public relations firms, he would continue to do so throughout his career. Yet Nixon's image-making, unlike Kennedy or Reagan's, regularly backfired. That is part of his fascination.

"Let's face it, a lot of people think Nixon is dull," erstwhile Nixon media consultant and reigning Fox News impresario Roger Ailes asserted--at least according to Joe McGinniss's highly influential New Journalism report, The Selling of the President 1968. "They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag. Who was forty-two years old the day he was born. They figure other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it. He'd always have his homework done and he'd never let you copy."

Ailes was among those commissioned with fashioning a New Nixon. "Put him on television, you've got a problem right away," McGinniss has him explaining to his staff. Nixon is "a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, 'I want to be President.'" And then he was.

The President's "symbolic power," in Greenberg's formulation, "exerts material force." Accordingly, his thoughtful, wittily titled history provides a more or less chronological account of the ways in which the outer-directed introvert Richard Nixon successfully lodged himself in the national consciousness.

Greenberg shows that Nixon was once upon a time positively attractive. "This man is saleable merchandise!" a California political honcho exclaimed upon hearing the young World War II vet, newly returned from the South Pacific, campaign for the Congressional seat held by New Dealer Jerry Voorhis. The case for Nixon's political genius can be made as early as 1946. Running as the embodiment of a new generation, perceived as engagingly ordinary, he was not simply a redbaiter but an avatar of the conservative, antigovernment populism later espoused by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. "Long before the right-wing ascendancy of the 1980s," Greenberg writes, "Nixon used populist imagery to extend conservatism's appeal beyond its upper-class base and to reach success by reviving, in his person and persona, the dream of the self-made man."

Nixon's pro-business, anticommunist conservatism was founded on hostility to liberal elites. (When he invoked "the forgotten man" in 1968, Greenberg notes, Nixon was not cribbing from George Wallace but from his own 1946 speeches; later, he would mine a still-rich political lode when he, and alter ego Spiro Agnew, lambasted the media as another biased liberal elite.) Nixon understood the Hiss case in populist terms; his Democratic opponent in the 1950 Senate race, Los Angeles Congresswoman and former actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, wasn't just a liberal pinko ("pink right down to her underwear") but a representative of Eastern interests, as well as a cryptofeminist career woman. Thus, candidate Nixon successfully universalized the personal sense of grievance he had nurtured since childhood. It is no surprise that such disparate masters of resentment as Ailes, Pat Buchanan, Kevin Phillips, Bob Dole and Donald Rumsfeld would be old Nixon men.

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