Watching the third part of Sky Art’s sublime ‘Nixon’s The One’ last night, I realised that the show really isn’t about the words. It’s about the silences.
The words themselves are the actual words taken from the secret White House tapes that Nixon recorded during his time in the Oval Office. Yet rather than focussing on the big issues that made the Nixon presidency so memorable for good but mainly bad reasons, the show’s producers have chosen the odder more personal moments that were more revealing of the man. That, essentially, is the essence of the show. It’s about Nixon himself, a strange creature of paranoid tendencies yet occasional moments of softness and calm who found himself elevated to the highest position in the country. It’s about a man incapable of preventing his deep character flaws from poisoning that office and who couldn’t stop his demons from taking hold when his weaker angels should have prevailed.
Harry Shearer’s version of Nixon is a measured and brilliantly clever performance which is might otherwise be easy to spot because of the prosthetics which could otherwise push this Nixon into the territory of the comic caricature. Nixon has been played many times before on film but I don’t think ever this well. Anthony Hopkins, Frank Langella, and Dan Hedaya have played Nixon before with various degrees of weight and comedy, but I think Shearer has managed to find the right balance. It is lightly comic without it heading into the area of the grotesque you see in the contemporary cartoons by, say, Steadman or Scarfe (below). Scarfe reduced Nixon to his jowls and nose (often bomb shaped) and Steadman had him shitting explosively whilst making a speech. This Nixon isn’t that figure, so vilified by liberals, and rightly so since it’s hard to see how that Nixon could ever have won office. This Nixon is easier to understand; a charismatic bumbler who constantly doubted his own power and thereby gave in to his delusions of persecution and victimhood.
The third episode of the show’s run saw Nixon visited in the Oval Office by religious figures Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. It’s the visit by Roberts that stood out, dominating the second half. Roberts, played brilliantly by John Guerrasio, speaks almost non-stop for the entire ten minute scene and Nixon is reduced to the role of the weaker other, unable to get in a word but trying his best to act presidential.
It’s all about the flickering force smile, the licking of the lips, the puffing out of the cheeks, and it’s in these silent moments that Sheerer is at his best, capturing Nixon’s mannerisms perfectly through the strange backwards lean of the stance, his head pushed forward to emphasis the roundness of the shoulders. As Roberts begins to lecture Nixon about the power of television, Nixon is reduced to sitting holding his cup of tea, looking both engaged and bored, acting the convivial host but failing magnificently as his eyes gaze into the distance. It’s a sense of Nixon as the victim of circumstance; a deeply flawed man in an office that is beyond his character to carry off. The ten minute scene perfectly conveys why I find this what makes this series so compelling.
I’m used to seeing Nixon as the epitome of the corrupt politician. I recognise that Nixon here, the Nixon that Hunter S Thompson described as ‘a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad.’ Yet with hindsight, the show makes me wonder if that is really a fair assessment. Perhaps there is a case for saying that Nixon was the best President that America ever had. His figure looms so large over all politics since the 1970s precisely because he taught us a valuable lesson. He was the politician that taught us to mistrust our politicians and to remember that the office doesn’t change the man. It merely magnifies their frailties, their faults, and the essential corruption that we all share but are rarely placed in a position to recognise.