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162 As a young man, a future Republican president of the United States was a magnetic stage performer. He appeared in every theater production at his small private college, twice playing the lead. Long after the young man became a famous politician, his drama director recalled that “he was one of our first successful actors. . . . I wouldn’t have been surprised if, after college, he had gone on to New York or Hollywood looking for a job as an actor.” The director recalled that in one play the student portrayed a sixty-five-yearold man and was able to summon up copious tears for the poignant climax. “Buckets of tears. I was amazed at his perfection.” A few years later, acting in amateur theatricals, the young man received more qualified praise from another director. “I wouldn’t have put any money on his becoming a successful actor, unless he had gone into the movies. He was very handsome.” At tryouts for the troupe’s next play, the young man met a young woman who had worked in Hollywood movies as an onscreen extra. She became his wife, and decades later, as First Lady, she would be the first former professional movie actor ever to reside in the White House.1 Readers with some background in presidential biography might guess what I will say now. The young man in question who became a Republican president of the United States was not Ronald Reagan, who, as everyone knows, is the only movie star to date to ascend to the presidency. The young man was, rather, Richard M. Nixon. Even today, Americans rarely associate Nixon with any of the appealing attributes found in the traditional movie star persona. Nixon, like his immediate successor Lyndon Johnson, has gone C H A P T E R 5  ENTER STAGE RIGHT, 1969–1989 enter stage right 163 down in history as one of the great presidential failures—a corrupt, divisive, scowling schemer whose prolongation of the Vietnam War strained American politics almost to the breaking point, and whose dirty tricks in his campaign for reelection in 1972 ultimately forced his resignation. Biographers, whom Nixon has attracted by the legion, have added much nuance to this general portrait. Especially since 1990, they note regularly that the gloomy conspirator in the Oval Office was also an innovative foreign policy thinker, a probing critic of the welfare state, a moderate on civil rights and the environment, and even a significant advocate of federal funding for the arts. Even these positives, though, contain qualifiers that repeatedly reference his penchant for ruthless political calculation. Nixon pushed détente, biographers write, to victimize socialist governments such as Salvador Allende’s in Chile and to help crush North Vietnam; he expanded welfare at the same time he weakened federal commitments to its enforcement; he desegregated public schools and, in his next breath, demonized African Americans to win the urban white vote; and he enlarged the National Endowment for the Arts to strike a blow against the liberal, New York–based arts establishment. A lonely man in the backslapping world of politics, a cold personality who nevertheless won the loyalty of his wife and the love of his daughters, a hated warmonger who achieved one of the great reelection landslides in U.S. history—Nixon and his paradoxes continue to fascinate and perplex us. Stephen Ambrose, as able a biographer as Nixon has ever had, writes amid hundreds of lucid pages, “I confess that I do not understand this complex man.” Ambrose marvels at “Nixon’s inability to take pleasure in living” and concludes that “it must have been a terrible thing to be Richard Nixon.”2 In this chapter I do not delve too far into the murky complexity of the Nixon phenomenon. We return to it only to explore the implications of the opening point—that Nixon, as much as John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, was a child of the golden age of motion pictures, who at least in part responded to the terrors of real life and the perils of politics by playacting. (As we have seen, Lyndon Johnson, only a few years older, had been deprived by his rural upbringing of an acculturation to movies, and he did not share the other three presidents’ starstruck attitudes.) Nixon’s acting background emerged during his famous early “crisis,” as he called it: the funds scandal 164 the leading man of 1952, which he confronted by delivering the “Checkers...


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