We'll always have Nixon to kick around: 17 memorable moments in Nixonia

We'll always have Nixon to kick around: 17 memorable moments in Nixonia

1. Rick Perlstein's Nixonland

Richard Nixon was important as a politician not only because of what he did, but because of when he did it, and what he represented. He oversaw the Southern Strategy, which converted the majority of Southern states from Democratic to Republican voting strongholds by supporting law and order and opposing civil rights. In many ways, as pointed out in Rick Perlstein's brilliant political history, Nixonland: The Rise Of A President And The Fracturing Of America, the stark divisions between the modern political right and left arose during the 1968 election that propelled Nixon to the White House. Nixonland, which works amazingly well as a companion piece to Robert Altman's film Secret Honor, is one of the most compelling histories in recent memory, deftly combining thorough research and an engaging narrative. It's especially relevant now, with the election of an African-American president who has in many ways shattered the electoral and sociopolitical foundations that Nixon built.

2. Nixon as a five-term, Vietnam-winning president in Alan Moore's Watchmen

Alan Moore's groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen is set in an alternate reality several shades darker than our own, a world where paranoia and mistrust has turned former champions into enemies of state. Just how dystopic is this skewed vision of future? For starters, Richard Nixon is serving his fifth consecutive term as president, a byproduct of the superhero-aided U.S. victory in Vietnam and a thoroughly unconstitutional repeal of the 22nd amendment. Even more troubling, it's implied that Nixon—through his henchman The Comedian—orchestrated the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, something the real Nixon only wished he could have pulled off. Having successfully manipulated history to his advantage while keeping his hands clean, Nixon mostly appears as a silent, shadowy figure lurking in the corners of war rooms and military helicopters, but his sinister presence is felt in every frame—so much so that director Zack Snyder couldn't imagine making his upcoming film adaptation without him.

3. The strangely deathless Nixon mask

While other presidents have had their faces sculpted in granite, cast in bronze, or even carved into the side of a frickin' mountain, Richard Nixon's pre-caricatured countenance gave birth to the most popular political mask in history—a pop-culture phenomenon so enduring that it has its own Wikipedia entry. Over the years, millions of people have donned Nixon's suspiciously Pinocchioed honker and plastered, disingenuous smile, either as a form of protest or as a subversive wink and nod to the Watergate bogeyman. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson may be the most inextricably tied to the Nixon mask—as a result, no fictional portrayal of the good doctor is complete without it—but it's also become a familiar presence in movies and TV shows, usually worn by characters who are up to no good. Over the years, Nixon's face has concealed countless crooks and robbers in movies like Point Break and Best Seller, a psycho killer in Horror House On Highway 5, and even a "chicken-fucker" on South Park. Perhaps its most disturbing cameo is in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm: Suggestive of the story's central motif of America's loss of innocence in the scandal-ridden '70s, Christina Ricci's rudderless teen seduces Elijah Wood while wearing Nixon's grinning mug, adding an extra layer of discomfort to a scene that already has it in spades.

4. Robert Altman's Secret Honor

In 1984, Robert Altman—then facing a downturn in his Hollywood career—filmed a one-man stage play about Richard Nixon, more or less as a final exam for the students of a film class he was teaching at the University Of Michigan. The resulting movie, Secret Honor, was a commercial disaster and was mostly overlooked by critics, but thanks largely to Altman's tight direction and an astonishingly powerful performance by Philip Baker Hall, it's become one of his best-regarded films, and it recently received a long-overdue Criterion Collection treatment. Hall portrays a drunken, resentful Nixon dictating a new edition of his memoirs, which gradually becomes a gripping referendum on his life; alternating between self-pity, anger, and brutal honesty, it's a perfect image of Nixon in a confessional mode that the public was rarely privileged to see. It's not only the greatest portrayal of Nixon on film, but perhaps the greatest onscreen depiction of a president ever; Hall entices us into sympathy, but Altman never lets us forget Nixon's self-deception and treachery.

5. The "Nixon in heaven" sketches on Harry Shearer's Le Show

Richard Nixon was a favorite target of comedian Harry Shearer for decades, as Shearer moved from The Groundlings to National Lampoon to his long-running one-man radio comedy, Le Show. (He even voiced Tricky Dick on The Simpsons.) So when the former president finally bit the dust in 1994, it might have been the end of an era—at least, for a comic less inventively vicious than Shearer. Le Show simply continued taking potshots at him in the afterlife, with the debut of an occasional series of sketches called "Nixon in heaven." As a disembodied, ghostly voice, Nixon continued to collaborate with his still-living Watergate co-conspirators, keeping tabs on politics and defending his reputation from beyond the grave. The series, which continues to this day, is so funny that one can forgive Shearer for letting the old bastard into Paradise.

6. John Adams' Nixon In China

Beginning in 1985, the avant-garde composer John Adams began a two-year collaboration with lyricist Alice Goodman on an opera about Richard Nixon's groundbreaking visit to meet with Chairman Mao. The result was Nixon In China, a titanic piece of work that combined Adams' hypnotic minimalism at its peak with Goodman's clever couplets and theatrical elements drawn from Chinese tradition. It also made a star of baritone James Maddalena, who played Nixon. While the play is careful not to take ideological sides, Nixon still can't help but come across as a bit of a chump, particularly early on when he steps all over Henry Kissinger while spelling out his half-formed peace plans.

7. Negativland's "Richard Nixon Died Today"

Negativland's Thigmotactic album—the band's first to contain nothing but actual songs featuring actual instruments playing actual music—was a mixed bag, but its high point was unmistakably Mark Hosler's brief but meaningful quasi-tribute to the late President Nixon. Although it was actually written a good 14 years after Nixon's death, it nailed his role as national punchline perfectly, as Hosler sang in almost wistful tones, "Oh, I guess he was okay; he was the president everybody hated." On the track, Negativland seemed uniquely able to identify the curious love/hate role Nixon played in American culture; the chorus seemed almost sad as it noted, "I don't dream about the president anymore."

8. Disembodied-head Nixon on Futurama

More than a millennium after he made history by becoming the first president to resign from office in disgrace, Richard Nixon, or at least his disembodied head, staged the political comeback to end all comebacks when he was once again elected President in Futurama's warped science-fiction universe. In "A Head In The Polls," Nixon's head buys the metallic body of debauched robot Bender, and uses it to run for office against two nearly identical opponents. Billy West gives Nixon a feral, easily agitated rasp that's part Anthony Hopkins in Nixon and part werewolf, complete with beastly cries of "Aroooo!" Nixon-as-robo-president-of-the-future turned out to be much more than a one-off gag: The show kept him on, and in his animated form, he's still a wildly corrupt, violent and insane president.

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9. Alec Baldwin as Nixon on 30 Rock

Who could have guessed that the buzzed-about pretty-boy matinee idol of The Hunt For Red October would become one of our nation's most acclaimed comic actors? Alec Baldwin has a number of tools in his comedic arsenal, including a surprising gift for impersonations. In the 30 Rock episode "Subway Hero," Baldwin's oily exec tries to get Tracy Morgan's eccentric actor-comedian to come over to the dark side and join the Republican Party. Morgan is initially resistant, objecting, "Black people supporting Republicans? Does hot support cold? Does rain support the earth?" Later, after an unfortunate boom-box accident, Morgan sees Baldwin as Nixon in purgatory; the late president encourages him to join Sammy Davis Jr. in the incredibly small pantheon of famous black conservatives. Morgan still can't be convinced to join the GOP, so he and Baldwin compromise by collaborating on a commercial where Morgan urges African-Americans not to vote at all. As the last presidential election revealed, that ploy didn't work too well.

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10. Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon

Peter Morgan's play-turned-film Frost/Nixon makes for a fascinating companion piece to Secret Honor: Both films highlight antithetical aspects of Nixon's tormented personality. Where Secret Honor delves deep into the late president's inner torment, offering a dark-night-of-the-soul glimpse into his paranoia and self-hatred, Frost/Nixon largely chronicles the Nixon who wanted the public to see and admire him as a family man and respected statesman with a keen intellect and deep understanding of political gamesmanship. But as Frost/Nixon progresses, the private Nixon bleeds into the public one, and the two films begin to overlap, particularly during a riveting sequence where a drunk Nixon, masterfully played by Frank Langella in a reprise of his Tony-Award winning stage performance, drunkenly calls up Michael Sheen's David Frost and treats him to a far-too-revealing monologue about their shared status as kicked-around underdogs, quintessential Orthogonians, to borrow the indelible terminology of Nixonland.

11. Anthony Hopkins in Nixon

Oliver Stone's wildly overreaching 1994 biopic Nixon (now available in a three-and-a-half-hour director's cut!) portrays Nixon as a brooding American King Lear, a tormented control freak who watches his empire crumble due to hubris, paranoia, and a certain botched burglary attempt. Though he isn't exactly a dead ringer for the ex-prez, Anthony Hopkins delivers an appropriately Shakespearean performance, though Stone's deliriously excessive film lurches into histrionic melodrama at every opportunity.

12. Millhouse, A White Comedy

Emile de Antonio's 1971 documentary Millhouse: A White Comedy offers a cheeky exploration of Richard Milhous Nixon's life and career before three of his defining moments: Watergate, the crushing defeat in Vietnam, and his resignation in disgrace. A precursor to the smartass political muckraking of Michael Moore and his ilk, the film traces the bulldog-faced depressive's career from his early days as a red-baiting attack dog to his stint as Dwight Eisenhower's ferocious vice president and his political comeback and involvement in Vietnam. The film's centerpiece is the entire infamous "Checkers" speech, a strangely hypnotic masterpiece of shameless political kitsch and maudlin sentimentality where Nixon, under fire for questionable campaign contributions, lacerates himself publicly for the benefit of a skeptical nation, giving a full account of his rather pathetic finances and paying touching/creepy homage to his wife's "good Republican cloth coat" and a "little cocker spaniel dog" named Checkers, which instantly became the most famous/adorable gift ever given an American politician.

13. Richard Nixon on Laugh-In

In the pivotal year of 1968, Nixon joined such luminaries as Shelley Berman, Liberace, Jimmy Dean, Billy Barty, Rich Little, and Colonel Sanders in making a guest appearance on Laugh-In. By popping up on Rowan & Martin's Day-Glo, Hellzapoppin'-meets-flower-power comic institution to famously deliver one of its catchphrases ("Sock it to me?") with just the right note of mock-incredulity, Nixon risked looking foolish. It could certainly be argued that appearing amid body paint, go-go dancers, and silly blackout gags on a neo-vaudeville comedy series was beneath the dignity of a man seeking the highest office in the land. Instead, the brief but legendary cameo helped humanize Nixon. It showed a skeptical public that "the New Nixon" had a sense of humor about himself, and was no longer the creepy, sweaty, stubbly corpse in an ill-fitting suit who lost the presidential election in 1960, and the California governor's race in 1962.

14. All The President's Men

No discussion of Nixon's impact on pop culture would be complete without mentioning All The President's Men, Alan J. Pakula's meticulous recreation of the dogged Washington Post investigation that led to the first resignation of a sitting president in American history. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman inspired multiple generations of idealistic future reporters (many of whom are probably unemployed in this grim economy) as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, dogged news sleuths who dig deeper and deeper into a third-rate burglary attempt until it becomes the scoop of the century and the gold standard for all political scandals.

15. Dan Hedaya in Dick

In one of his most memorable roles, character actor Dan Hedaya played Julian Marty, the vengeful, murderous, and ultimately pitiful antagonist of the Coen brothers' Blood Simple. That combination of qualities served him well once again in Andrew Fleming's 1999 comedy Dick. This retelling of Nixon's fall is fluffy: "Deep Throat" turns out to be two teenage girls who don't understand what they're getting into, and Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch play it clumsy and preening as Woodward and Bernstein. So it's Hedaya, of all people, who adds a little grit. His Nixon is as wild-eyed, stubbled, and shifty as any other in film, but something about Hedaya's frame really reveals a man who crumples under pressure, often hilariously. Unlike Oliver Stone, Hedaya and Fleming find some less-than-grandiose ways to reveal Dick's character flaws, especially when he shouts: "Checkers! Shut up or I'll feed you to the Chinese!"

16. Nixon Poems

For anyone lucky enough to run across it in some dusty used bookstore, Eve Merriam's Nixon Poems is a brutal, playful missive from 1970. It combines Merriam's free-form, obsessive verses about the hated president with equally scattershot illustrations that depict Nixon playing piano for astronauts, and a missile shooting out of the head of Secretary Of Defense Melvin Laird. In fragments, Merriam sorts through Nixon's misdeeds and the violent tensions of the time: "It's a free country said the man swinging an ax-handle at his neighbor"; "The sky / is as blue / as policemen's helmets."

17. Dan Aykroyd as Nixon on Saturday Night Live

While Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impression recently made Saturday Night Live politically relevant again, the series went through a long slack period that only rarely and weakly dipped into the political satire of its heady opening years, when Dan Aykroyd blazed a trail for future Richard Nixon impersonators who neither looked nor sounded like the embattled president. What Philip Baker Hall and Anthony Hopkins did for drama, Aykroyd did for laughs, memorably kneeling with John Belushi's Harry Kissinger and praying for deliverance from his incredibly shrinking presidency. But while the sketch-comedy show was less empathetic than future portrayals, it still found relatively light-handed humor in its Nixon, with Aykroyd in one case pimping Nixon's new memoir, suggesting that since Americans didn't have him to kick around any more, they could buy the book and kick that instead: "Why, Pat's already on her fourth copy!" In another sketch that was more cheery than pointed, a droning Aykroyd bored Eric Idle (as David Frost in the Frost/Nixon interviews) into unconsciousness. Most memorably, though, Aykroyd's Nixon, sullen over his portrayal in the Nixonia TV series Blind Ambition, explained how he and John Dean (played by Buck Henry) actually made the Nixon tapes by deliberately spouting hyperbole and nonsense in the Oval Office, just for a laugh. Watching any serious Nixon movie since, it's hard to entirely escape the image of the two of them in the Oval Office, giggling like loons and holding up signs reading "Let's talk in incomplete sentences!" and "Let's pretend there's a cover-up!"

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