Phantom of the White House | The Nation


Phantom of the White House

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Entering the Senate in 1951, Nixon was the Republican Party's brightest star and hottest speaker. Dwight Eisenhower correctly saw in this dynamic, young and highly political politician the perfect complement to his own statesmanlike persona. The televised "Checkers Speech," Greenberg argues, not only saved Nixon's career but clinched his populist image. Appearing before more people than any politician in history, Nixon worked the living room like a sitcom paterfamilias. He showcased his wife (another first), discussed the family pet and became a national hero--or was it a star? "Your honesty and sincerity are unquestionable," the cartoon mogul Bill Hanna wrote Nixon. "Count my Democratic vote for 'Ike and Dick.'"

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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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Nixon not only ran against the elites; by Greenberg's lights, he also constructed and defined a particular elite. It was the widespread liberal antipathy for Nixon's performance that effectively confirmed their marginal minority status. Indeed, Greenberg makes the same claim for the old phenomenon of Nixon-hating that is currently being made about Bush-hating--evidence that liberals have lost all touch with the great American public. Where ordinary people saw a plain-talking, two-fisted American Joe (someone like Frank Lovejoy in I Was a Communist for the FBI), liberals saw the very personification of televisual duplicity, clever hucksterism and crass manipulation. Nixon's "hard-hitting and cagey rhetorial style combined with his lack of grace to create a man who seemed false and dishonest to his core." A 1954 Herblock cartoon shows a Republican welcoming committee excitedly greeting an unshaven Nixon as he crawls out of the sewer: Tricky Dick.

Although Nixon was certainly among the inspirations for the hillbilly demagogue in Elia Kazan's 1957 A Face in the Crowd, the quintessential liberal warning against incipient media fascism, he only became an absolute evil once he came to power. It is Greenberg's thesis that just as 1950s liberals invented Tricky Dick, so the New Left created the being that I.F. Stone characterized as a "moral monster." Monster Nixon was a co-production. Every President colludes with the American people to create his own cult of personality. (Or, as Mailer observed on the occasion of Nixon's 1972 bid for re-election, the presidency is "a primitive office and inspires the tribes of America to pick up the modes and manners of their chief.") On the one hand, Nixon cast himself as a Legal Vigilante, the inspiration for Dirty Harry and all the beleaguered TV cops of the early 1970s; on the other hand, the United States of Nixon was a realm of mutual conspiracy. The President's paranoia led him to increase surveillance on black militants, student radicals and other opponents of the Vietnam War; that surveillance in turn justified and fueled popular paranoia. These symbiotic siege mentalities are epitomized in the once-notorious "Siege of San Jose" that erupted around Nixon during a 1970 campaign swing.

Was the President actually endangered by a youthful mob--the "most serious [such] attack on a national leader in American history," per William Safire? Or were the antiwar demonstrators deliberately provoked, either by Nixon or others, to just make it seem so? The answer depends on one's own personal Nixon.

Nixon's Shadow is structured around eight more or less successive Nixons--the young conservative populist, the vice presidential liberal bête noire, the conspirator in chief, the shameless news manager, the hapless victim, the madman, the elder statesman and the last liberal. None of these is Nixon's Nixon, author of Six Crises or the ranting voice on the White House tapes. Greenberg is the biographer of our Nixon.

Even before Watergate confirmed the New Left vision of Nixon as aspiring tyrant, the President inspired all manner of literary visions. Gore Vidal parodied Nixon in his 1960 play The Best Man. Beginning in the late '60s, an impressive roster of American writers, including Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Philip Roth and Garry Wills, took on Nixon as a character. Documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio made a savage agitprop from Nixon news clips. Philip Guston created a devastating series of caricatures (recently collected in a short book, Philip Guston's Poor Richard). And, for a quarter-century, Nixon's paranoid self-pity, sonorous gloom, unctuous rage, cheesy neuroses, failed regular guy-ness, morbid sensitivity, hunger for approval, unprincipled opportunism and iron-butt single-mindedness provided juicy fodder for ham actors from Jason Robards to Anthony Hopkins.

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