Richard Nixon: Myth trumps man

Nixon birthplace

”I was born in a house my father built.”

It is one of the great first lines in American literature and says more than perhaps the entire rest of the book toward explaining Richard M. Nixon. It is an expression of the politician’s essentially mythological sense of his own life.

Others might have written, “I was born in Yorba Linda, Calif.,” or “I was born a month before the 16th Amendment was ratified, creating the income tax.” But no, Nixon goes for the archetypes: birth, father, home.

The little white clapboard house that Nixon’s father built, and that opens his memoirs, still can be found, at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

The house, shaded under a grove, is rather dwarfed by the huge, impersonal marble and glass library, with its parking lot and fountains.

Nixon Library and Gardens

But the house is the only real reason to visit. Inside the tiny cottage, which Nixon’s father had ordered from a catalog, is the niche of a bedroom and the bed on which the future president was born.

Richard Nixon's birth bed

Richard Nixon’s birth bed

It makes Nixon feel almost human.

You can get a sense of the small-town bourgeois life that he sprang from, the piano in the parlor and the small bookshelf with the equivalent of the Harvard Classics that must have given Nixon his early sense of education and culture.

I have to admit, I never much liked Nixon — more accurately, I despised him and his politics — until Watergate. My reaction is probably the opposite of most of those who lived through those times: Nixon was elected in a landslide in 1972 and after his resignation, widely denounced. For me, I hated him until his crimes and venality humanized him.

Politics tends to flatten its heroes, to turn them into one-dimensional factional puppets. We don’t like to find out that our presidents are mere people, that they have faults, fudge the truth, create political lists, philander.

It was only after Watergate that the more complicated, vast, conflicted, confusing, contradictory Nixon became widely known and written about. Nixon, the contemporary Richard III, the one candidate who could deal with evil in foreign affairs because he was conversant with it in himself.

He was surely the only 20th-century politician who plausibly can star in his own opera: John Adams’ Nixon in China.

The real Nixon won my respect because he was larger than life, or, more precisely, he was as big as life.

So, it was a huge disappointment to discover that the Nixon Library, and the museum attached, do their best to turn Nixon back into a plaster bust, denying him all the richness that made him so fascinating.

It is a sanitized Richard Nixon that shows up at the library, one who doesn’t use expletives, deleted or otherwise. The old newspaper clippings glorify his career without ever mentioning his pink-paper campaign tactics, his smearing of Helen Gahagan Douglas, his ”enemies” list.

The real Nixon was Shakespearean, the enshrined Nixon is as polyethylene as Reagan.

The real Nixon saw himself mythologically, and like myth, is open to various, equally defensible interpretations. He was not coherent, but multifarious. There is something in his life for everyone, whether they want to hate or admire.

Which is why the Oliver Stone movie seems so true, no matter how loose he plays with fact. Stone recognizes the essentially mythic quality of Nixon’s personality, which is why he built his entire movie as a gloss on Nixon’s farewell speech to his staff, which is concocted of archetype: ”I remember my old man. I think that they would have called him sort of a little man, common man. He didn’t consider himself that way.” And, ”Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother. Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother: My mother was a saint.”

It was a gloriously bathetic speech, mawkish and sentimental, but it summed up the essential Nixon, not as one man in a planet full of its congested billions, but as the single Shakespearean king, the central player, not only in history, but in his own life story, as in each of our lives, where we are all the king.

One glorious piece of mythologizing snuck in, although the museum staff doesn’t seem to recognize it for the glorious kitsch it is.

There is a large painting of Nixon by the Hungarian-American artist Ferenc Daday. In 1956, Eisenhower sent Vice-President Nixon on a fact-finding tour of Europe. He made an unscheduled late-night visit with refugees of the Hungarian Revolt at the Austrian border town of Andau.

One can imagine Nixon in reality, getting out of his limo, stopping to talk with a few people, as awkward as he was with the anti-war protesters at the Lincoln Memorial. But the painting doesn’t show that; it shows a heroic Nixon in a white trench coat under an anagogic sky — it could be a leftover from Gone With the Wind. The refugees plead with him for succor.

nixon painting

The whole thing is a wild sendup of the great history paintings of art history, populated with suffering masses, a man on crutches, another with a Hungarian flag unfurled in the wind. The vast plains of Hungary spread out in the background like the landscape in an Altdorfer painting.

And standing next to one poor woman, her arm in a sling, is a shaggy Puli hound, its tongue hanging out. It is such a piece of deflating silliness, the artist surely must have put it there satirically. But if so, the Nixon Library staffers are not in on the joke. Apparently, they have since taken the painting down, perhaps embarrassed by its schmaltz. They should reconsider; the painting says more about Nixon than all the official policy papers and bronze statuary.

When I asked about the painting, many years ago, when I first visited, I got only the party-line response, almost as if the staffer were reading off a TelePrompTer.

The only one who got it was the young man at the gift shop.

”What’s the kitschiest thing you have here?” I asked him.

”This is our bestseller,” he told me, and dragged me with a smile over to the shelf with the coffee mug on which is printed a photograph of Nixon and Elvis.

nixon and elvis with mug

Now, that’s mythology.

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