'Nixon by Nixon' Goes to the Tape

New HBO doc draws from Nixon secret tapes

In the 40 years since he resigned from office, Richard Milhous Nixon has become an overblown caricature, infamous scofflaw, and stain on our national honor. With HBO’s newest documentary, Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words, we get to hear from the man himself. He's a mixed bag.

Photo courtesy of HBO

Using archival material from what has become known as the Nixon Tapes – reels and reels of White House recordings, created in secret from 1971-73 – Peter Kunhardt has fashioned a piece that puts the audience in the middle of the action of all the day’s big events: Watergate, Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, and many more.

The audio recordings are only half the story here, sandwiched between television footage from the time. The muted colors and wide collars paint their own portrait of a nation leaving the tumultuous Sixties for a ever-less-promising Seventies.

The most shocking words from Nixon himself come from his utter contempt for any and all minority groups. Jews are “born spies.” African Americans are poor and lazy and will always be that way. Women are fine as far as they go, but he definitely doesn’t want to be responsible for putting the first one on the Supreme Court. Nixon’s use of epithets and slanders is shocking, even as a well-known part of the historical record.

The back and forth between the public footage and the secret tapes creates a fly-on-the-wall situation for the viewer. For example, during a White House performance by Ray Conniff Singers, one young lady confronts the president, calling him out over the war in Vietnam. It’s a tense moment, but Nixon just smiles through it. Fast forward to the tapes, and he is enraged, upset at this “radical” for daring to embarrass him like that.

Often these peeks behind the curtain don’t elicit any surprises, but they are painted with such vividness in both words and images that I was left with a strange feeling: sympathy. Not sympathy for his actions or his words, his hate or his mistakes. For an hour, Richard Nixon became real with all the trappings that accompany such a realization. He tried to illegally cover up the Watergate incident, but he had a daughters and a wife that he loved. He escalated the war in Vietnam, but like the rest of the country wanted to see it end.

Therein lies the ultimate takeaway: the complexity, the conundrum, the paradox that was Richard Nixon. A short clip early in the documentary best exemplifies this. In a 1982 interview, advisor John Ehrlichman warns against selective reading of the tapes.

"If you listen to a snippet of tape, you’re going to form an impression of this man that’s going to be wrong!” If historians were to listen to all of the tapes, he claims they would say, "Richard Nixon was the strangest collection, the strangest paradoxical combination of any man I have ever heard of. And they will be right.”

There’s no need to overpraise Nixon for the good he did, but there is a better side to his presidency. In an interview years after he left office, Nixon said, "I initiated programs in the field of the environment and hunger and cancer and drugs that I think are very sound building blocks for the future. These are positive achievements.” Indeed they are, but unfortunately they aren’t the whole story.

Nixon by Nixon begins with a short recounting of his childhood in California, when playing piano took center stage in his early life. "Would I concentrate on music or should I move to debating and other areas?” he recalls. "I finally moved in other directions. Sometimes I rather regret it.”

Two roads diverged in his life, and Nixon chose power and politics. That has made all the difference.

Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words premieres tonight (8/4), 8pm, on HBO.

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