On Thursday August 1, 2013, CNN will air in primetime a film it helped to produce about Richard Nixon’s presidency. The novelty of the film Our Nixon was that it was supposedly made from several hundred hours of Super 8mm home movies by three Richard Nixon aides: Dwight Chapin, appointments secretary; H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, chief of staff; and John Ehrlichman, head of the domestic council. Supposedly, these films had been seized by the FBI during the investigation into the series of allegations collectively known as “Watergate,” had been kept under lock and key, and were only recently, after roughly 40 years, viewable.
Almost every premise here is false. The movie is only in small part made from the Super 8 films taken by these three men (the latter two long deceased). Most of it is from newsreels, TV news tapes and from Nixon’s own Oval Office recording system. The Super 8 films were not kept under lock and key. They were developed by the Navy, and kept there, available generally. Some portions of the audiotapes of R.N. supposedly talking with his aides after various events were simply fabricated, i.e., later tapes were spliced in to seem to refer to events to which in real life they had no reference.
This I have learned from Dwight Chapin—one of the subjects of the film—who should know. In its own way, this is deeply revealing of how Our Nixon failed. It was simply “news from nowhere,” revelations of events that either did not happen the way they were presented or, more important, happened but were of such trivial importance that they reveal nothing meaningful and new about the Nixon administration.
The film does have some great film of men and women going about their daily lives at the White House. As a man who worked at the White House in ’73 and ’74, and whose father worked there from the first day of the Nixon administration until the last, I can attest to the truthfulness of these images of clean-cut young men and women going purposefully about their lives. Those parts are superb.
The film does make much of R.N.’s trip to open up China, and it should. But then the film uses the ominous voices of the TV network eminentoes of the day to beat the drum about Watergate and make it seem as if the whole Nixon world was about conspiring against law and decency. This is violently untruthful.
Richard Nixon’s goal was to create “a generation of peace.” By his adroit diplomacy and use of force on occasion, he did it: ended the war in Vietnam (later undone by Congress); brought the POWs home; saved Israel in the Yom Kippur War and set up a long-lasting peace in the Middle East; created a new power balance by cozying up to China, thereby ending Soviet hopes of expansion and domination and setting the stage for the end of the Soviet Union; and negotiating and signing the first strategic arms limitation agreement with the USSR. The list goes on and on.
He also created federal affirmative action for black workers, ended the last vestiges of school segregation in the South, brought into being the EPA, presented and signed the first federal Clean Air Act, and presented to Congress a proposal for universal health care for all Americans, far more simple and comprehensive than Obamacare. He also proposed a comprehensive energy policy that has been copied by every president since. (I wrote the messages delivering the health-care and energy bills to Congress, so I follow the subject closely.)
His accomplishments, especially in peacemaking, were stupefyingly important. We live in a world Nixon built.
Yes, without question, Nixon did things wrong. But to focus more or less exclusively on them is to greatly distance oneself from the truth. There is plenty of error and bad in every president, indeed every human, and to focus overwhelmingly on that is not history. History is history when it is complete and balanced. When it’s not, it’s propaganda.
Our Nixon started out as history, but in its extremely unbalanced negative portrait of a man who did the ultimate that any human can do—make peace among men—the film deteriorated into the usual propaganda of the Nixon haters. One more note: in its mockery and malicious mistreatment of John Ehrlichman, a man who created great initiatives for human progress, as a failed ice-cream pitchman, the movie devolved into school-yard kicking of the fellow who is down.
CNN is a great and important and capable part of American life. It could have and should have done better than Our Nixon.