Sunday, October 25, 2015

Nixon's Voice

Nixon was my first President.  I recall JFK's death; I remember Johnson on TV; but I stayed up late to see if Nixon would pull ahead of Humphrey and Wallace in November 1968.  In Mrs. Finkle's  Fourth Grade classroom, I watched his inauguration and his daughter's wedding.  I cried at my summer job, hearing on the secretary's radio his farewell at the White House.  I know his voice:  a little coppery in timbre, growly and husky in texture, deliberate in rhythm.

From reading his self-justifications in print and from researching him myself, I also know his writer's voice.  It jumps out at us early in Stephen Ambrose's biography, a portion of an interview late in Nixon's life:
What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid... [but] if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.
He thinks he's Everyman, telling everyone what "you" go through; and he thinks he's the hero of this tale.  He tried to turn his story into an uplifting one, but uplift doesn't go well with bitterness.

In 1987, I saw the premier production of the opera Nixon in China by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman.  My friend John Davis, polymath and astute observer of everything, opined at the time that Nixon would long be a source for artists, while Reagan, Johnson, and most others never would be.

Why?  Davis suggested that, for a man so determined to control his own image, Nixon's inner conflicts and torments were always on view.  Nixon argued endlessly that he made all of his choices for the right reasons.  His good intentions make him tragic; his lack of self-awareness makes him comical.

Adams, Goodman, and their director Peter Sellars caught some criticism from Nixon haters for presenting Nixon at his height, using only resources pre-Watergate, putting verse in his mouth that represented him as he might have seen himself.  Thus, Nixon sings
On our flight over from Shanghai,
The countryside looked drab and gray.
"Bruegel," Pat said.  "'We came in peace for all mankind,'"
I said, and I was put in mind 
Of our Apollo astronauts, simply achieving a great human dream.
We live in an unsettled time.
Who are our enemies?  Who are our friends?

... As I look down the road, I know America is good at heart...
Shielding the globe from the flame-throwers of the mob.
                               (quoted from memory - apologies if I miss some words)
There we have laconic Pat, Nixon's pretentions and his goofy inability to separate personal from public.  Biographer Stephen Ambrose tells how Nixon, awaiting  medical help beside an injured woman struck by his motorcade,  crowd and cameras watching, asked her opinions about taxes!  That's the Nixon we have in the opera, wanting desperately to be good, unable to connect to Mao or even to Pat, and apt to orate.

That's the Nixon we see in the best parts of Austin Grossman's 2015 novel Crooked.  Early in the novel, Grossman's Nixon tells us:
This is a tale of espionage and betrayal and the dark secrets of a decades-long cold war.  It is a story of otherworldly horror, of strange nameless forces that lie beneath the reality we know.  In other words, it is the story of a marriage. (16)
That mordant punchline is a bit out of Nixon's range, but the plan for a story is a good one, to move forward on parallel tracks of marriage to Pat and of supernatural cold war.   The novel is eventually derailed when apocalyptic events overwhelm the more personal story.

Grossman is at his best when his narrative voice is closest to Nixon's own: pedantic, dignified, stern,  misty-eyed patriotic, and doggedly determined.   

Grossman's Nixon remembers that he romanced Pat "with exactly the same no-brakes determination with which I later ran for public office," and Pat "sensed that I was as desperate as she was, as angry as she was, and that I was struggling to go places" (Kindle edition 14).  That sounds right; the intervening commentary that "the heart lives by unreadable codes ... [and] knows nothing of dignity or humanity" seems a step away from Nixon's earthbound self concern.

Still in the setting-up phase of the novel, Grossman's Nixon gives us these insights:
My other asset was that, as I discovered, I wasn't a nice person. (18)
I never hid any of this from Pat.  ...She believed I was doing it for the right reasons, that this was a small price to pay to get a decent man into Congress (or at least a man who was decent before the campaign and had very sincerely promised to become decent again once he got there).  (19)
That idea seems key to Nixon's whole career: he's decent except when decency isn't practical. Grossman's Nixon seems to see the irony of this; real Nixon called it realpolitik.

At a reception with Pat, neither of them like the sensation of being liked: "They liked me now that I'd had a success, but I'd spent too long hating them to value what they had to say to me.  I'd seen what they were like to people they couldn't use." (68)

There are other delights in Crooked, as when Nixon considers killing Howard Hunt during their first meeting, feeling found out, and when Nixon has to smuggle a message hidden under carrot cake (76).  The sight of Ike, stripped to the waist dripping blood and sweat onto a pentagram is one that Grossman's Nixon and I both will never forget.

For the true voice of Nixon, elevated to EveryWhiteAmericanMan , I'll return to the opera.

Related Blogposts

  • Austin Grossman's earlier novel Soon I Will Be Invincible was a delightful mix of super-hero characters in the style of a first-person noir detective story (read my blogpost).   
  • "You Never Get Over It" reviews the film Frost/Nixon
  • "How Little We Knew How Little They Knew" responds to the book Nixon and Kissinger. I'd always believed that Nixon was at least a competent President; this book, using those famous tapes, dispels that notion.
  • "Thanks to and from Composer John Adams" gives much space to his appreciation for librettist Alice Goodman's Nixon in ChinaJohn Adams' Musical Landscapes tells how, a bit baffled at the premier, I learned to love this opera above almost any other piece of musical theatre I know.

1 comment:

George said...

Catching up on your blog, I came across your post on Nixon, in opera and fiction. I must say that, to me, Nixon will always be Darth Vader, with the US as a sort of huge version of Luke Skywalker. I voted for Nixon twice, the first two times I could vote, in fact, but, really, my ballots were cast against his opponents. And then came Watergate. I never voted Republican in a Presidential contest again, nor do I normally cast a ballot for a Republican candidate on any level. And, as the Republicans have embraced Ronald Reagan--or at least their nostalgia-soaked version of him--it's become even easier for me to vote for Democrats, even if, as has been the case in recent years, they have no chance and I could just as well flush my ballots down the commode. Oh, well. . . .