Richard Nixon got his 15 minutes of media redemption last year...from the grave. They buried the nice Nixon who went to China, but Bill Clinton's mush-brained eulogy of the president-in-disgrace is already fading in public memory.
The Nixon that will live forever is Oliver Stone's.
This Nixon will survive on cable and at Blockbuster's, will be studied in film schools, and will enter the bloodstream of our culture. Stone's Nixon will become an American archetype, just like Citizen Kane, Huckleberry Finn, and "Johnny B. Goode."
Of course, that horrifies the loyalists-for-hire at the Nixon library. But, if the truth were told, they-and even the Nixon family members-should be grateful to Oliver Stone. This Nixon is a complicated character worthy of compassion. He is a free moral agent, and he freely does horrific things. But we also see that the roots of his weaknesses, and even his moral failings, run down to the open wounds of his childhood. There is real suffering in this Nixon. He is, in fact, trapped in his own pain.
Besides making Nixon human, Stone's film, even in its three-and-a-quarter hours, doesn't manage to include all the documented episodes of criminality and corruption in Nixon's public career. Stone could have gone on and on and on. The bill of indictment could easily have filled a 12-hour miniseries.
For instance, Stone doesn't touch on the secret deal Nixon cut with South Vietnamese President Thieu to keep the war going until after election day in 1968. Nixon wanted to head off a feared "October surprise" peace treaty that could have bolstered the Hubert Humphrey campaign.
Coincidentally the conduits for Nixon's covert diplomacy in 1968 were his old "China Lobby" friends. This was the network of secret agents and paramilitary warriors set up during and after World War II to support the anti-communist Chinese. After Mao's triumph, many of these characters stayed active in the region under the aegis of the CIA. Some of them ended up running the secret war in Laos, and the opium shipments that funded it.
The China Lobby was Nixon's first link to the intelligence underground, even before he got mobbed up with Cubans. This link went back to the days when "Who lost China?" was a rallying cry for the young McCarthyite senator from California. An earlier Nixon movie, Robert Altman's Secret Honor (available in video) explores this particular Nixonian labyrinth at some length.
Stone does exhume the Cuban connection in Nixon's later career. This is what the Establishment media is calling his "distortion of history" this time around. When people made this claim about Stone's JFK, they had some justification, however small-minded and beside the point. In that film Stone made the sweeping dramatic gesture of giving New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison access, in 1966, to all the assassination information available in 1993.
Stone's movie Garrison made the case that the real Garrison would have made if he'd had the Freedom of Information Act, the House Assassination Committee hearings, and 25 years of independent scholarship at his disposal. The real Garrison was a frail vessel for this magnificent undertaking. But the real Garrison was all-but-irrelevant to the story JFK unraveled. That may have been why Kevin Costner played him like an empty set of parentheses.
NIXON IS NOT vulnerable to that sort of criticism. Stone invents a fictional Texas oilman (played by Larry Hagman!) to personify the Far Right big-money forces behind Nixon's political rise. But only a complete political innocent could claim that meetings like the ones with Hagman didn't take place. Every big league politician has backers to whom he (and now she) must answer. Just ask Newt and Rupert.
Stone is accused of blaming Nixon for Kennedy's Bay of Pigs fiasco and the CIA-Mafia assassination attempts against Castro. Critics even suggest that Stone is indicting Nixon in the conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. It is a fact that Nixon was in Dallas on legal business on the day of the assassination. But Stone goes out of his way to dramatize Nixon's ignorance of the assassination plot, and his horror at the death of the young president.
However, Nixon's links to the Cuban-Mafia-CIA underworld are undeniable. Vice President Nixon led the group that hatched the invasion and assassination plans against Castro during the last year of the Eisenhower administration. Those plans went forward in the Kennedy years, whether the Kennedy brothers wanted them to or not. All of this is part of the public record from the intelligence investigations of the mid-1970s.
What the political critics really howl about is the fact that Stone hypothesizes an answer to the mystery of the 18-and-a-half-minute gap on the White House tapes. But here informed and intuitive hypothesizing is precisely what we require from the political artist. The events we call Watergate are still a mystery. The gap and the Ford pardon, and Nixon's endless legal battle to keep the other tapes, have kept a lid on the whole affair for more than 20 years now.
Mystery is the hometown of the artist. Stone moves into that 18-and-a-half-minute gap and fills it with what he knows about the uses of secret power in the last half of the American century. If the Establishment gatekeepers don't like Stone's version, they should open the gates and let the people know the truth. Don't hold your breath.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.