by Rick Bretz
No former President provokes more passion and stimulates more conversation than former President Richard Milhous Nixon. Voters elected him as the 37th President of the United States serving from 1969-1974, resigning on August 9, 1974, one day after announcing it to a national TV audience. Nixon’s legacy is more complicated than just a Watergate cover up. After his resignation, according to the book “The President’s Club”, Presidents from both sides of the aisle sought his advice and relied on him for overseas missions on a range of diplomatic topics including the Soviet Union, the Middle East and the Far East. Actors tried their talents at being Nixon a few times in film. Few have tried to master the nuances of Nixon’s personality. There are several movies about Richard Nixon such as All “The Presidents Men” and the “Assassination of Richard Nixon” but these releases keep Nixon behind the scenes as a looming figure. We only see him in news footage. I have selected actors who have taken on the responsibility to carry the whole movie. There are a few who have accepted the challenge.
Nixon (1995) Directed by Oliver Stone
Anthony Hopkins as President Richard M. Nixon
Played against Ensemble Cast portraying significant people throughout his life.
Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of President Richard Nixon shows a Nixon who relies on his wife Patricia Nixon for advice and support. He shows him as someone who plays hardball politics to succeed. Hopkins doesn’t look all that much like Nixon but he splashes the screen with Nixon’s paranoia and emotional repression. The movie gives a glimpse of how tough Nixon could be when dealing with his adversaries and pushy friends looking to gain something from his position. This movie was not well liked by Nixon’s family and friends. However, the criticism aside, Hopkins does an admirable job of revealing Nixon’s complicated, multifaceted personality. The movie also gives the viewer an idea of Nixon’s childhood challenges that shaped his personality and character.
Frost/Nixon (2008) Directed by Ron Howard
Frank Langella as former President Richard M. Nixon
Played against Michael Sheen as talk show host David Frost and Nixon’s interviewer
The negotiations leading up to David Frost’s interview with Richard Nixon is a slice of history people weren’t aware of during the airing of the show. The movie shows the interview as a chess game between Frost and his people and Nixon and his aides. Nixon didn’t want to reveal anything that would further damage him but he also wanted to get his side of the story to the public. Langella does a skilful job of portraying Nixon as someone who his smart and is good at countering verbal maneuvers. The movie was criticized for its compression timeline that didn’t show Nixon having his way during a majority of the interview. The suspense lies in how Frost can get Nixon to admit he made a mistake and was wrong.
The Checkers Speech, the Real Frost/Nixon Interviews, the Farewell Speech to White House Staff
(1952, 1977, 1974)
Richard Nixon as Richard Nixon
Nobody does Nixon like Richard M. Nixon himself. His Checkers Speech saved his position as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate and Vice Presidential candidate during the 1952 election campaign. Checkers refers to his dog and he explains in the televised speech that the dog is beloved by his daughters and he won’t give it up. The speech addressed concerns about Nixon’s financial dealings.
If you want to get a better idea of how the Frost/Nixon interviews went, then watch the whole conversation. In this interview, you get an idea of Nixon’s intellect and command of foreign policy. It’s the reason why President William Clinton sought out Nixon’s advice when he needed answers about foreign policy and the current political climate.
The Farewell Speech to the White House Staff is riveting. The speech to his loyal followers in the White House addresses his childhood, his father, mother, revenge and serving in politics. This speech had more drama in it than 50 percent of the movies released in the 1970s.
Towards the end of the speech, Nixon says this, “We want you to be proud of what you have done. We want you to continue to serve in government, if that is your wish. Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
The Real Person
There are many caricatures when people portray Nixon. The real person was an intellectual and political heavy weight who got caught up in government politics as take no prisoners game defined earlier in the 1900s.. His failure was to realize the shift in the political climate and how the press had changed concerning how they reported on politicians as the Vietnam War wage on in the late 60s and early 70s. His downfall was using the tape recording system started by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940s.
The record, however, shows that Nixon began several programs that still live with us today. He began the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and proposed ending the draft. His trip to China thawed relations between the two countries and he used triangle diplomacy to further America’s interests. He also signed into law Title IX, legislation that states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” He made it possible for all daughters to participate in sports so they can have a chance at scholarships and education.
After he left office, Richard Nixon became a consultant to later Presidents as well as a prolific author and statesman.
President Richard Nixon will always be viewed as tragic figure with personality flaws. Some will view him as a criminal for his actions. The record is more complicated than to paint his legacy with broad brush strokes. He started many positive programs and probably helped to end the cold war when he visited China. As we have seen in the past 30 years, being a President is fraught with political landmines that can trip up the most talented of people. The Presidents that came after Nixon had and will continue to have the benefit of learning from his mistakes.
President Richard M. Nixon Links:
Links to Checkers Speech Frost/Nixon interviews and Farewell Speech: