Sunday, July 14, 2013

Nixon's Shadow 7

I covered a lot of ground in my latest reading of David Greenberg's Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.  I finished the chapter on the Washington Press Corps' image of Richard Nixon, the one about the image of Nixon that was held by Nixon loyalists, and the one on the image of Nixon promulgated in psycho-historical works.

I did find my latest reading to be engrossing, and there were at least two reasons for that.  First of all, Greenberg is a compelling storyteller.  In my latest reading, Greenberg told the tale of journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who investigated the Watergate scandal when many within the upper-level media were unwilling to do so.  Greenberg talked about Rabbi Baruch Korff, who had become a Nixon fan in 1972 due to Nixon's support for Soviet Jews, and who achieved minor celebrity status by launching an organization to defend President Nixon during the Watergate scandal.  Greenberg discussed the popularity and significance of works about Nixon.  Silent Coup's controversial thesis about Watergate was rejected by a number of observers, including certain historians, yet it was accepted by Nixon apologists and was given some scholarly cover by Joan Hoff.  Victor Lasky's It Didn't Start with Watergate, which was about how Nixon's misdeeds were no worse than those of previous Administrations, sold many copies, even though even Lasky acknowledged that the reason for its popularity was probably that it made Nixon supporters feel a little better after Watergate.  Woodward and Bernstein's The Final Days, as well as David Frost's interviews of Nixon, made many Americans feel sorry for the former President.  And Greenberg goes into the entertainment media's depiction of Nixon.  Alex Keaton on the 1980's sitcom Family Ties was an ardent Nixon supporter, yet Alex was a likeable character.  (I appreciated this discussion because Family Ties was what got me interested in politics.)  And the 1999 comedy Dick not only depicted Nixon as a buffoon, but also Woodward and Bernstein.  In my mind, evaluating and discussing the significance of relevant players and works is an element of good storytelling.

Second, my impression is that Greenberg strives to be fair to Nixon, as he accepts and rejects the arguments of pro- and anti- Nixon people, as well as acknowledges some legitimate point in the various images of Nixon, without necessarily accepting those images completely.  Greenberg acknowledges that some of what the media accused Nixon of doing was false, and he also  says that the allegation that Nixon beat his wife Pat lacks convincing evidence.  Yet, Greenberg does not buy Nixon's arguments in every case: Nixon often alleged that the Democrats had his plane bugged in 1968, for example, but Greenberg does not believe that there is evidence for that.  In the chapter on the psycho-historical depictions of Nixon, Greenberg essentially says that they may have a point, but that they went too far at times: they could get overly political, or they would try to find a deep sinister meaning in insignificant things that Nixon did (such as mashing his mashed potatoes).  Greenberg makes an attempt to be fair and balanced, to both Nixon and also those who have written about Nixon.

That doesn't mean that I agreed with Greenberg on everything.  For example, on page 213, Greenberg says regarding Frost's interviews of Nixon that "The Watergate segments also provided the shows' most lasting moments, including Nixon's rationalization, soon to enter Bartlett's, that 'When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.'"  The movie Frost/Nixon depicts that statement as dramatic and as occurring within the context of Nixon's discussion of Watergate (see here).  The thing is, Nixon was not talking about Watergate when he made that statement, but rather he was discussing the Huston plan for gathering intelligence on domestic radicals.  Nixon's point, as Stephen Ambrose says, was that certain things that ordinarily would be illegal, such as burglary, become legal when the President provides cover for them.  One can argue that what Nixon said was still bad, even within that context, as David Frost does here, or even that Nixon's statement was relevant to Watergate because it provides us with insight into his view on Presidential power.  But Nixon was not explicitly talking about Watergate when he made that statement, nor did he say it in a particularly dramatic fashion (see here).

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