Sweating it out with Mr. Nixon

Special to The Times

MIDWAY through "Frost/Nixon," flop sweat begins to trickle down the back of one of the protagonists. But in Peter Morgan's new West End hit based on the historic post-Watergate television confrontation between Richard Nixon and interviewer David Frost in 1977, it's not Tricky Dick but the cool, charming British TV playboy who's feeling the heat.

In fact, eluding Team Frost's goal of finally eliciting an apology for his role in the Watergate cover-up, Nixon feels more reenergized as the taping proceeds. "Let me tell you how bad things were today," moans one of Frost's dejected team. "After the taping finished, I overheard two members of the crew say ... they never voted for him when they had a chance. But if he ran for office again today, he'd get their support!"

Of course, there is one more showdown between the two unlikely combatants as "Frost/Nixon" barrels to its conclusion. Yet while one should never underestimate Nixon's lifelong penchant to give, as he puts it, his enemies "a sword" to cut him down, there appears to be a "new" Nixon on view at the Gielgud Theatre -- especially as captured through Frank Langella's acclaimed performance.

"As a Brit, I think I was untainted by the moral obligation to crucify him," Morgan says. "I hope what I've presented is an un-hateful representation of a lonely, complex man trapped by his own self-destructive urges. To me, he is like a man who has fallen through the ice and can't get out from under it."

To be sure, the "old" saturnine paranoid who nearly wrecked the presidency can't help but resurface. But Morgan, whose studies of political power include the recent films "The Last King of Scotland" and "The Queen," has added brushstrokes of empathy to his portrait of a president he describes as "a political supernova of enormous complexity."

What emerges is a man of stunning contradictions: an introvert in an extrovert profession, a bad actor who won over hordes, a politician who was both a victor and victim of early television, a Machiavelli who couldn't cover up a third-rate burglary, an unknowable character who is also a cliche. Little wonder then that after the production was greeted with rave reviews at the Donmar Warehouse, its film rights were quickly snapped up by director Ron Howard.

"I look at Richard Nixon and my heart goes out to him," Morgan says. "Here was a man who was reelected in a landslide, his position was completely untouchable and still he felt the need to self-destruct. He had this inexorable ability to drive himself to the top, again and again, but he was just not comfortable there. His very low self-esteem makes him a rather endearing character."

Endearing? Nixon? It's not a word usually associated with the man, even in such sympathetic assessments as Tom Wicker's biography "One of Us" and certainly not among filmmakers, such as Oliver Stone. Nor is it a term that crops up among the dramatists who have found Nixon an irresistible, if often satiric, subject. These include Gore Vidal ("An Evening With Richard Nixon"), Donald Freed and Arnold Stone ("Secret Honor," which was eventually made into a film by the late Robert Altman), and Russell Lees ("Nixon's Nixon").

The latter, a 1996 off-Broadway production, garnered even more critical praise when Manhattan Class Company revived it late last summer than it had during its initial run. Set on the eve of Nixon's resignation in August 1974, Lees' play imagines, in often comic terms, a meeting between Henry Kissinger and Nixon as the president desperately tries to hold onto power.

"The early plays tended to mock Nixon while the later ones have been intrigued by the more tragic shades of his character," says Lees. "On one level, Nixon's is just a great American story -- the son of a poor grocer and the stern Quaker mother who rises to become the most powerful man in the world, only to fall, through his own hubris. In the skulduggery and the tenacity there's something Richard III-ish about him. But Nixon wasn't only about power and its tragic misuse. He was extremely intelligent and revolutionized American foreign policy, in most cases for the better. There's something larger than life about him."

Indeed, in "Frost/Nixon," Col. Jack Brennan, the president's chief of staff, sneeringly recalls Nixon's last helicopter ride from the White House back to San Clemente. "Liberal America cheered. And gloated.... They had got rid of Richard Nixon. Their bogey man. And who did they get in his place? Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter."

In 2006, the comparison has resonance against the backdrop of all the failed presidencies since. Reflecting Lees' contention that the American public has a short attention span, the memories of the small-minded "crook" -- the "film noir" Nixon of the 5 o'clock shadow who nailed Alger Hiss and smeared Helen Gahagan Douglas in a Karl Rove-ian Senate campaign in 1950 -- have receded in favor of a more ambivalent profile, one repeatedly proven to draw a huge audience.

In "Frost/Nixon," we are told that 400 million people watched his resignation speech and that the taped interviews between Nixon and Frost attracted the largest audience for a news program in the history of American television, making the covers of Time and Newsweek.

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Moths to a flame

PEOPLE love to Nixon-watch because it's a blood sport. "Nixon is always in combat," says Lees, "always struggling to win, to even the score," he says. In "Nixon's Nixon," the president and Kissinger spend the night reliving triumphs only to end up trying to concoct "wag-the-dog" scenarios to keep themselves from being cast out into the darkness, "like Satan from heaven," the president says. On the night before the final taping in "Frost/Nixon," a drunken Nixon calls Frost (played by Michael Sheen) to psyche him out, staking out the confrontation with Frost over Watergate as a zero-sum game in which only one of them can emerge victorious. He goads Frost by characterizing them both as men driven to succeed to over the "snobs" who would look down on their middle-class origins. "Isn't that why we work so hard now?" he asks Frost, his speech slurred. "Why we fight for every inch? Scrambling our way up, in undignified fashion, whatever hillock or mountain it is ... ?"

In that hunger for respect and acclaim, up from the dust of Yorba Linda, Nixon recalls not so much the kingly power of a Lear or a Richard III but the insecurity and yearning of another misfit from literature.

Says Langella, "Someone said to me the other night, 'Why don't you play Willy Loman?' And I said, 'I am.' And attention is being paid."

Acknowledging that he came to the role with "all the biases and prejudices" of the average Nixon hater, the actor said that exploring the play had invited "not my sympathy or even my compassion, really, but I do now have an understanding of what brought Nixon down. We're quick to judge others. But [playing Nixon] made me appreciate just how much whatever your parents lay down for you, how that can years later sneak up on you and grab you by the throat. The voices in your head that tell you, no matter how many accolades you win, you're just not good enough. And none of us escapes that. I never thought that I could feel anything for this man who'd done so much damage. He certainly paid a heavy price and deserved to be impeached, but I hope that by the end of the play, people would come to accept this flawed, strange and difficult man."

Langella contends that Nixon simply wanted the one thing that came so easily to his rivals, be they John F. Kennedy or even Frost: to be liked. In a telling exchange in "Frost/Nixon," the former president says to Frost with undisguised envy, "Liking people. And being liked. Having that ... facility with people. That lightness. That charm. I don't have it. Never have. Makes you wonder why I chose a life which hinged on being liked.... Maybe we got it wrong. Maybe I should have been the talk-show host and you the politician."

"My guess is that acceptance meant more to him than power," says Langella. "I think that's often the case. Look at all the misfits who rose to the top only to end up in a heap or at Elba yearning for a return." Indeed, Nixon in a fury says to Frost, "We're going to show those bums and make them choke on our continued success."

But in that regard, both "Nixon's Nixon" and "Frost/Nixon" are cautionary tales about the class nerd who gets his revenge. Both plays tally the casualties, not only to civil liberties and the Constitution but in blood as well. 800,000 dead is the figure that Nixon and Kissinger casually arrive at in the course of their Walpurgisnacht. James Reston Jr., a biographer who was a member of Frost's team, notes in the play, "The man lost 15,000 Americans [in Vietnam] and a million Indochinese during his administration.... " Says Morgan, "Ultimately, unchecked ambition is just some form of pathology, all ambitious men have damage, and that makes them interesting, if dangerous, characters. What makes them tick. I think that's what continues to intrigue."

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'The Nixon in everybody'

TO many people, Nixon's exile -- from which he never escaped in his lifetime -- was a small price to pay for his crimes. For them, he should have spent the rest of his life in jail. And, as Reston states toward the end of the play, "-gate" would always be affixed to every political scandal to come down the pike since then, the ne plus ultra of corruption in government. But while Nixon's ultimate revenge may be, as with all great heroes and villains, that he is still being talked about, the most intriguing part of this continuing conversation is that the tone is beginning to change. In the revival of "Nixon's Nixon," one line that never failed to get a laugh from the New York audience was when Gerry Bamman, who played Nixon, announced in those inimitably stentorian tones, "I appeal to the Nixon in everybody."

The laugh was usually derisive when elicited during the 1996 off-Broadway run of the play, recalls Lees. It has recently taken on a more knowing edge. Maybe, he adds, "we are ready as a nation, to see ourselves a little more clear-eyed, to see Richard Nixon less as an aberration and more as one of our own. We're a more mature nation now and can face up to ourselves, rather than just rely on these myths about who we are."

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