“The trouble with a tape is that, unlike a witness, you cannot cross-examine it. If it has been cut, it wlll not say so. Unlike a witness, it can only repeat what is on it and carries no trace of its history in its countenance and demeanor. ” – Mary McCarthy, The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits
The Nixon presidency, as everyone knows, had a mania for recording technology, from voice-activated recording machines hidden in the Oval Office, to spying on their perceived enemies through wire-taps. It was the famous “Watergate tapes” that helped crumble the 37th President, but a new documentary, Our Nixon, directed by Penny Lane, shows that that mania for technology, in all its guises, also had a benign place in the Nixon administration. Nixon staffers H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin (all of whom would do time for their roles in the Watergate scandal) took Super 8 films of their entire time at the White House. The tapes were confiscated by the FBI during the initial Watergate investigation and have not been seen by the public until now. Lane and her co-writer and co-producer Brian Frye, have created a documentary that shows the Nixon presidency from the inside, using the “found footage” of these Super 8 tapes, along with footage from television broadcasts from that time. While interview footage is also used (Mike Wallace’s famous interview with Haldeman, Barbara Walters’ interview with Haldeman, an interview with Ehrlichman from much later, and a 2007 interview with Dwight Chapin), there are no “talking heads” in this documentary. It is made up entirely of archive material.
The Super 8 footage ranges from the utterly fascinating (a camera snuck into the Peking Opera House to film The Red Detachment of Women, the production put on for Nixon’s historic visit to Red China), to the banal (the guys sunning themselves on the White House lawn holding cocktails and laughing), to the puerile (a closeup of a pile of horse feces), to the strangely poetic (the luscious rose garden at the White House). There is one shot on top of the Great Wall of China where two of the guys are standing filming each other. There is one shot that returns throughout the film, probably taken by Ehrlichman, of Nixon and Haldeman on Air Force One, huddled together, talking quietly, with light falling through on them from the window outside. It is a beautiful shot, and it is also evocative of the conspiratorial nature of the administration. Chapin later referred to life at the White House as a “brilliantly lighted badly run television show”.
Nothing much is illuminated about the Nixon administration in Our Nixon, nothing that we don’t already know. The point isn’t to humanize Nixon et al, although there are some moments where you do pity them (Chapin, in particular). The footage itself is a real find, and Lane and her editor, Francisco Bello, have done a great job of putting it all together, although some of the juxtapositions are juvenile (Haldeman and Nixon making homophobic comments as we watch Haldeman’s loving footage of flower beds and pretty roses). I would suggest that “if the jokes write themselves”, then find some better jokes. (There’s so much footage you can’t believe the guys ever put the cameras down to do some actual work.)
After every television speech he made, Nixon would call Haldeman to talk about it (and, of course, record the telephone conversation). Haldeman would have already gotten some responses from the press, from other politicians, which he would share with the President, but mostly what he did was echo Nixon’s own opinion about how well it went. There are some cringe-worthy moments where Nixon praises his own delivery and the emotion behind it, in that detached third-person way he had of referring to himself. We’ve seen the speech. He seems awkward, uncomfortable, and un-trustworthy. This is not just retrospect, that was often what contemporary polls said about him as well, and was a common issue throughout his political life. If you have to work that hard at seeming warm and relatable, you’ve got some problems. So Haldeman saying to him, “Oh yes, it was great, really emotional, really warm”, and only reading back to him the responses of people who liked it … You sense the closed-information-loop the administration was in, and how Haldeman’s role was to reflect back only what Nixon wanted to hear. I mean, that’s what friends are for, yes? Often friends should buck you up if you are feeling down or insecure … but it’s a whole different ballgame when your “friend” is the Leader of the Free World. Placed against the lingering meandering shot of the colorful roses in the White House garden, or footage of birds scratching around in the dirt outside the window, these conversations take on a ghostly aspect.
In later interviews, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin all talked about the feeling in those initial years, of excitement and purpose. They were all young guys. They had kids the same age, were at the same stages of life. Haldeman talks about the “sense of humor” shared by the staff, an interesting comment coming from a man who was perceived as so frightening, with his crewcut, square jaw, and intimidating face. But the footage shows a lot of horseplay, a lot of goofing off. Naturally, once the Watergate situation begins to unfold, the Super 8 stuff starts to die out, and the news footage takes over.
I think it was Ehrlichman who said that Nixon liked to create watertight compartments of information in his administration, so that no one would ever have the full picture of what was going on. John Dean’s Watergate testimony also spoke to that. There was a sense of a common enemy pressing in on them, and that the purpose of the Presidency was … basically to protect the White House from its own enemies. The paranoia was rampant. Ehrlichman, in a later interview included in Our Nixon, said that he felt that that focus was “unsatisfying” to him, personally. He wanted to be in politics, not defend the status quo of one man. Take it with a grain of salt, but that’s what he said. Haldeman was Nixon’s alter ego, and didn’t seem to have any political convictions outside of the feeling that Nixon should be protected and should win at all costs.
There is an absolutely astonishing moment captured by one of the Super 8 cameras, during a concert by the Ray Coniff Singers held at the East Room in the White House in 1972. Nixon introduces the group, saying that the music may be “square” but that’s why likes it. Laughter and applause. The group files onto the stage, men and women, and before the concert can begin, one of the singers unrolls a sign that reads ‘STOP THE KILLING’ and makes a speech (clearly surprising her fellow singers, one of whom tries to take the sign from her), asking President Nixon to stop the bombing, and she ends with, “Bless Daniel Ellsberg.” Her voice is perfectly polite. When she finishes her speech, there is a long awkward silence, and then the singers begin their first number, which is a jaunty version of “Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes at Me.” The song sounds positively psychotic, coming right after her speech. (The whole scene is a reminder that even “square” folks, like the girl in what very well could be the squarest singing group of all time, were political rebels. Nixon REALLY wasn’t safe if the “squares” started protesting too.)
Some have criticized Our Nixon for trying to humanize what was proven to be a criminal administration, and there has been a controversy about whether or not the film is accurate. Accuracy seems somewhat beside the point. Our Nixon is not supposed to be an entry in an encyclopedia. It is a bizarre through-the-looking-glass snapshot of a time and a place, recorded by the men who were there, men who were soon to be rightly Infamous.
“Our Nixon” is out in theaters now (at least in New York). It probably won’t be around long, but will definitely get a lot of television play. It already ran on CNN.