Sometimes a book pops up that is such a pleasure to read, and more so because the subject matter has led one to believe that the writing itself might not be that exciting. The subject matter of Mark Feeney’s Nixon at the Movies is exciting – well for some – but one would be forgiven in thinking that the book itself might read like a thesis. But Feeney, firstly, structures the chapters such that the topics are linked ingeniously. And he constantly comes up with clever word plays and memorable sentences. Such as ‘Nixon was the fifties woefully late’. And he says that Kissinger ‘had his cake and spat it out too’. Then there are the descriptive phrases such as ‘balletically commingled’.
It is almost as good as the writing in Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes, possibly the best book ever written about Nixon even though it was written in Nixon’s first term – unbelievably, before Watergate had begun to surface. And therefore, good as it is, there is a lot more to tell (though it shows that Nixon was interesting even before or without Watergate). Wills has, in the book, amazing foresight but not the benefit of hindsight. Mark Feeney’s book was written about ten years ago, so he has all the history at his fingertips. (Well, most of the history, as there has been a whole lot more stuff out recently, including more White House tapes transcripts.)
But the major selling point of the book is the intriguing way Nixon’s life and morals can be related to Hollywood. Nixon was born, as Feeney notes, at around the time of Hollywood’s beginnings. He lived not far from LA. He became an avid movie-goer and saw a few films a week while president. (In those days actual reels had to be brought in to be projected as in a real movie theatre.) His daughters said that he was an eternally optimistic watcher, refusing to walk out on a film, always hoping even the duds would get better.
Feeney parades a huge stream of comparisons, insights into Nixon’s character, odd facts, and quirks of history. He, as with others, lingers on Nixon’s loneliness, one of the oddest things about this man who aspired to the most public of offices (‘a politician who didn’t like people’). Feeney notes that Nixon didn’t belong in congress, where camaraderie is necessary. While we think of Nixon versus the counterculture, it was also a case of Nixon versus congress. Of course for a loner, says Feeney, sitting in the dark watching a movie provides a safe place to relax, as much as Nixon could. He even dares to imagine Nixon loosening his tie and kicking off his shoes.
The movies are an excuse for Feeney to analyse Nixon’s personality – this is not just a list of movies Nixon watched, and an excuse to talk merely about the movies. It is an excuse to talk about Nixon and an excuse to talk about American society. While discussing director Frank Capra, Feeney, again aphoristically, says that while Capra’s films suggested that the system was bad and the people were good, Watergate indicated, disturbingly, that the system worked but the people (who after-all, elected Nixon by a huge majority) were bad. This is possibly why Watergate remains such a turning point. It is not that the American people didn’t know that politicians were sometimes bad, it is that the illusion of the great man rising above was shattered. After-all, the president was the epitome of the self-made man glorified in American movies. Watergate suggested – again disturbingly, considering American paranoia about government intrusion into so-called freedoms – that there needs to be a system in place to keep track of the individual.
There is, of course, something on John Ford and John Wayne. And a chapter on Nixon and Elvis, who, after-all, was also a movie star. Nixon and Elvis famously met once in the oval office. Elvis ludicrously asked if he could help with the war on drugs. Elvis and Nixon weren’t that dissimilar: poor boys made good, military men, heartfelt respect for America, wariness at the dark turn of the counter-culture.
And there is also something about John F Kennedy. Feeney notes that Nixon loved the movies – he got the fantasy element. JFK didn’t like the movies. After-all, his whole life was like a movie fantasy, including sleeping with movie stars. For Nixon, becoming president was the dream that compared well to the kind of movies he liked to watch – the goal achieved by the hero against all the odds. Unfortunately for Nixon it all ended not like his favourite movies but in a Shakespearean tragedy.