Richard Nixon. Very few Presidents elicit as wide-ranging and virulent reactions as the infamous 37th President of the United States known as Tricky Dick.
For young Americans born in the decades after his stunning August 9, 1974 resignation, Nixon serves as fodder for all sorts of pop culture references and bar game trivia points. According to Simpsons creator Matt Groening, which U.S. Presidents middle name (and Simpsons character namesake) was the most unfortunate name he could think of for a kid? Answer: Richard Milhouse Nixon. Want more? Which U.S. President installed a bowling alley in the White House? Answer: Richard Nixon. Which photograph is the most requested at the National Archives, surpassing the Bill of Rights and the Constitution? Answer: A photograph of President Nixon shaking hands with a jewel-studded, collar-popping Elvis Presley from 21 December 1970. The photo was shot when the King of Rock-n-Roll tried to convince Nixon to make him a Federal Agent-at-Large in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs while presenting Nixon with a Colt 45 pistol in the Oval Office as you do.
And a crowd favorite: what was the pseudonym given to Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernsteins secret informant whose revelations took down Nixons presidency? Answer: Deep Throat, which was also the title of a 1972 Linda Lovelace porno. This is all real guys; it actually happened.
While Instagramers often unknowingly parody Nixon throwing a double peace sign outside Air Force One, older Americans have a more complicated relationship with Nixon. Nixon was great on the environment: in 1970, he signed an Executive Order to create the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, but he also spearheaded the endless War on Drugs. Nixon was a practicing Quaker, but oversaw the 1969 Draft Lottery during the acceleration of the Vietnam War. Starting with the 1972 Presidential Primary, the Nixon Administration, along with the FBI, began an unprecedented (and by most accounts illegal) campaign to deport John Lennon for his anti-war activism. All we are saying is give peace a chance! Nixon was the first President to conclude a speech with God Bless America. Finally, Nixons presidency culminated in that whole well Watergate thing.
To film director and documentarian Penny Lane, one of Richard Nixons greatest gifts to the American people was none of the feats listed above, but the over 500 reels of Super 8 home movies filmed between 1969 and 1973 by Nixons three advisors (or accomplices, depending on your stance on Watergate): H.R. Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin. All three men were go-getting 1960s ad men a la Don Draper. Their personal footage, which included official White House visits to China and Russia, State Dinners, live footage of Nixon watching the 1969 moon landing, and private presidential meetings, provide intimate insight into the public shaping of the Nixon administration. The hyper-media consciousness that motivated these three PR ad gurus offers a fantastically uncomfortable front row seat into the internal chaos that ensued once Watergate broke.
Ultimately, all three would wind up in federal prison.
Nixons compulsive audiotaping of all Oval Office conversations (including his drunk dials) merged with the amazing ad men footage, was all confiscated by the FBI from Nixons personal records during Watergate. These audio and film recordings, coupled with the Presidential Records and Materials Preservation Act of 1974, passed by the U.S. Government to prevent Nixon from destroying any evidence related to Watergate, results in an insanely rich media archive that documents nearly every thought, move, and word uttered by Nixon and his Administration during Nixons presidency.
When director Penny Lane heard about this never-before-used footage shot by Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin, stored away in the National Archives, she raised money to have the archival footage painstakingly restored. She used this footage never-before-seen by the public in her new documentary, Our Nixon, airing on CNN – the first documentary featured by CNN Films – and will be premiering in select movie theaters starting 31 August 2013. The unedited footage has also been digitized and will be made available to the general public on Archive.org.
US History Scene: The first thing I want to know is what was the weirdest thing these guys filmed? From what I saw of the footage there was a ton of squirrels and birds these guys thought were ‘cute’ stuck in between amazing sweeping shots of historical moments.
Penny Lane: Bathrooms. Almost everywhere they went when they were travelling, they [the Nixon Administrations staff] would stay in palaces or grand suites set up for the heads of state, so if they were in Thailand or Ireland, Haldeman in particular, had this compulsion to film bathrooms. I have now seen bathrooms from all over the world.
US History Scene: You decided to include a very interesting conversation recorded between Nixon and Ehrlichman about the CBS sitcom All in the Family (1971-1979) and how they felt the Soviet Union was trying to promote what they called fatal liberality through homosexuality in the media. Why was it important for you to include this clip? What does it reveal about this unique historical moment Nixon was shaping?
Penny Lane: It reveals a lot of things. First of all, we only included conversations or footage that involved at least one (but usually more) of our main characters in the White House. That was our creative rule. That was a conversation where Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Nixon were all talking. The conversation did a lot of important narrative work for us in one very compact conversation. It revealed their isolation from popular culture. I think this becomes common among White House staff. None of them had really heard of All in the Family. Nixon thinks its a movie. Then, of course, Nixon reveals this stream of consciousness rant about homosexuality that I dont even know if he personally believesis he just letting off steam? Trying out ideas? The conversation definitely reveals something about how they were trying to position themselves in a larger culture that was changing around them. The counterculture was growing during Nixons administration, things were changing, and I feel they possibly articulate how those in Nixons so-called silent majority felt about what was going on in this counter-culture.
U.S. History Scene: What was your process in developing Our Nixon? How did you tackle research?
Penny Lane: We started the process very deliberately by only looking at primary sources. We were only looking at archival footage. There are no still images anywhere in the movie. We wanted it to be alive and breathing and moving.
We did that for a significant period of time. That meant a few things; we experienced a higher amount of confusion. We didnt know all of the stories or who everyone was in the footage. We tried to immerse ourselves in this everyday present-tense life as it unfolded. That was really important to us, we wanted to avoid what some people call the historians fallacy which means that it’s easy for people to forget that these historical actors did not know the future (i.e. Watergate is coming). We really wanted to try and avoid that. It would be easy to start with Watergate and project backwards. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin did not start Watergate in January 1969. That was why we started with primary sources. We wanted to experience their life as it was lived. We wanted to focus on the interpersonal relationships that happened in that White House, we tried to avoid anything that was too policy oriented. We wanted to do something more modest: what can looking at these three men and what they filmed tell us something new about Nixon?
U.S. History Scene: I do think that is one of the strengths of the filmit can serve as an active example of how to write history. Teleological history is a term historians use to describe history that was written to build up to an obvious or known conclusion. These three men shooting this footage of the Nixon administration do not know the future. They had no clue that theyd end up in federal prison for one of the largest Presidential scandals in U.S. History.
Penny Lane: The same thing is true for the newscasters! The first time Walter Kronkite talks about Watergate is actually delightful. He sort of says so this thing happened over the weekend weather at 5! Nobody knew how this was going to turn outnot Nixon, his guys, or Dan Rather.
Regardless of what you think about Nixon, there is no escaping the fact that its going to end in a tragic dimension. Watching these home movies and knowing that ultimate outcome provides a particularly intense dramatic irony. They dont know whats coming. We do. You watch their home movies and you have a broad range of emotionsyou can laugh at them, you can feel sad, because ultimately you know they have a huge impact on their future.
U.S. History Scene: The whole thing sort of made me laughthe media today has a paranoia or obsession with social media overshare. What comes back to haunt these three guys is their compulsive personal vlogging!
Penny Lane: Yeah! Totally. I think there is a desire to document ones life throughout time. People often seem so confused about why Nixon had this taping system, but he clearly wanted a record! A lesson for me that I take away is that these were just ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances they did do questionable, unethical, and illegal things but at the end of the day, they were just men. I feel society tries to make the Nixon Administration an exception, that they were somehow different, but I think in a gentle way the film asks you to question that. What are other White House staffs like? We dont know anything about the way our Presidents talk in private to their staffs or friends.
U.S. History Scene: That is sort of what did Romney in…
Penny Lane: And I think these things will make everyone else so much more careful. No one else is ever going to leave us the awkward gift that Richard Nixon gave us in 4,000 hours of their private conversations. Its never going to happen again!
U.S. History Scene: Thank God he did though! I want to thank you for talking the time to digitize and preserve this footage. Are you still planning on getting the films onto www.archive.org?
Penny Lane: Yeah! We hope they will all be available to the public when the DVD comes out around Christmas.
U.S. History Scene: One thing that struck me was the lack of narration in this documentary. You let the footage speak for itself and you let the viewer come to their own conclusions. Also, the title Our Nixon whose Nixon are you talking about? Americas Nixon? The Administrations Nixon?
Penny Lane: What we liked about it was its open ended. The first level obviously implies Nixon through the eyes of his aides. But his aides can also stand in metaphorically for anyone who ever supported him, voted for him, defended him, or had his campaign button on their lapel…they were the ones that were ultimately betrayed. Nixon betrayed all of America, but especially those supporters. Its important not to forget how popular Richard Nixon actually was.
U.S. History Scene: Oh, yeah! His re-election against McGovern was astounding.
Penny Lane: Anytime I re-watch Our Nixon, the one part that completely staggers me are those re-election results! Its completely unlike anything Ive witnessed in my lifetime where elections are
U.S. History Scene: Somewhere in the 49-51% range.
Penny Lane: Exactly. The other way our producer Bryan Frye thinks about it is to remember that Our Nixon is something weve largely created in our imaginations, whether hes a monster or a martyr. One of the hardest things for us was finding that balance in his representation.
U.S. History Scene: One of the ad men describes the Nixon-China trip as a production from start to finish. Many people say part of why John F. Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960 was precisely because Nixon did not understand marketing, television, and branding so there seems to be a complete flip into a hyper-awareness of packaging the administration by the end of the decade. After watching the footage these men shot, do you think the Nixon administration was a highly controlled and structured production that just somehow spun out of control? How do you interpret Nixon differently with this footage?
Penny Lane: Yes, it was definitely a highly controlled administration, but I think most are. The fact that his staff was comprised of a bunch of 1960s ad men is very significant.
Nixon definitely represents a change in terms of how politicians begin to package themselves. This is just all so complicated. People are always trying to reduce Nixon and make him simple. People are not simple. They say Nixon was awkward. Not always. They say Nixon was paranoid. Not always. Nixon accidentally gave the American people access to his private, interior life in a way that no one else ever has, and that will always make him infinitely fascinating.