CNN Doc Reminds Us Of How Far We Haven’t Come Since Nixon
Photo Credit: COURTESY NIXON FOUNDATION
It’s appropriate that the most famous image of Richard Nixon is of him standing to the left of Elvis Presley. Like The King, Nixon has never really left us. But as the times change, so do the lessons his life teaches. The parallels between our time and the Age of Nixon are obvious, something CNN’s four part series Tricky Dick clearly tries to reinforce.
As if to remind us of his tragic significance from the great beyond, the entire miniseries had to be pushed back a week after William Barr first proclaimed that Donald Trump had been cleared by the Mueller Report on March 24. Then, just to make matters worse, the one-week delay of the series meant that the finale would appear opposite of the last Game Of Thrones season premiere. Hints of Nixonian intrigue were everywhere. Despite his famous claim upon losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election, we still do have Nixon to kick around.
Of course, the man himself insured we would when he brought himself back from the ashes to take the White House in 1968. Tricky Dick claims to distinguish itself by using only footage from Nixon’s lifetime. Is this as great a feat as the Chargers releasing their 2019 schedule solely through found stock footage and the classic Monday Night Football theme? You be the judge. It does make for great television, although not that different than HBO’s Nixon By Nixon (2014) and CNN’s own Our Nixon (2013).
Both of those specials coincided with the release of Douglas Brinkley’s second volume of Watergate transcripts. But for those who don’t have the desire or discipline to wade through Brinkley’s books or the-late Stanley Kutler’s Abuse Of Power (1996), this is a great tour through the twisted mind of Nixon in the early 1970s.
Plus, Watergate isn’t the entire story. It’s just the culminating chapter in a life-long tragedy. Tricky Dick gives you the whole origin tale. You hear Nixon discuss his strict Quaker upbringing, the death of two of his brothers to tuberculosis, and his enrollment into Whittier College after being awarded a Harvard scholarship. His parents were unable to afford the travel and living expenses, sending Richard Milhous into the world that forces beyond his control would forever keep him from the destiny he so richly deserved.
The series offers its own little additions and flourishes to the Nixon saga. When it finally gets to the “second-rate burglary” that would eventually bring his presidency down, it shows heavy news coverage of Hurricane Agnes, which occurred during the June ’72 break-in. Tricky Dick sticks to its pledge of not offering any commentary along with the news reports. But it’s pretty clear the viewer is supposed to understand that a storm’s a brewin’.
The most striking moment of the series, however, comes a month before. As Nixon is about to have his historic first summit with the Soviet Union, he tells Henry Kissinger not to get too excited:
May 4, 1972:
Nixon: The hope thing. The China thing [the Nixon-Mao summit three months before] was important from one standpoint only—hope. The American people are suckers. “Getting to know you”—all that bullshit. They’re for “people to people.”
Kissinger: Yeah, but it’s for precisely that reason to go there under these circumstances and to cater to that group, it’s just—
Nixon: It’s not—it isn’t that group. . . . The gray, middle America—they’re suckers.
I can’t imagine a greater reminder of the mess we’re currently in. Here was Nixon, finally reaching the political peak he’d fought for all his life, admitting he’d done it by selling a false bill of goods to his precious “silent majority.” It’s pretty chilling. The series is at its best when it lets the audience connect the dots. It ends with broadcasters reporting after Nixon has gotten on the helicopter in August of 1974. How long will it be before we’ve forgotten these lessons and are forced to go through this all again, they ask? Just in case you didn’t get it, they air a “Talking Tricky Dick” wrap up show immediately following, hosted by Anderson Cooper.
I’m the furthest thing from a fan of President Bigly, but I don’t need to be treated like one of those “gray middle America suckers.” The Shakespearean tragedy of Richard Nixon speaks for itself. Tricky Dick works most effectively when it allows the story to just that. If you’re looking to take a deep dive into the effect of Nixon’s sowing the seeds of division, might I suggest Rick Perlstein’s mammoth Nixonland (2008). If nothing else, you’ll start to think that America’s polarization goes far beyond the maneuvering of presidents. Even one as definitive as Richard Nixon.