Nixon at the Movies

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Wars often result in speedy invention and unexpected innovations. The Vietnam War gave us the M-16 rifle and new uses for Agent Orange. It also allowed the last president of the US to turn executive privilege into a malign political energy that powered Hollywood’s Silver Age in the early ‘70s. So argues Mark Feeney, author of Nixon at the Movies, which looks at Richard Nixon’s political career through the movies of his times. Though most of what is written about Nixon in the book has already been written before, Feeney warps the facts into a structure that somehow fits. Nixon’s personal paranoia seeped outward to Watergate, and then onto films like The Parallax View and Executive Action.

Is it background noise or an imaginary conversation? “Unproven paranoia is inherently dissatisfying, and proof was never hard to come by in the paranoid thriller. It’s what determines which is crazy, the world or the paranoid’s response to it, and that was where Watergate came in,” writes Feeney. Government conspiracy theories didn’t erupt in a secretive, jittery epidemic; they were printed in the papers.

The movies were one place Nixon could relax, perhaps because he was alone in the dark. He was a politician uncomfortable around people, and he looked forward to watching Jimmy Stewart and Clint Eastwood, who never threatened to interact with him.

In contrast to his suspicion of the public, Nixon was trusting of the movies. He would always wait for a disappointing film to pick up, and turn around. Nixon’s daughter told William Safire “No matter how terrible the first reel is, he always thinks it will get better. ‘Give it a chance….Wait—it’ll get better.’” The book comes complete with an index of all the movies Nixon watched in the White House. He watched Patton three times during the bombing of Cambodia.

Though Feeney veers into psychobiographical territory a little too much, he uses Nixon’s insecurities and paranoia to glance askance at society during the Nixon administration. Though Nixon was the highest authority in the country, his mistakes formalized public suspicion. Every taxi driver could be a sociopath, every politician could be a crook. The White House’s cover-ups and failings hurt because the public’s trust in the government had been betrayed. People got used to reading about cartels and 18 ½ minute gaps in the papers and became accustomed to it. The public was drawn back to the claustrophobic film noir of the forties, says Feeney, but hungered for an interpretation that was more serious and less sexy.

“Less sexiness” was a distinctively Nixonian mutation. He wore dress shoes walking on the beach. He sweated constantly, and always had a five o’clock shadow. Nixon was an awkward, insecure man, and made other people as uncomfortable as he was. After sitting with Nixon at a state dinner, the actress Liv Ullmann remarked that Nixon would have made a fantastic tragic figure in a Bergman film, if only he were a better actor. After all, Henry Kissinger dated a Bond girl.