I love Richard Nixon. He was a mean-spirited, racist, anti-Semitic prick, but how many American presidents are so complex, so rife with contradictions, and so endlessly fascinating that they could hold our attention for nearly ninety minutes of cursing, roaring, bellowing, and self-pitying sobs? As only Nixon could have gone to China, only Tricky Dick could pull this shit off, even if he’s portrayed by actor Philip Baker Hall, who only partially attempts to look and sound like the real deal. And even if much of what we hear is speculation, alcohol-induced paranoia, and downright falsehood, it remains so believable because, as director Robert Altman says on the commentary track, “this is a work of truth, not fact.” The very essence of Nixon — brilliant diplomat, ambitious politician, reckless cad — combines with a sinister narcissism to bring forth a man eminently qualified for the top post, but so lacking in the basic skills of communication and human emotional development that it’s a wonder he ever left his front yard, let alone won the White House. Twice. Think of him what you will, but no man overcame so much to reach such dizzying heights of power and, of course, infamy.
Altman’s movie is nothing more than a filmed stage play of one lonely night in the life of the disgraced ex-president, but we’re completely exhausted by the end. Hall has locked on to Nixon’s character with such force that I imagine the actor had to spend a few days in trance-like isolation in order to come down from the experience. And while we get much by way of biography — the brothers lost to TB, the saintly mother, the bizarre courtship with wife Pat, the Alger Hiss case that made him a star — the core of the film is the mystery of the title; how Nixon achieved “secret honor” and public humiliation to save the country from fascism. That’s right, save it from fascism, rather than hasten its development as we all thought. Groomed and cultivated by the Committee of 100 at a California retreat called Bohemian Grove, Nixon became the puppet of right-wingers who had as their goal the suspension of the Constitution (Nixon for a third term in ’76), an unending war in Vietnam, and the eventual takeover of the Far East, primarily China. Nixon sought to end this conspiracy, so he “created” the scandals of Watergate in order to sacrifice himself for the good of the country. The point is not whether there is any historical basis for such a plot (there is not), but that it speaks to Nixon’s bloated, distorted sense of self. Of course Nixon deliberately let himself be sacrificed, for only then could the pathetic end to his once glorious Presidency have any meaning. That a man of his unlikely stature was brought down by juvenile tricks that have defined the American political scene for all of its history is beyond sad; it just doesn’t make any sense.
Altman paces the film with his usual keen understanding of the craft, and he manages to make the limited set come live with dramatic possibilities. There’s that loaded gun on the desk, the looming, overbearing paintings that literally dominate Nixon’s surroundings (ranging from Lincoln to Eisenhower), the numerous security cameras, and, of course, the ever-present glass of Scotch. As he retreats further into his drunken haze, however, it is the picture of Henry Kissinger that catches most of Nixon’s hell. His blistering, all-too-accurate attacks might not be verbatim from Nixon’s own mind, but we can imagine they would not have been challenged by an atypically forthright president.
The Criterion DVD also features some classic Nixon moments, including the Checkers Speech, televised resignation speech, and the farewell to his staff. I’ve seen that final scene of sweaty pathos many times, but coming right after the “political myth” of the film, I’ve never seen it in quite the same way. Maudlin, outrageous, manipulative, and painfully defiant, it is perhaps the most bizarre public speech ever given by an American politician, and it immediately garners the man sympathy and loathing all at once. Despite my liberal leanings, I’ve never believed that Nixon should have been forced from office, largely because the impeachment clause is so vague and subject to abuse that it serves no conceivable purpose other than revenge. And now that we’ve limited our presidents to two full terms, the checks and balances on the unlimited power we’ve always feared have been inscribed into law for all time. Outside of that, Nixon’s “crimes” were more technical that Constitutional, and certainly did not rise to the level of treason. Hell, I love LBJ, and yet his falsification of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was far more detrimental to the fabric of the republic.
But that’s not the debate Secret Honor wants to have. Nixon was neither saint nor sinner, simply a cog in a chaotic machine that values war, death, and exploitation because they best grease the wheels of commerce. Nixon merely got caught up in the bullshit, only he wants you to believe that he’s the one man who didn’t. Hall’s Nixon can see things so clearly, in fact, that he’s utterly alone in his never-ending fight against the brutal, heartless world. How telling, then, that Nixon’s final words of the film are “Fuck ‘em,” yelled numerous times with increasingly hostility. He’s tried to tell you his side, only he knows that everyone has stopped caring. Those who work less, get by on their charm or good looks, or simply fall ass-backwards into good luck and great fortune, are the “winners” in Nixon’s world — the men and women who endure, effortlessly it seems, while Nixon does the dirty work. And while everything I’ve read points to this self-righteous self-assessment, Secret Honor gets right to the heart of the matter without delay or academic veneer. Only after it’s all over with do we realize that, in many ways, Nixon’s defense is as much ours as it is his own.