Friday, January 9, 2015

A review of PBS's “Nixon” movie

Richard Nixon

There have been only two impeachments in the entire history of America - but contrary to popular perception, Richard Nixon actually wasn't one of them. He was credibly threatened with impeachment, which was what caused him to become the only American president ever to resign from office. But he was never actually impeached; as the only two presidents to do that were Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson and the more recent president Bill Clinton. To "impeach" means to bring charges against someone; which in the United States can only be done by the House of Representatives. But the trying of the impeachments - and the power to remove presidents from office upon conviction - belongs exclusively to the Senate.

Andrew Johnson

Bill Clinton

Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached by the House, but survived removal from office in the Senate - in Andrew Johnson's case, by only one vote. But Richard Nixon was never actually impeached. Unlike with the other two, though, there would have been enough votes in both Houses to remove Nixon from office, and Nixon knew it - which was why Nixon became the first (and to date, the only) president ever to resign from office. It was a shocking thing for the American public, and a dubious distinction that has followed Nixon (with some appropriateness) to his grave.

Nixons' grave, Yorba Linda, California

I've actually visited his gravesite, as he is buried outside the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in his hometown of Yorba Linda, California; and Yorba Linda is less than an hour's drive from my grandparents' home in Garden Grove, California. Why did I visit there, you might be asking? Part of it was because I wanted to see what presidential libraries were like; as I was interested in presidential history, and Nixon's presidential library was the one geographically closest to me. But part of it was also because Richard Nixon really is a very interesting man - which is not to say he was a good president (he wasn't), but he is a very interesting man - a conclusion I first arrived at after watching this documentary about him by PBS.

Nixon releasing edited transcripts of Watergate transcripts, 1974

This documentary does not ignore Nixon's early life; and gives some coverage to his early career in Congress, where he became a part of the 1950's campaign to prosecute communists. This period is often labeled the "Red Scare," and with some appropriateness; but not all charges of communist sympathy and treason were fake, and Richard Nixon's charges against Alger Hiss were decidedly true ones. The documentary's coverage of this period is interesting; as is their coverage of his being Eisenhower's vice president, where he once had to defend himself against charges of impropriety on national television. The result was the infamous Checkers speech - a brazen appeal to sentimentality where Nixon spoke lovingly of his family's dog, causing the audience to feel warm and fuzzy. The speech played well with the public, but would later be seen as something manipulative, and there was some truth in this charge. The manipulation and general phoniness was certainly a part of Richard Nixon's personality, and one PBS was right to point out.

Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates, 1960

It's also interesting to hear the coverage of the presidential election of 1960, which Vice President Nixon lost to the young Democrat John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy-Nixon debates were groundbreaking in a number of ways, as they were the first televised debates in the country's history; and they proved that no one in the television age can ever be elected president without the ability to perform well on TV. Nixon, quite frankly, did not perform well on TV; as Kennedy was more charming and better-looking, and Nixon showed up to the first debate looking horrible. He had a strong five o'clock shadow which was highly visible on the era's black-and-white television screens, and long enough to look something like a thin beard. He had shaved that morning; but he was one of those men whose facial hair grows very quickly, and he would have been better-served by shaving closer to the presidential debates. He learned his lesson in later debates, but the damage was done; and it may have cost him the election. Radio viewers (a small audience) thought Nixon had won the debate, but the larger television audience was decidedly pro-Kennedy; and the result was a painful defeat for Nixon that left him bitter and resentful of the press (even by his standards).

Lyndon B. Johnson

Nixon didn't run again in '64, because the Kennedy assassination was too helpful to sitting president Lyndon Johnson; and Johnson's use of the martyred Kennedy's memory for political advantage made him invulnerable to attack. But Nixon did run again in '68, when Johnson was vulnerable due to his failed policies in Vietnam; and Richard Nixon won a close victory and entered the White House. But unfortunately, he inherited one of the worst foreign policy situations any president has ever inherited, perhaps the worst ever; and how he handled the inherited war in Vietnam would have an enormous effect on his presidency.

Operation Linebacker, 1972

Nixon made a valiant effort to save the war in Vietnam from ending in American defeat, but the result was virtually inevitable when it was botched so badly by his predecessor LBJ, and there really was nothing Nixon could do about it. In retrospect, it would have been wiser to pull out sooner, but that was not visible to many at the time, as the war's opponents of that time tended to base their opposition more on moral grounds than bleak chances for victory. They, too, tended to be wrong about this. Suffice it to say that America lost the war, and her prestige in the world was severely compromised because of it. America had the military ability to win the war, but lacked the will to use it; as the constant barrage of grisly television images was taking its toll on the American people, and the war had been lost by Lyndon Johnson before Richard Nixon ever entered the White House.

Fall of Saigon, 1975

Nixon's visit to China, 1972

The Vietnam War was an unmitigated disaster for the United States, but Nixon's diplomacy in China was a different story altogether. Nixon's opposition to Chinese (and other) communism remained unchanged, but it was his very opposition to communism that led him to get closer to China: It drove a wedge in between China and the Soviet Union, the two major communist powers of that time; and thus reduced the threatening power of the communist alliance that had existed between them before. It was mainly because of Nixon's success in China that his reputation was largely restored after his presidency, and that it managed to survive the humiliating scandal of Watergate. Nixon's handling of Watergate was not very skillful, to say the least; and the fact that his reputation was revived afterwards is something of a miracle, and largely due to his success in China.

Watergate Complex

Nixon was not a very good president, as he prolonged the war in Vietnam longer than it needed to be, and he had some terrible domestic policy to boot. (To combat inflation, he had instituted a "moratorium on prices" to prevent prices from rising - which, as anyone familiar with supply and demand could have predicted, did not work. More on that in a separate price controls post, written long before this. Suffice it to say here that, in the words of Rush Limbaugh, it was "a completely un-American thing to do, especially for a Republican.") But in fairness to Nixon, he had inherited one of the worst foreign policy situations that any president has ever inherited (maybe the worst), and his considerable skill in foreign policy might have been allowed to shine if he had been able to use it in other circumstances.

Like his predecessor LBJ, his legacy is somewhat complicated; and I will not mind if your opinions on it differ from my own. But whatever your opinion of Nixon, you will probably like this documentary if you find him an interesting topic. PBS has a way of making good documentaries, and the American Experience presidential biographies are among their best programs.

Bottom line, if you think Nixon's life is interesting - and even Nixon critics like Stephen Ambrose often do, as testified by Ambrose's biography of Nixon - you will probably enjoy this documentary. With the involvement of writer Stephen Ambrose in this documentary, it was bound to be interesting; and even if you don't agree with it (I often don't), you will probably find it a fascinating look at one of our most complicated presidents. Highly recommended to anyone interested in Cold War history.

DVD at Amazon

Can be viewed online at PBS website

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Dwight Eisenhower movies

John F. Kennedy movies

Lyndon B. Johnson movie

Cold War miniseries

Jimmy Carter movie

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