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Nixon at the Movies

A Book About Belief

by Mark Feeney

Hardcover, 422 pages, Univ of Chicago Pr, List Price: $27.50 |


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A Book About Belief
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Book Summary

An in-depth examination of Richard Nixon's career draws on biography, politics, cultural history, and film criticism to show how Nixon's character, and the nation's, is refracted and reimagined in film.

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Excerpt: Nixon At The Movies



The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-23968-2


Introduction............................................................ix1 :: Dark Victory.......................................................32 :: Double Indemnity...................................................313 :: Patton/Mister Roberts..............................................654 :: Advise and Consent.................................................975 :: Sweet Smell of Success.............................................1296 :: Two Rode Together..................................................1537 :: American Madness...................................................1838 :: "Suspicious Minds".................................................2179 :: All the President's Men............................................24510 :: Nixon at the Movies...............................................27511 :: The Conversation..................................................297Epilogue: Nixon in the Movies...........................................327Acknowledgments.........................................................335Appendix: What the President Saw and When He Saw It.....................339Notes...................................................................357Bibliography............................................................379Index...................................................................399

Chapter One


* * *

You see I too live in a world of make believe ... RICHARD NIXON, IN A LETTER TO PATRICIA RYAN, 1938

He never learned where his home was. HENRY KISSINGER, Years of Upheaval

He was born on the wrong side of Hollywood, both the Hollywood that was and the Hollywood that soon would be. Incorporated only ten years before, it was as yet, in 1913, the year of his birth, just another obscure small town: sunnier and drier than most, but otherwise utterly undistinguished. The idea of such a place coming to dominate the imagination of much of the planet was as unthinkable then as it seems inevitable now. Yet that same year witnessed the making of the first motion picture there, a Cecil B. DeMille Western, The Squaw Man, its production the start of an astonishing train of events that would see a collection of empty fields and parched hills transformed into a metonymy for wealth and fancy such as to shame Xanadu or Versailles: Hollywood, the world's preferred purveyor of dreams. No, that was no place for Richard Nixon.

He was born to the east, away from ocean breezes and elevated vistas-and that much further from wealth and fancy. He was born amid the thirsty citrus groves, out where people worked (and worked hard) making things grow rather than making things up: selling dusty produce, not tinselly dreams. Eventually, he, too, would retail dreams, doing so as tirelessly-and, for a time, as successfully-as any studio executive. The only difference was studio executives called their dreams "movies"; he called his "America."

"I was born in a house my father built": with that austere, almost biblical sentence, Nixon begins his memoirs, RN. The house was in Yorba Linda, which had been founded just five years before-still so new that his was the first birth recorded there. His second cousin, the novelist Jessamyn West, who grew up in a house on the other side of an irrigation ditch from the Nixons', could have been speaking for her relative when she writes of her own Yorba Linda childhood: "Though Hollywood is only twenty-five miles away, it is as remote to me as Africa...."

In RN, Nixon describes Yorba Linda as an "idyllic" setting for a child. That statement comes no later than the fourth sentence, thus giving it pride of place among the many arguable propositions set forth in that book's more than one thousand pages. For at best, Yorba Linda was an idyll in progress. A town of barely two hundred inhabitants, with as yet no paved streets, it comprised semi-arid rangeland little better than desert. "No grass, no nothing except dust" was how one Nixon neighbor described the town's appearance during the second decade of the last century. "You could hear the rocks hitting the side of the house when the wind would blow.... If you laid by the east wall when you'd go to bed, then next morning your hair would be white with dust when we had those winds." Coyotes were still common and didn't hesitate to nose around doorways. Theodore Roosevelt once declared that "California is west of the West." Yorba Linda wasn't so much west of the West as beneath it-harsh, baked, demanding-less a purveyor of dreams than (as the Nixons would all too soon discover) an impediment to them.

Such descriptions make it sound as if Yorba Linda could have been at the end of civilization. Actually, it lay at the terminus of a Pacific Electric rail line to downtown Los Angeles; nine times a day a trolley made the fifty-minute-long run. The PE train traversed a distance considerably greater than the route's mileage might indicate, however, and the city's ready accessibility only cast into greater relief the farming community's backwardness. Yorba Linda, a dry town characterized by "the crude Victorianism of a backwoods border country," as a far-from-disaffected West later put it, was a world away from urbanity. The town had no theater, of course. A handful of residents (Nixon's father among them) saw to its having no pool table, either. As for the one café in town, it was closed two or three months for every one it was open. Even the bell donated to the local Quaker meetinghouse remained stored away, West recalls, "until the death of those elderly Quakers who believed that bell ringing was not conducive to godliness." That's the sort of place Richard Nixon's Yorba Linda was: dour in godliness as well as recreation, suspicious even of church bells. "You can't imagine how narrow [people there] were," recalled Mary George Skidmore, Nixon's first-grade teacher, half a century later.

It was a drear existence within as well as without. "I suppose I came from a family too unmodern, really," Nixon told a journalist in 1958. Backwoods Victorianism came naturally to Frank and Hannah Nixon. Along with their oldest son, Harold, they had moved to Yorba Linda two years before Richard's birth, coming from Whittier, ten miles to the northwest, the home of Hannah's people, the Milhouses. The house Frank Nixon built stood on a ten-acre plot planted in barley. He bought chickens and a cow, rabbits and a horse, and put in a vegetable garden. These were all subsidiary to his main purpose, though, for Frank had purchased the land as a citrus ranch. He put in lemon trees from his father-in-law's Whittier nursery and tended them during the five years they required to mature and bear fruit. The sweet scent and yellow bounty of lemon trees flowering in the California sun: it's hard to imagine a more beckoning (a more idyllic?) prospect for a trolley motorman from Columbus, Ohio, who'd come to the Southland to ease the pain of frostbitten feet.

The brochure put out by the town's developers described the land as free of frost, its soil made up of Ramona loam well suited to citrus. That was largely true, but on Nixon's land the topsoil was of insufficient depth for the trees to root. Worse, the stock from his father-in-law was of poor quality and, ignoring the advice of neighbors, Frank avoided the expense of fertilizer by never using it. The trees grew up stunted and bore inferior fruit. By 1919 he abandoned raising lemons and was reduced to seeking roustabout work from Union Oil. Three years later the Nixons moved back to Whittier to open a combination gas station and grocery.

Such a failure was doubly galling to Frank. "I never missed a day's work in my life," he liked to boast, yet here he was with nothing to show for a decade of constant toil. Worse, he was forced to reenter the ambit of the Milhouses. Hannah Nixon's people were birthright Quakers, prosperous and genteel, who'd never altogether disguised the fact that they looked slightly askance at the thumping bluster of their black Irish in-law. Overbearing and pugnacious, Frank Nixon was ever ready to take offense: an easy man to anger, a hard one to appease. "My husband was a stubborn man, and arguments stiffened him," Hannah Nixon recalled after his death. So did failure, and once again having to live among the Milhouses provided a constant reminder of his inability to strike off on his own and succeed.

In her piety and calm, Hannah was worlds removed from Frank. Where he was a fighter, a complainer, her reputation for equanimity assumed near-legendary proportions in local lore: she was impossible to cross-if also, perhaps, impossible to truly please. As a friend once put it, "She was born to endure." That she and Frank loved each other is plain. That their characters profoundly differed is even plainer. Certainly, Frank would never have said to Mary George Skidmore, as Hannah did, "By the way, Miss George, please call my son Richard and never Dick. I named him Richard." Her almost throttling sense of what was and was not seemly extended even to her own family. Nixon writes in his book In the Arena: "In her whole life, I never heard her say to me or to anyone else, 'I love you.' She did not need to. Her eyes expressed the love and warmth no words could possibly convey." He means this as a tribute, one as sincerely felt as his notorious declaration in the last speech he delivered as president that "my mother was a saint," but could anything a son might say of his mother be more damning than that first sentence?

Such withholding gave her a tight purchase on her sons-the kind of spiritual force generally limited to, yes, saints-and that purchase stayed intact after her death. While serving as a White House speechwriter, William Safire heard Nixon remark once, "People react to fear not love-they don't teach that in Sunday school, but it's true." Was it Frank speaking or Hannah? The answer is more complicated than one might think. By all accounts, Hannah was a model of tolerance and charity. Yet her goodness would seem to have possessed an almost oppressive quality, radiating light without heat. Frank's temper and occasional cuffings could be taken in stride-so long as you didn't provoke him, he could be gotten along with easily enough-but the constant implied judgment of Hannah's implacable saintliness was a burden more difficult to bear.

One demonstration of just how difficult came in 1974, seven years after her death, with the release of the White House transcripts of conversations Nixon had had taped in the Oval Office and the presidential retreat in the Executive Office Building. Publication of the transcripts proved a disastrous setback in Nixon's battle to stay in office, and the single greatest harm the transcripts did was owing to that now-deathless phrase "expletive deleted." Those two words became inextricably linked to the name of Richard Nixon. The revelation that so stern an advocate of clean living and moral rectitude stooped to gutter language when in private did him grievous harm. Only later was it learned that there had been few Anglo-Saxonisms to expunge, but rather a series of mostly "hell's" and "goddam's." Why did the most powerful man in the world feel he had to conceal his use of language that, however coarse, was so commonly employed? "If my mother ever heard me use words like that she would turn over in her grave," he told White House staffers. Better to look bad in the eyes of the world than suffer the saintly wrath, even when posthumous, of Hannah Milhous Nixon.

As one might expect, religiosity suffused the Nixon household. Prayer was an important part of their daily routine, and there were four obligations on Sunday-Sunday school, morning service, Christian endeavor in the afternoon, and an evening service-as well as one on Wednesday nights. The church might even be said to have supported the Nixons, literally. "Make not my Father's an house of merchandise," Christ declared. That didn't keep Frank from buying the old structure when the East Whittier Friends Church, the congregation the family belonged to after leaving Yorba Linda, dedicated a new building in 1927, then moving it to his property to house the store.

To go along with Hannah's sanctity, there was her husband's characteristically more voluble faith. No birthright Quaker, Frank took to his new denomination with the classic convert's enthusiasm. In teaching Sunday school, he brought such stem-winding vigor to the classroom that Jessamyn West regarded him as the best religion teacher she ever had. Such preacherly exuberance meant he differed in degree, not kind, from his newfound coreligionists. Quietism little informed Southern California Quakerdom, which differed substantially in both doctrine and demeanor from the religion practiced by the Society of Friends in Philadelphia or even the Quakers in southern Indiana portrayed in West's best-known book, The Friendly Persuasion. As she puts it with some asperity, "The Quakerism I knew as a child in southern California had little to distinguish it from shouting Methodism." Certainly, the Nixons saw nothing odd in a Quaker family's driving into Los Angeles, as they themselves did, to seek raucous redemption at the hands of an Aimee Semple McPherson or a Fighting Bob Shuler. Then, as now, evangelists and revivalism were no small part of Southern California's religious climate-their attraction extending even to the good folk of refined, sedate Whittier.

Named for John Greenleaf Whittier, it was the most famous Quaker colony in the United States: an outpost of upright living and high-mindedness amidst the boomer mentality of the Southland. As late as 1937, more than half the town's fifteen thousand inhabitants belonged to the Society of Friends. And the rest of its citizens were no less observant than the Quaker majority: in 1932 Whittier boasted some nineteen churches. A member of that religious minority was the young M. F. K. Fisher. In later years the doyenne of American food writing, she accompanied her parents and younger sister to "that tight little fortress of brotherly love" when her father purchased the Whittier News in 1912. Fisher made no effort to disguise her genteel loathing for the place. As newcomers, they quickly discovered what a close-knit community it was, its sense of apartness grounded in an atmosphere of inherent superiority. Fisher's parents may have been pillars of the community and she herself impeccably reared and popular with her schoolmates, yet she claims never once to have been invited into a Quaker home. Comity in Whittier was not to be confused with friendship, nor good manners with acceptance.

Fortunately for the Nixons, Hannah's family was prominent and well represented in the community. Frank might be made to feel ill at ease among his in-laws, but being affiliated with the Milhouses bestowed a membership status among the Whittier Friends not otherwise easily obtained. Such things as a sense of belonging and connection mattered there as they rarely did elsewhere in the region. Indeed, the community's weird blend of self-regard and boosterism is evident in a phrase from the History of Whittier, which the town produced to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its founding: "the privilege, and distinction, of living in this homeyhome [sic] city."

This sense of civic self-worth meant that Whittier had less in common with Yorba Linda (for all that the Nixons' previous home had also been a predominantly Quaker community) than it did with, say, Pasadena. Living in Whittier signified a more gracious way of life-or the promise of it, anyway-as the Nixons' previous residence had not. Whittier was obviously far less backward than Yorba Linda (it lies closer to downtown Los Angeles than Santa Monica does) and a far more desirable place to live (on a clear day, one could make out from the Puente Hills breakers along the Pacific shore). The town enjoyed the further distinction of possessing its own college. Whittier may have been "an eddy on the stream of life," as Merton Wray, a year ahead of Nixon at both Whittier High and Whittier College, waspishly recalled. But for most who lived there, their privileged "homeyhome" was a comfortable-enough eddy, and they knew it.

The town's poorer section lay to the east-farther from Los Angeles, closer to the desert-and that was where the Nixons settled. Later on Richard Nixon took a dismayingly patent delight in expounding on how little his family had had when he was growing up. That he luxuriated in tales of economic distress made perfect sense politically, but what was always so striking about his lovingly detailed accounts of early poverty was the emotional satisfaction he derived from them. While it's certainly true that once the Nixons moved to Whittier they had to work extremely hard to do well, the point is they did do well. Thanks to the region's expanding population and ever-increasing reliance on the automobile, Frank's business flourished-even during the Depression. "The idea that the key to Nixon was his early poverty is ridiculous," West once observed. "The Nixons had a grocery store, two cars, and sent their son to college. By some they were considered rich."

Their actual economic circumstances were less important, though, than the fact that the Nixons themselves were not among those sumptuary-minded "some." West's observation may be financially accurate, but it overlooks a crucial element in the family's character, one that actually does provide a key to Richard Nixon's later life. That was their embattled quality, their experience of, if not actual poverty, then the sense of it. Having failed once, Frank would not fail again. Widely viewed as having married beneath herself, Hannah would not let her household descend any further. Spurred on by their (relative) prosperity, the Nixons worked all the harder. The man who had never missed a day's work in his life now missed barely a waking hour's work: pumping gas, tending the cash register, even baking pies. It was Hannah, though, who was famed for her pies-they became the store's most popular item-and she rose at five each morning to make as many as ten a day.