You can search all the famous names like Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy till the cows come home, but you won’t find their names in the lists of dramatis personae of any operas. Only one American president has been brought to life in a great opera performed on the world’s stages – Richard Milhous Nixon, in Nixon in China by John Adams. J BROOKS SPECTOR goes in search of the high notes of his legacy.
Of course there are any number of cultural centres, concert halls and opera houses named after the great presidents, but, really, only one US president has ever been the central focal point of an opera, unless you include Broadway musical comedies like Annie or Of Thee I Sing. Ulysses S Grant does show up in Virgil Thompson’s opera, The Mother of Us All, but he’s just a minor character in a rarely performed avant-garde work written to Gertrude Stein’s libretto.
But Richard M Nixon was just outrageously perfect for operatic immortality – something like Macbeth blended with Richard III. Larger than life, smart, but equipped with (and flawed by) his unquenchable anger, outsized ambition, overweening pride, and a lifelong sense of injustice about how he had been treated by those richer, flashier, snobbier “swells” – along with everyone else. He may not have been the first person to utter it, but he surely lived his credo: “Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.” And this past week, 9 January,- marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth. His political shadow loomed large across four full decades of American political life.
There were no bands, no gigantic Hollywood tributes (despite the fact that he was at the core of numerous major films including Alan J Paluka’s All the President’s Men, Oliver Stone’s Nixon or Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon), there have been precious few ceremonial memorial lectures and learned colloquies examining the Nixon legend. The truth of it is that Richard Nixon’s legacy remains so poisoned, so tainted, that even astonishing things he accomplished are forever diminished, connected to his later resignation as president.
Born into a devout Quaker family on 9 January 1913, Nixon came from California, moving eastward with the opportunities that came his way as a student at the Duke University Law School and junior bureaucrat in Washington in the Office of Price Administration at the beginning of World War II. Then it was back to California after his service in the Navy, as new political opportunities began to beckon after the war for an eager, smart, ambitious young veteran like Richard Nixon (or John Kennedy), or a major figure like Dwight D Eisenhower.
In 1946, California Republican Party elders were eager to find a way to defeat the solidly left-liberal Democratic congressman, Jerry Voorhis, and they and Richard Nixon found each other. Voorhis was part of the leftist tradition that had earlier been embodied in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, and in the political campaigns of Upton Sinclair. Nixon won that congressional election handily, and then, by 1950, Nixon and his backers took aim at Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas in their competition over an open California senatorial race. Douglas was, of course, a popular stage actress before she became a politician and had starred in the 1935 film version of H Rider Haggard’s novel, She.
By the time of his and Douglas’s campaign in 1950, a very Nixonesque style of accusing opponents with virtually unbeatable charges about their secret support for communism – even if the charges were wildly at variance with the truth – had become his default campaign style. After losing badly, stung by the smears, Douglas bitterly tagged him with the sobriquet “Tricky Dicky”, a name that stuck for years.
Now a senator in Washington, Nixon rode the wave of anti-communism dominated by Wisconsin Republican Senator “Tail Gunner” Joe McCarthy, whose speeches and Senate hearings had brought charges the US government was thoroughly infiltrated by communists, spies and their sympathisers. Richard Nixon’s role in all this, especially his relentless pursuit of State Department official Alger Hiss, making use of the testimony of acknowledged a former communist sympathiser, Whittaker Chambers, now turned a right-wing campaigner, made Nixon a national figure. Eisenhower, the near-unanimous choice of Republicans to be their presidential candidate in 1952 (and eventual victor in a crushing win against liberal icon Adlai Stevenson), eagerly embraced Nixon as his vice presidential candidate running mate, at the behest of party elders.
By the time of Eisenhower’s re-election campaign in 1956, Nixon was a national household word for hard-edged politics, but he had blended a new element of a smarmy, unctuous sanctimoniousness into his political style. In his popularly named “Checkers” speech on national TV, Nixon attacked detractors who had called him out over some minor influence peddling, as he accused his opponents of traducing his wife’s reputation and wanting to confiscate his daughters’ pet dog, Checkers. Publicly reassured Nixon was not a bought and paid for pol, Eisenhower kept him as running mate – a decision that put Nixon into the pole position for the Republican presidential nomination in 1960.
In 1960 Nixon and John F Kennedy were against each other as candidates for the presidency. Both men were in their 40s, representative of the generation that had fought and won World War II. They were competitive throughout the race, sufficiently so that an academic Kennedy promoter like Arthur Schlesinger felt compelled to write a short campaign book, Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? to prove that they were very different men – despite their coming into the limelight simultaneously as a result of their life-changing experiences in World War II.
The campaign was notable because of the first live, televised presidential debates. In the first debate, Nixon declined the use of TV makeup, had been ill and chose a light grey suit. The net effect was to portray Nixon as shifty, sweaty and evasive against a youthful, healthy Kennedy who had the right makeup, a well-fitting, dark suit and a Florida tan. Interestingly, later surveys revealed many voters who had listened on the radio thought Nixon had bested his opponent. But those who saw it on TV were convinced Kennedy had won the debate.
Watch: Kennedy-Nixon First Presidential Debate, 1960
Nixon lost in a close race that wasn’t decided until the morning after Election Day on the basis of a slow count in Illinois. This, together with a less than gracious concession speech, followed by a loss in 1962 in a race for the California governorship where he testily told reporters they would no longer have Nixon to kick around – “this, gentlemen, is my last press conference” – helped lock into place an enduring sense that Nixon had now found, and embraced, as his closest enemies, the media.
Following these back-to-back defeats, Nixon fled California for New York City and a new “home base” inside a prestigious Manhattan “white shoe” law firm. There he gradually rebuilt his political network, brought together a coterie of new, even harder-edged campaign advisors, made new contacts in the burgeoning discipline of public relations, and developed a major fundraising machine. This “new Nixon” then gained the Republican nomination in 1968, and, in a hard-fought race against a demoralised Democratic Party – riven by the violence of its Chicago convention, the unpopular Vietnam War, and the independent campaign by Southern segregationist candidate George Wallace – gained the White House for the Republicans that November.
As Nixon took office, concerned for an increasingly divided nation, many of his more committed opponents such as political cartoonist Herblock of The Washington Post, gave him space to govern. Herblock had famously drawn an empty barber’s chair in his first cartoon of the Nixon administration with the banner, “Every politician deserves one free shave”. Herblock’s caption was a reference to the dark five-o’clock shadow that had dogged Richard Nixon during those television debates in 1960. (South African readers will remember an only-too-brief disappearance of Jacob Zuma’s shower-head in Zapiro cartoons, right after ANC's 2009 election win. - Ed)
Increasingly, the Nixon administration took strong criticism from much of the media, from vocal opponents to the Vietnam War and from the counterculture leaders of the baby boom generation being drafted to fight the war. In response, the Nixon White House increasingly hunkered down against this criticism, nurturing an “us” versus “them” mentality that thoroughly permeated the White House and then the 1972 re-election campaign. Some presidential staffers developed an elaborate campaign from within the White House against opponents, especially leading counterculture and anti-Vietnam War figures. Others, attached to the 1972 re-election campaign, plotted to install listening devices in the campaign offices of the hapless Democratic Party candidate George McGovern, to disrupt his campaign and then to discredit the candidate in a variety of other ways.
The accidental discovery of the bugging plot by a night guard, the coincidental tracking of the operatives’ connections back to the Republican campaign’s finance office and inside the White House for technical support, and the eventual dogged coverage of this tangle by newspapers like The Washington Post ultimately became the scandal collectively called “Watergate” (the office building where the bugging had taken place). Ultimately, the lies, distortions and calumnies culminated in a constitutional crisis that brought down the Nixon administration in August 1974 – and gave the nation a new, sad measuring stick for politicians and their ways. As for the president, clearly near to an emotional breakdown, he had spent his last nights in Washington praying with senior staffers before finally resigning – just days before Congress was poised to vote to remove him.
Photo: Carl Bernstein (L) and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal in the 1970's, stand outside Woodward's home in Washington, June 1, 2005. On May 31 2005, the reporters confirmed that former FBI official W. Mark Felt was "Deep Throat," the anonymous Washington Post source who leaked Watergate scandal secrets to the Post and helped bring down President Richard Nixon. REUTERS/Jason Reed
A short while before resigning, Richard Nixon had told his country’s citizens, “I am not a crook.” This declaration – or, rather, its increasingly believable opposite – together with mounting deceits over the course of the Vietnam War (although Nixon did ultimately draw down direct American military involvement there during his second term of office), all helped crystalise a national sensibility that it was government that was the enemy; that it could never be trusted and that whatever it did was ultimately against the interests of the nation’s citizens.
Watch: 'I'm not a crook'.
Nearly 40 years later, this pervasive national cynicism continues as the unfortunate legacy of both the political leadership’s handling of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration’s increasing political paranoia about its opponents. Much of Nixon’s duplicity was revealed for all to see, after it became known an enormous range of White House conversations had been secretly taped and that various officials, right up to Nixon himself, had knowingly conspired to evade or violate the law. Ironically, the presence of these devastating recordings was only revealed accidentally in the congressional hearings about some of the more peripheral issues in the Watergate scandal, precipitating the pressure that ultimately drove Nixon from office. Watergate, of course, gave a whole litany of phrases to the country’s political lexicon such as “enemies list”, “it’s the cover-up, not the crime” and “follow the money” – all of which owe their existence to the illegal goings-on at Nixon White House.
Photo: US President Richard Nixon (L), listened to by First lady Pat Nixon and daughter Tricia Nixon (R), says goodbye to family and staff in the White House East Room on August 9, 1974. (Reuters)
While it was largely Nixon’s domestic political machinations that helped drive him from office, in international politics, it was his natural inclinations for secrecy, deviousness, a fine eye for the weak points in his enemies’ strategic stances, and his love for Machiavellian tactics where it all came together that resulted in his greatest success. Making the fullest possible use of Henry Kissinger, first as national security advisor and then as both that position and as secretary of state, the Nixon/Kissinger duo carried out a classic “real politik” foreign policy in the midst of the Cold War, although critics often preferred to refer to it as an amoral policy instead. The US found itself embracing some pretty odious authoritarian regimes around the world (or supporting the overthrow of leftist ones like Salvador Allende’s Chile) to preserve American influence through ties with a series of regional hegemons like Iran and Indonesia.
But their masterstroke was the courtship of a China just beginning to emerge out of the Cultural Revolution that had fundamentally pushed that nation near to chaos. First there were the secret visits to China by Henry Kissinger and the dispatching of American ping pong players to that country, and then the epochal visit by Nixon to Beijing even before the two nations had diplomatic relations, as explored in the opera, Nixon in China.
This crucial shift allowed the US to position China as a major strategic counterweight to the USSR, even as America’s domestic politics were in turmoil and its military strength was thoroughly bogged down in the “Big Muddy” of the Mekong River delta. The continuing war there had been in contradiction to Nixon’s campaign promise of a “secret plan for peace in Vietnam”. This new relationship between China and America then gave strength to those in China who were determined to end the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution – thereby providing an opening a few years later for reformers like Deng Xiaoping to redirect China’s entire economic future. And so, here is another contribution to the contemporary political lexicon: to do a “Nixon goes to China”means a totally unexpected political volte-face for grand strategic purposes.
The Watergate scandal finally drove Nixon out of town just ahead of a political tarring and feathering, and it seemed there would be no further resurrection of his fortunes, as thoroughly and completely disgraced as he was by now. But yet one more time, Richard Nixon, phoenix-like, while no longer a conceivable political candidate or appointee, and his deep flaws visible for all to see, astonishingly, became a valued elder statesman whose insights into international strategy were the stuff of often well-received articles and books. And commentators, politicians and students of international affairs all made time to hear his views and seek his advice.
Photo: Following his resignation, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon flashes the V-for-victory sign as he boards his Marine One helicopter for the last time on the South lawn of the White House August 9, 1974. (Reuters)
It may well take decades more before we can dispassionately evaluate his place in American history – somehow aligning and bringing into a coherent whole his deep failures and extraordinary successes, as well as his near-destruction of the American political system, along with his deep distrust of so many others. Until then, what Nixon’s character sings at the beginning of the opera in librettist Alice Goodman’s words, on his arrival in Beijing for his meeting with Chairman Mao, can serve as a stand-in for a still-missing final epitaph:
“... 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.
An old cold warrior piloting towards
an unknown shore through shoals.
The rats begin to chew the sheets.
There’s murmuring below.
Now there’s ingratitude!
My hand is steady as a rock.
A sound like mourning doves reaches my ears,
nobody is a friend of ours.” DM
For more, among the many thousands of books and articles about him, read:
- Nixon in China Libretto at Opera Arias
- Richard M. Nixon at the White House
- Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
- The Richard Nixon Foundation
- Nixon, the movie on PBS
- Books by Richard Nixon (a list of post-1981 volumes by the former president) in New York Times.
Main photo: Former US President Richard Nixon at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, May 20, 1987. Nixon was named an associate foreign member at the Academie des Beaux Arts in recognition of his efforts to encourage private donations from American citizens to French National Museums. REUTERS/Jean-Claude Delmas