Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995)
By Carl Freedman.
In the metaphorical terms of Nixon’s political family romance, we might say that Lincoln is the ancestral forefather and Eisenhower the father. Kennedy, then, is the sibling (the younger sibling, indeed), and the 1960 presidential contest can be understood as a kind of symbolic sibling rivalry.”
Despite the generic and other asymmetries between the conspiracy melodrama JFK and the psychological tragedy Nixon, the two films are, however, closely connected in several ways. Two levels of connection are most important. First, though the narrative of the later film is sharply different from that of the earlier one, Nixon makes clear its status as the second part of a duology by establishing a number of filiations with the plot of JFK. Though tragedy is the dominant form in the overdetermined generic structure of Nixon, the melodramatic conspiracy thriller of JFK is not entirely effaced: It maintains, instead, a haunting sort of afterlife in the later film’s concern with the Kennedy assassination.
The assassination, which is present in one way or another throughout the entirety of the earlier film’s plot, maintains a much more sporadic presence in the later one – and in ways that cohere with the conspiracy theory of JFK. One important example is the scene set on November 21st, 1963, in which Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) is a guest at the ranch of the Dallas multimillionaire (or perhaps billionaire) Jack Jones (Larry Hagman): the only important character in the film who is entirely fictional but who may be taken to personify the most reactionary elements of the US ruling class. Nixon is in Dallas in his private capacity as a corporate lawyer, but Jones has gathered together some of his business and political associates to try to convince the former vice-president to run in 1964 against JFK, whom they all hate bitterly; and they promise him unprecedented sums of campaign money if he will be their candidate. When Nixon demurs because “[n]obody’s going to beat Kennedy in ’64 with all the money in the world,” one of Jones’s friends, apparently a right-wing Cuban, suggests that perhaps Kennedy will not be running in 1964. “Not a chance,” says Nixon. But the man (played by John Bedford Lloyd) has a sardonic smile on his face that – as Nixon seems to perceive – suggests he knows, or guesses, more than he is saying. Clearly something is being implied about the assassination that we know is coming the following day, but, as in JFK, questions are much more plentiful than answers. The rather crude and indiscreet men in Jones’s living room seem an unlikely bunch of conspirators; but it is not implausible that some of them may have heard rumors about what is being planned. The following morning, as Nixon is flying back to New York (with some urgency, as though he suspects that something sinister is afoot in Dallas and wants to get out of town as quickly as possible), we see several shots of the presidential visit, including some nonfictional file footage of Kennedy’s Dallas motorcade – a perfectly direct allusion to JFK.
An even more important scene shows a confrontation between Nixon, now president, and CIA Director Richard Helms (Sam Waterston). More than once, the film makes clear that Helms is (along with J. Edgar Hoover) one of the only two men in the Washington power establishment who is more than a match for the might of the presidency itself, and around whom Nixon therefore needs to tread carefully. Indeed, the film attributes this judgment to Nixon himself. Once, when Nixon is talking with H. R. Haldeman (James Woods) – his chief of staff and top aide – about how to contain the Watergate scandal, Haldeman suggests that, since most of the Watergate burglars have had CIA connections, the obvious course is just to blame the whole thing on the CIA and to let Helms take the fall. Nixon rejects the suggestion emphatically: “If there’s anyone in this country who knows more than me, it’s Hoover and Helms. And you don’t fuck with Dick Helms – period.”
In the scene that features Helms and Nixon together, Nixon has insisted on a tête-à-tête meeting in Helms’s private office because he wants to use the CIA (illegally) for domestic spying on the antiwar movement and, even more, because he wants to retrieve any documents from his vice-presidential years that the CIA possesses and that explicitly connect him to what “X” in JFK calls Black Ops. Technically, of course, Nixon is Helms’s superior – the chief executive who gives the orders and at whose pleasure the CIA Director serves – and at first Nixon tries to bluster as though Helms really were his subordinate. But both men know perfectly well that the formal hierarchy in which they are embedded does not accurately describe the actual power relations between them. Nixon’s nervous awkwardness contrasts tellingly with Helms’s utter sang-froid and seemingly effortless self-confidence. Once, pushing back against Nixon’s demands, Helms says, “President Kennedy threatened to smash the CIA into a thousand pieces. You could do the same.” “I’m not Jack Kennedy,” Nixon replies in a concessive tone. “Your agency is secure.” Later in the conversation, as the two men are discussing Cuba policy, Nixon suggests that acceptance of Castro’s regime in Cuba would be a small price to pay for permanently shattering the Sino-Soviet alliance. “So President Kennedy thought,” sneers Helms in reply. Helms’s first reference to Kennedy may have been slightly ambiguous – an apparent non sequitur, in context – but this one, coming on top of it, is pretty clearly a threat to have Nixon assassinated. Nixon himself instantly understands it as such. His face becomes a mask of fear, and he stammers with extreme agitation about what a terrible thing JFK’s death was for the country – a notion that elicits no sympathy from Helms, who responds with a sarcastic “Yeah!”.
Helms might best be described as a character whose “natural” homeland is rightfully JFK – where he never appears on screen, not even briefly in archival footage like so many other historical figures – but who has migrated from that film to the later one. Whereas Nixon as portrayed by Hopkins is, as we shall discuss further, a character of great moral complexity, Waterston’s Helms is something close to pure evil in a way that fits well with the dichotomous moral structure of the first and far more melodramatic part of the duology. This point is nicely enforced in perhaps the most powerful visual touch in the scene between Nixon and Helms. In a close-up of Helms as he is gazing at some of the flowers that he grows in his office, his eyes very briefly become completely blank coal-black discs, as though we are looking into the damned, lost soul of Satan himself. In JFK, we never learn the identity of any of the top CIA and military conspirators who apparently planned the assassination. But, in Nixon – and allowing for the deliberately cryptic style in which the very powerful speak to one another about forbidden matters – Helms all but openly proclaims himself to have been one of them. We are bound to remember, of course, that one of the on-screen legends at the end of JFK informs us that Richard Helms was, in 1963, the CIA’s Director of Covert Operations.
So Nixon acknowledges and endorses the conspiracy melodrama of JFK even while itself adopting a generic structure quite different from that of the earlier film. The second way in which the later film binds itself to the earlier one concerns the importance that John Kennedy himself assumes within the detailed psychological portrait of Richard Nixon.
As a serious and well-read student of history, Nixon naturally has occasion to reflect on a number of his presidential precursors – for instance Theodore Roosevelt, whom Nixon particularly admires for his insistence on being strenuously “in the arena”; Franklin Roosevelt, generally considered the creator of the modern American presidency; and Lyndon Johnson, Nixon’s immediate predecessor. But three other former presidents seem uppermost in the thinking of Stone’s Nixon, their importance visually emblematized by the prominence and frequency with which we see their official portraits on the walls of the Nixon White House. One is Lincoln, the first Republican president and Nixon’s all-time hero and role model. As the film once explicitly points out, Lincoln and Nixon both began as obscure small-town attorneys; and, as the Watergate crisis deepens, Nixon’s younger daughter Julie (Annabeth Gish) tells her father that he, like Lincoln, has brought his country back from civil war. Another president that especially occupies Nixon’s mind is Eisenhower, Nixon’s most important patron. Ike’s decision to make and (after a scandal over Senator Nixon’s slush fund) to keep Nixon as his running mate in 1952 was essential to the political rise that has allowed Nixon to capture the summit of American politics. The third, and psychologically by far the most important president for Nixon, is JFK.
In the metaphorical terms of Nixon’s political family romance, we might say that Lincoln is the ancestral forefather and Eisenhower the father. Kennedy, then, is the sibling (the younger sibling, indeed), and the 1960 presidential contest can be understood as a kind of symbolic sibling rivalry. It is no accident that Nixon, recalling the early friendship of the two men when they were freshmen members of the US House, should, as we have noted, describe them as having been “like brothers.” (It is also no accident that the film, in its scenes set during Nixon’s childhood, is careful to make clear that no serious rivalry was ever possible between Richard and his actual brothers, so clearly superior was he in intelligence and discipline. But Tony Goldwyn, the actor who plays Richard’s older brother Harold, is made up to bear some physical resemblance to John Kennedy, and his character – handsome, self-confident, outgoing, secular, and strongly attracted to the opposite sex – has a Kennedyesque connotation.) As the 1960 election returns come in, it becomes clear that, at least as far as Nixon is concerned, the fraternal bond between JFK and Nixon is now less like that between Moses and Aaron, or between Agamemnon and Menelaus, than like that between Cain and Abel.
In the scene set on election night of 1960, Nixon seems less interested in the discussion among his aides as to whether to ask for recounts in Illinois and Texas than in his own obsessive personal competition with Kennedy. “Goes to Harvard,” he complains. “His father hands him everything on a silver platter. . . .And then he steals from me. Heh, and he says Ihave no class. And they love him for it.” For such a completely political creature as Nixon, narrowly losing the supreme political prize would, of course, have been painful enough in any case. More than 68 million votes were cast in the 1960 election, and, if just 27,000 of them in two states had gone (or been counted) differently, the White House would have been his. But what appears even more galling for Nixon is that he has been defeated by his old friend and coeval, and not fairly. Part of the perceived injustice is the supposed vote-stealing in Texas and Illinois (as Nixon in the film insists, and as Nixon’s admirers in real life have been consistently maintaining for six decades). Yet even worse for Nixon are the advantages that Kennedy has enjoyed from birth. The personal struggle between the two men is, on Nixon’s side, a kind of petty-bourgeois class struggle as well. Immediately following the scene on election night, the film offers black-and-white flashbacks of Nixon’s earlier life in Whittier, California. We see the unimpressive wooden grocery store in which the Nixon family earned its modest living when Richard was a boy; and we also see him as a young man, ineptly trying to play football on the Whittier College team. The contrast between Nixon’s lower-middle-class origins and the Kennedy centimillions is too obvious to need stating, as, indeed, is the contrast between Whittier College and Harvard. In perhaps the most bitter words of Nixon’s election-night rant about Kennedy as “a guy who’s got everything,” he complains that, “All my life they’ve been sticking it to me. Not the right clothes, not the right schools, not the right family.” Grammatically, the personal pronoun they (in “they’ve”) has no clear antecedent. Nixon is pluralizing JFK so that he stands, in Nixon’s mind, not only for himself and for his own wealthy, glamorous, and well-educated family, but also for what Nixon throughout the film will denounce as “the elite” generally. In a way, this denunciation seems absurd, because, rationally considered, no one in US society could possibly be more “elite” than the leader of the Republican Party. But Kennedy, for Nixon, has come to personify all the advantages that his own modest origins have denied him. After JFK’s death, Nixon’s Kennedy obsession is easily transferred to JFK’s younger brothers Robert and (then) Edward, the only political rivals that ever seriously worry Stone’s Nixon from 1963 onwards. (Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern, Nixon’s actual Democratic opponents in the 1968 and 1972 presidential contests, respectively, are barely ever seen or mentioned.)
Nixon’s obsession with JFK in Nixon offers, then, an alternative view of the thirty-fifth president from that presented in the earlier half of the duology: Garrison’s admiring, indeed hero-worshipping, view of JFK as the father-leader who, had he lived, would have saved America from the Vietnam War and from other atrocities perpetrated by the national-security state is contrasted with Nixon’s resentful and somewhat paranoid view of him as the overprivileged embodiment of a system responsible for Nixon’s own personal failures (of which the electoral loss in 1960 is the most dramatic pre-Watergate instance). In yet another aspect of the asymmetry between the two films, Garrison – who, of course, historically had no personal relationship with JFK – takes a mainly political view of his hero, while Nixon’s view of Kennedy is not particularly political or ideological at all. Like the elderly real-life Nixon who conversed with Monica Crowley, Stone’s Nixon does not, for the most part, see Kennedy as clearly opposed to himself on the level of policies and ideas. His struggle with Kennedy is much more personal than that. The two men were once, as Nixon says, “like brothers,” and it is the fraternal relation gone bad that produces the most bitter enmity (just as civil war is the cruelest kind of war, as President Nixon comments to Chairman Mao Zedong [Ric Young] in a later scene). This is a Biblical insight, one suggested when the Book of Genesis records humanity’s first murder as taking place between brothers.
But – to dwell for a moment on the Cain-and-Abel analogy – who has murdered whom? Kennedy’s “unfair” defeat of Nixon in the 1960 race is a kind of metaphorical homicide from Nixon’s viewpoint, but, after 1963, it is Kennedy himself who actually lies dead and buried, while Nixon goes on to capture the presidential prize of which Kennedy had deprived him. Is Nixon in any sense responsible for JFK’s death? There are several ways that the question might be considered. According to the ethical logic of the New Testament (“But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” – Matthew 5:28), hatred like Nixon’s for Kennedy could be regarded as psychological or symbolic murder, as the moral equivalent of actual killing. Then again, on the plane of empirical fact, we recall that – though Stone, in both films, is careful never to associate Nixon directly with the conspiracy to kill Kennedy – Garrison (Kevin Costner), in his summation to the jury in JFK, does imply that President Nixon (because of his administration’s refusal to co-operate with Garrison’s investigation) might be considered an accomplice after the fact in the crime for which Clay Shaw is being prosecuted. Finally, and most telling of all, President Nixon himself, referring to the secret government and the Black Ops with which he has been involved since he was vice-president, at one point says, “Whoever killed Kennedy came from this thing we created, this beast” (emphasis added – the sentence is heard on a portion of a White House tape that history knows as occupied only by the famously mysterious eighteen-and-a-half-minute blank gap).
Carl Freedman is the William A. Read Professor of English Literature and a Distinguished Research Master at Louisiana State University. He is the author of many books, essays, and reviews, including Versions of Hollywood Crime Cinema: Studies in Ford, Wilder, Coppola, Scorsese, and Others (2013) and American Presidents and Oliver Stone: Kennedy, Nixon, and Bush Between History and Cinema (2020). He has been a contributor to Film International since 2005.