Phantom of the White House

Phantom of the White House

“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.


“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.

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.

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.'”

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.

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.

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