Penny Lane’s Our Nixon

Still from Penny Lane’s Our Nixon, 2013, Super 8 mm, color, sound, 84 minutes.

AMERICA’S ONGOING FASCINATION with the 1960s is in no small part due to the three Shakespearean characters who successively presided during that era: JFK, LBJ, and, strangest of all, Richard M. Nixon.

For all the sentimental, bipartisan bushwa occasioned by Nixon’s death in 1994, the greatest vote getter in Republican history is a political orphan; the lone US president to resign his office, Nixon has long since been disowned by the party that three times nominated him. Indeed, contemporary Republican politicians have seldom missed an opportunity to socialize his disgrace, regularly equating Nixon with leading Democrats and giving every minor White House impropriety the suffix -gate, with its intimations of that greatest of all postwar political scandals, Watergate. Could there now be a surge of affection for this peculiar isolato? Were Penny Lane and Brian L. Frye, the makers of a new documentary about Tricky Dick, referring to themselves or to all of us, when they titled their archival compilation film Our Nixon?

Nixon, as David Greenberg argued in his 2003 book Nixon’s Shadow, was the first American president preeminently concerned with the construction of his image. At the same time, he was demonstrably a figure brought down by his own pathology, which included a penchant for inadvertent self-disclosure. Still trickling out decades after they were made, the hours of audiotape that Nixon clandestinely recorded in the Oval Office are Kickapoo Joy Juice for parched psychohistorians.

It turns out that Nixon was not the only member of his administration driven to record even the most mudane moments of his presidency.Our Nixon draws on the five hundred rolls of Super 8 shot by the president’s three closest aides—H. R. Haldeman, John Erlichman, and Dwight Chapin—some of which were confiscated as part of the Watergate investigation (and had languished in government vaults ever since). The 8-mm format has long been an anachronism, but it entered history with an epoch-defining bang at Dealey Plaza fifty years ago this November. Nixon’s aides may not have consciously considered themselves potential Zapruders, but they were diligent to the point of compulsion in documenting their leader’s public doings—addressing rallies and astronauts, hosting White House fetes, hobnobbing with his fellow wizards (including the pope and Nicolae Ceaus¸escu, star of his own epic home movie), and, of course, visiting the People’s Republic of China. Antiwar demonstrations were also filmed, mainly for laughs. It’s all good-natured fun—closest to an assassination are the donkey ears some anonymous wag provides a clueless William F. Buckley Jr., in the heady spirit of Beijing.

Our Nixon’s opening sequence—in which a post-prison-term Haldeman, being interviewed by Phil Donahue in 1979, refuses to apologize or admit wrong—sets the banalizing tone. Chapin, the eternal ingenue and Nixon’s last surviving Super 8 Boswell, remembers his White House days as a lark. “I’ve never laughed as much,” he’s heard to recall, citing the shared “sense of humor.” Only Ehrlichman expresses regret, playing to the media analysts among us by characterizing the Nixon administration as “a great big brilliantly lighted, badly run TV show.”

Our Nixon may have rained death on hundreds of thousands of Indochinese civilians, but he is irresistible entertainment. I myself contributed in a marginal way to his showbiz career as a member of the Theater of Gibberish, an early-’70s performance group that created a slide show called Breakdown at the Super Bowl using songs from the Neil Young LP After the Gold Rush to suggest the president’s morose, lugubrious consciousness. Our Nixon, too, is a musical, opening with a bang as Tracy Ullman sings her early-’80s version of “They Don’t Know” and ecstatic crowds mob the presidential motorcade: “They don’t know about us . . . they never heard of love.”

Our Nixon includes not only a nice chunk of the Chinese revolutionary ballet Red Detachment of Women but scenes in which the president dances awkwardly with daughter Tricia and is serenaded on the campaign trail by a group who seem to be singing, “We are Americans—what can we do? We are Americans—hope you are too.” There’s also stunning footage in which a White House party in honor of the founders of Reader’s Digest is disrupted when one of the Ray Conniff Singers unfurls a protest banner and, in the name of Jesus Christ, chastises Nixon for the Vietnam War before joining the group in a peppy rendition of “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me.”

Perhaps there is no Richard Nixon but only the public spectacle we might call the Nixoniad. The so-called Checkers speech of 1952 gave him a larger audience than any politician in history had enjoyed up until that time. The 1970 photograph of him with Elvis remains the most requested item in the National Archive. Nixon’s trip to China occasioned an opera; his televised interviews with David Frost from 1977 were fodder for a Broadway play and a Hollywood movie. The media is his home. Our Nixon’s funniest bit catches the Leader of the Free World in private conversation with Haldeman and Ehrlichman, pondering the sitcom All in the Family and ranting about the glorification of homosexuality on the public airwaves. To watch Our Nixon is to see our thirty-seventh president as the ghost in the machine, a funny-looking gremlin who haunts the national TV set.

J. Hoberman’s most recent book, Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?, was published by Verso last year and is due out in paperback this fall.

Our Nixon opened at the IFC Center in New York on August 30.