A President Who Rose and Fell With TV : Commentary: Much of Richard Nixon’s career was lived on the small screen. Twenty years after his resignation, Disney and Discovery take another look.
Richard Nixon sometimes seemed to be living out his life on TV.
The former President, who died in April at 81, arrived on the national political scene as a congressman in 1946, when TV was in its infancy.
And, until his death, the home screen served as a constant reflection of his roller-coaster career, from the scandal of Watergate--which forced his resignation from the presidency 20 years ago this month--to his achievements on the international scene. Finally, there were his appearances on TV in the last two decades in connection with an outpouring of books as he sought to lift his place in history from the disaster that dragged it down.
Thus, a current outpouring of memoirs about Nixon and Watergate, timed to the 20th anniversary of his resignation, seem fittingly in place on TV--where so much of it happened.
Two of the multipart efforts--a Disney Channel rerun of David Frost’s historic 1977 interview with Nixon and a Discovery Channel series that begins Sunday, “Watergate"--make for mesmerizing viewing, not only for the content but also as a study of this complex figure who careened from the penthouse to the basement and tried to bounce back up.
Aside from the historical events themselves, what is fascinating in a TV sense is the evolution of Nixon on the medium that almost did him in during the 1960 presidential debates with John F. Kennedy.
Anyone who saw Nixon in those debates, then watched the Frost interviews 17 years later--and also viewed Brian Lamb’s more recent discussion with the former President on C-SPAN’s “Booknotes” series--could not help notice the startling and riveting TV presence that this enigmatic politician had developed.
Whatever one thought of him, or thinks of him, he was, in the latter years of his life, perhaps the most compelling TV figure imaginable, bringing with him the baggage of an incomparably volatile and checkered career. I saw the “Booknotes” interview twice and could not turn it off; it was utterly hypnotic.
In 1989, shortly before George Bush was to be sworn in as President, Nixon wrote an article for TV Guide, offering thoughts on dealing with broadcasters from the White House.
“Of all the institutions arrayed with and against a President, none controls his fate more than television,” Nixon wrote.
Of the natural adversarial relationship of a President and the media, he added a flurry of comments: TV reporters, he said, in many ways “are political actors just like the President, mindful of their ratings, careful of preserving and building their power.” The media, he wrote, “have to be outfoxed, outflanked and outperformed.”
Sometimes Nixon succeeded in this plan, sometimes he didn’t, and most of it was right there on TV for us to see.
At the start of his career, TV simply didn’t have the clout it soon would develop, so his successful congressional campaigns against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, which earned him the hatred of critics for “red-baiting,” had--despite considerable public impact--less national television penetration than would have occurred, say, a decade later. But the Alger Hiss case brought him fame--and more enemies--and he became a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
It was in 1952, with his famous “Checkers” speech on television, that Nixon came to grips with the new medium in an appearance whose political lessons still reverberate.
Nixon had been chosen by Dwight D. Eisenhower as his vice presidential running mate. But Nixon was almost done in by a disclosure that California backers had added to his U.S. Senate salary with an $18,000 slush fund. He decided to fight--on TV, where he could appeal directly to voters without questioning, a technique that now has become standard practice.
Critics and detractors scoffed at what they considered a cornball appearance in which he described himself--with his wife, Pat, sitting by--as just a plain guy. But, as Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik wrote in their book “Watching TV”:
“Nixon’s presentation that night demonstrated that he was one of the first major politicians to grasp fully the impact and nature of television as a political tool. . . . The Horatio Alger story culminated in the ultimate heart-tug, a little dog (named Checkers).”
Nixon told viewers that a man from Texas had sent his family the animal, adding: “You know, the kids love the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
The performance went over with the public, and Eisenhower and Nixon were elected.
They were re-elected in 1956. In 1959, Nixon, increasingly involved in foreign policy, engaged in another incident that gained wide TV attention, his “kitchen debate” with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow.
TV, however, turned sour for Nixon in 1960 when he went up against a more sophisticated media contender--Kennedy, still regarded as the best-ever politician on the home medium--in their debates for the presidency. Nixon was good enough to win on radio, where many regarded him as the victor, but he was no match for Kennedy on TV, who moved into the White House.
Things became worse for Nixon politically in 1962 when he then lost in the California gubernatorial race to Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. It was in conceding that race that Nixon made a statement heard often on television in the years to come, telling reporters: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
In late 1962, when it seemed that Nixon might be all washed up in politics, another controversial TV event occurred in which he again was the centerpiece. It was an ABC program by news commentator Howard K. Smith titled “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”
It turned out to be a premature burial. By 1968--the year in which Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated and violence erupted between police and anti-Vietnam War protesters outside the Democratic convention in Chicago, for all the world to see on TV--Nixon was elected President.
He would be elected still again in 1972 in the term that was cut short two years later by his resignation in the face of impeachment over Watergate.
In his comeback years, he had learned to play TV to his advantage when possible, even on entertainment shows. He played the piano on “The Jack Paar Program,” and he even turned up on “Laugh-In,” uttering one of the series’ trademark lines: “Sock it to me.”
But as President again, his adversarial relationship with TV came to the fore once more. He was at serious odds with public television. And, amid the Vietnam War and TV’s influential coverage, his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, put pressure on CBS, NBC and ABC, depicting them as part of an elitist Eastern Establishment that was disseminating its views in its news reporting.
It was a successful campaign for a while. But, within several years, Watergate began to emerge. And in 1973, Agnew--who once struck fear in the TV networks--resigned from office under investigation for graft, to be replaced by Gerald R. Ford.
The Watergate debacle began in 1972, a year in which Nixon had already scored an international triumph by opening the door to the People’s Republic of China--impressively recorded by TV--and then traveled to Moscow for a summit meeting. In June of that year, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate complex in Washington.
Although Nixon was re-elected in a landslide in November, by the next year a congressional committee, headed by Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), had begun televised hearings into the Watergate affair.
In August of 1974, Nixon resigned in a televised address. Thus began his attempt at the long road back. The current spate of programs such as the Frost interview and “Watergate” vividly document the unprecedented and mind-boggling passage in American history--and its legacy.
And, combined with Nixon’s later, rare home-screen appearances, they give us a close-up look at the unfailingly revealing clues to one of the most astonishing figures TV has ever recorded.
* “Watergate” premieres on cable’s Discovery Channel with a two-hour installment at 9 p.m. Sunday, followed by one-hour segments Monday through Wednesday at 10 p.m. All five hours will be shown again Aug. 14 at noon. “The Nixon Interviews With David Frost"--with new footage added to the old programs--airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. through August on cable’s Disney Channel. Arts & Entertainment will rebroadcast a special, “The Key to Watergate,” at 8 p.m. Monday.