Phantom of the White House
Given his evident pathology and penchant for inadvertent self-disclosure (including, of course, the Watergate tapes), our Nixon was made for psychohistory. It was he, after all, whose Vietnam policy was based on persuading the Soviets and Chinese that he was--in his own words--a madman. Despite enjoying better press in his first year than any twentieth-century President since Teddy Roosevelt, Nixon successfully parlayed his distrust of the new media into the vendetta that would eventually bring him down. I was bumming around Eastern Europe in August 1974 and, desperate for news, went to the Budapest Hilton in search of an International Herald Tribune. "Is great victory for your media," a loitering KGB type remarked with juicy sarcasm, as I exultantly read of Nixon's resignation. Those who live by the gun die by the gun, and sometimes live again.
Incredibly, Nixon continued to work on his image even after his downfall. Greenberg gives a good account of Nixon's Reagan-era rehabilitation, the "Sage of Saddle River," per Newsweek's 1986 cover story. With the following year's avant-garde triumph Nixon in China, the former President might be said to have achieved pop celebritude. Nixon, Greenberg notes, lived long enough to become a human pseudoevent. While revisionist Nixonologists with a postmodern sense of irony have made a case for Tricky Dick as the last of the big-spending liberal Presidents, much of America remembers him as the funny-looking square who posed for that wacky picture with a caped, bejeweled and obviously zonked Elvis.
That's our Nixon. Pundits have searched for literary antecedents to this creature (Uriah Heep, Tartuffe, Richard III). But Nixon is Nixon--suspicious and combative, tough yet clueless, socially awkward and fiercely driven, secretive and grandiose, the most complicated personality to ever rule the Free World. Bill Clinton, Greenberg points out, unintentionally echoed Roth's Trick E. Dixon in his unctuous Nixon eulogy: "It's our whole lives that you should be judging here tonight." There should at least be a footnote acknowledging the persistent attempt throughout the Clinton Administration by right-wing commentators, from Safire to New York Post editorial cartoonists, to portray the President and his wife as Nixons redux. Greenberg, however, is far too sober a commentator to speculate on the notion of Nixon as floating signifier.
Nixon's Shadow appears in tandem with David Lubin's Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images (California). Where Professor Lubin's free-associational tome is confidently glib, glam and strenuously hip, Professor Greenberg's is correspondingly dogged, dour and scrupulously historical. Nixon's Shadow might have benefited from a few of Shooting Kennedy's madcap connections or even a few obvious ones. Nixon's pre-Cambodia obsession with the movie Patton gets but a single passing mention--and is there really nothing to be learned from Nixon's amply publicized, compensatory love of pro football? The NFL will forever be in debt to his passion.
Nixon's remarks on the 1970 John Wayne western Chisum are, however baffling, the first time an American President ever used a movie as the basis for a public pronouncement. In his epilogue, Greenberg calls pop culture a "better barometer and more powerful shaper of public opinion than newspaper commentary." He says it but he doesn't really believe it--and that's Nixon too.