- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

Richard Nixon not only liked movies, he loved them. During his years as president — from January, 1969 until August, 1974, when Watergate brought him down — he watched 530 of them at the White House and at Camp David, for an average of about two a week. And he seems to have enjoyed — or at least sat through — all of them. Friends and family alike testify that he was the one viewer most likely to remain to the end, long after others had slipped away, including his wife Pat, who would retire to a quiet place to read when a film didn’t interest her.

Musicals, mysteries, Westerns, classic films as well as brand new ones, Nixon viewed them all, and remembered in great detail the ones he liked and what he liked about them. One time, at Camp David, he sat through a film with no other company than H.R. Haldeman’s secretary. For former Texas Gov. John Connolly’s 54th birthday celebration, an ebullient Nixon provided a White House showing of the 1956 “Around the World in 80 Days,” interrupting the film constantly with the eager comment, “You’re going to love this particular part.”

Obviously, the president had watched the movie many times. Mark Feeney, a reporter and editor at the Boston Globe, takes up the 37th president’s fondness for the silver screen in his very readable “Nixon at the Movies,” which is somewhat mysteriously subtitled “A Book About Belief.” Mr. Feeney’s theme, however, is far wider than Nixon and the films he watched, as surprisingly interesting and entertaining as that subject turns out to be in Mr. Feeney’s hands.

Rather, the author uses the movies and the president as the basis for a broader look at America and its history in Nixon’s time, a very big subject indeed. “Nixon at the Movies” becomes a social and cultural history of the United States in the mid-20th century.

It’s not that Mr. Feeney has much that is new to say about Richard Nixon. He doesn’t. But the author has done his homework and knows Nixon thoroughly. What is more (and unusual), Mr. Feeney is fair, bringing up Nixon’s virtues — his intelligence and hard work as an elected official and in private life, for example — and never dwelling on the man’s shortcomings or blowing his failures all out of proportion.

The films Nixon watched as President were, in Mr. Feeney’s beautiful phrase, a “magpie miscellany.” At the end of the book, the author supplies a list of all 530, and there is no common denominator. His first White House movie, for example, was “The Shoes of the Fisherman.” But he was also soon to watch “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Odd Couple,” and the W.C. Fields comedy of the 1930s, “My Little Chicadee.”

Some movies he saw several times. “Patton,” with George C. Scott playing the controversial World War II general, Nixon couldn’t get enough of. The same was true for films made by John Ford (Nixon’s favorite director) and movies starring John Wayne (the president’s favorite actor, though he liked Clint Eastwood, too). Nixon speechwriter William Safire has noted that his boss saw his own “character the way he would like himself to be: a John Ford hero,” manly, respected, taciturn and in charge.

Mr. Feeney names most of his chapters after well-known movies, relating the themes of the film with aspects of Nixon’s life. In “Double Indemnity,” named for director Billy Wilder’s noir classic, he takes up Southern California’s salient rootlessness, calling the region of Nixon’s birth and the movie’s setting a region of ambitious men and women on the make, a place “where roots never quite reached.”

Like Walter Neff, the protagonist of “Double Indemnity,” a role played by Fred MacMurray, Mr. Feeney sees Nixon as a typical Southern California product: deracinated and lonely, truly comfortable nowhere and always on the move, though in the future president’s case, the loneliness and rootlessness were more pronounced and were characteristics that grew worse as time passed. As Henry Kissinger wrote of Nixon (and Mr. Feeney quotes to great effect): “He never learned where his home was.”

This rootlessness was not only geographic, it was also in his inability to feel at home in his own time. There are truly tragic aspects to Mr. Feeney’s Nixon, a capable, intelligent man never able to achieve his potential. “This superbly qualified man, trained as no one ever had been to assume the presidency,” the author writes, “found himself in the uncomfortable position of being the right man in the right place and the wrong time.” History had passed him by: he was a man of the 1950s caught up in the late 1960s, when times had changed and the skills and knowledge he had worked hard to achieve were no longer valued.

No where was this aspect of Nixon brought home more clearly than on May 9, 1970 when he made an unscheduled early morning visit to the Lincoln Memorial and spoke with demonstrators there to protest the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, which had just taken place. It was the statesman and patriotic Nixon, a man convinced that he had done the right thing, speaking to the (mostly) young protestors who boasted a great distrust and even hatred of everything American.

And as Mr. Feeney also notes, in the visit to the Lincoln Memorial Nixon was reenacting a movie he knew well, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a 1930s film in which Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith, a troubled young senator, makes the same trip to the same spot. “Walking up those marble steps,” writes the author, “[Nixon] was following the footsteps of James Stewart; three decades after the fact, he was playing — no being — a real-life Jefferson Smith, at once grander and paltrier than the original.”

What worked in the movies for Stewart, however, did not work for Nixon. He was from another time. The “best way to categorize Richard Nixon as a filmgoer,” suggests Mr. Feeney, is that “he belonged to the era of the guaranteed happy ending.” By the time he was president, the most-praised films — “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Godfather,” “Chinatown,” and many others — no longer had those happy endings. And they shared a “disgust for America” and its history that Nixon had no way of understanding.

After all, he had come of age in the 1920s and 1930s when, as Mr. Fenney notes, “Hollywood directed its enormous powers of persuasion to preserving the basic moral, social and economic tenets of traditional American culture.” The author offers many marvelous (and sometimes brilliant) discussions of earlier American films and more recent ones too. He points out that contrary to the commonly held notion that lone cowboys in Westerns solved problems on their own, real cowboys sought help. In the classic Westerns from “The Great Train Robbery” of 1903 down through “True Grit” and other later offerings, Mr. Feeney claims, “the Western has predicated itself on team play, affiliation, joining.” Working together is the American way, not the solitary individual going solo.

Mr. Feeney’s image of the happy Nixon eager to please John Connolly by a birthday offering of “Around the World In 80 Days” is unforgettable. It’s a Nixon we’re likely never to have met. But the author gets the down side of the 37th president right too. Why did Nixon like John Ford films and Westerns so much? “Nixon was too smart (too aware of his vulnerability to ridicule) ever to imagine himself atop a horse or riding to the rescue,” Mr. Feeney writes, “rather, it was this idea of being one of the boys, of being accepted, that held such a deep appeal to him.” This is poignant and perceptive and goes a long way toward explaining Richard Nixon.


By Mark Feeney

University of Chicago Press, $27.50, 422 pages

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