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A TIGHTWAD JOHN KENNEDY refusing to buy his motorcade gas at a service station that doesn't give green stamps--such was one of the opening shots of liberal political satire in the 1960's. Vaughn Meader's impersonation of Kennedy on his album The First Family embodied two traditional characteristics of humorous caricature and parody. The imitation bore a superficial resemblance to its subject while the content made us aware that the impression was not the original. It felt good to laugh at a caricature that in its own ludicrous way reduced Kennedy to understandable human terms. Yet, we didn't need to feel that we were being disrespectful the very silliness of the situation assured us that we were laughing with not at the President.
The style of anti-Nixon satire in the 1970's stems from less generous sentiments. Nixon's public unease, his failure to display any emotion besides anger, his continued harping on the traditional virtues of America, his self-conscious piety, and above all his continual deceitfulness have turned him into a caricature of himself in the eyes of those liberals who constitute an audience for political humor. Lyndon Johnson was the victim of anti-Southern bigotry which subjected him to jokes more cruel than politically pointed Nixon is the victim of his own past performances. Not only are his lies and errors etched upon the public record but his neuroses at least appear to be so obvious that he is often impossible to distinguish from a parody.
That is the theory underlying two recent Nixon satires. I mile de Antonio's video production Milhouse and An Evening with Richard Nixon, a theater piece by Gore Vidal. These "comedies" do more than avoid disentangling the real Nixon from his popular caricature--the self-repressed, ambitious, and self-righteous liar. They construct a semi-comic figure entirely from Nixon's own words. In this sense, they are black comedy. Our laughter barely hides our disgust. It is the President of the United States, not an impersonator, who seems ludicrous. Our sense of his ineptitude only underscores our disbelief at his complete lack of honesty and dignity.
Milhouse is a montage of film clips showing Nixon through his various campaigns, his opponents discussing his tactics, and journalists analyzing the ambitions and approach of the perpetual candidate. De Antonio begins with the lowpoint in Nixon's political career, his defeat by Pat Brown in the 1962 California gubernatorial contest. Moving back in time first to the Congressional race against Voorhis, Milhouse then explores Nixon's crises through the 1968 campaign.
De Antonio's medium offers the natural advantage of displaying the real Nixon at work. We hear the nervous laugh during his "last press conference" in California. We see his melodramatic self righteouness in explaining that, unlike Kefauver, he has kept his wife off the payroll--although Pat taught stenography. We suffer through Nixon's embarrassing attempts at humor.
The "Checkers Speech" of 1952 is the most striking visual episode, delivered in response to reports of a secret Nixon slush-fund. The candidate makes no response to the charges, tries to account for his income and in what Darryl Zanuck reportedly called "the best performance I've ever seen," alleges that the only gift he's accepted is a cocker spaniel puppy for his daughters. "Regardless of what they say about it," he says, "we are going to keep it."
Only twice does de Antonio make his point more directly than by implications arising from actual events. He contrasts Nixon's 1968 acceptance speech with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which it mimics. Then, there are flashbacks in the middle of Nixon's "Let's win this one for Ike" exhortation to Pat O'Brien's "Win one for the Gipper" scene in Knute Rockne. The first is sad, the second, hilarious.
Commentaries by various observers are devastatingly revealing. Voorhis describes phone calls to voters by Nixon campaign workers in which he was accused of joining the communist conspiracy. Joe McGinniss explains the desperate attempt by Murray Chotiner, Nixon's early campaign manager, to get a filmed endorsement by Eisenhower from the General's death-bed.
An Evening with Richard Nixon operates along the same lines. Although the real Nixon is unseen, his actual words are continually heard. The exploration of his public lies is comprehensive and thoroughly annotated. Gore Vidal's play takes the form of a biography narrated by George Washington: the recorded version explains that only the dead can afford "the non-political luxury of truth." Eisenhower and Kennedy are along to offer comments, sometimes speaking in their words, sometimes in Vidal's. A host of other personalities offer their actual comments on Nixon. The result would be cruel, except that, as Vidal is pointing out, Nixon has only himself to blame.
Vidal was apparently moved by Nixon's Six Crises, in which the former vice-president observed: "Voters quickly forget what a man says." The gems of which the editor reminds us--for Vidal is more an editor here than a playwright--are priceless. He brings back Nixon calling Eisenhower "complex and devious...in the best sense of those words," reporting that Ike made him feel "like the little boy caught with jam on his face," and denying that he ever made personalities a campaign issue. There are his speeches on Vietnam in direct contradiction to the facts, his announcement that the invasion of Cambodia was not an "invasion," his interference in the trials of Calley and Manson, lies about the economy, and attempts to cover his and Agnew's bungling. A particularly gruesome moment resurrected from his California campaign has Nixon trying to establish credibility as a state-oriented candidate. "I am running," he declares assuringly, "for Governor of the United States."
Both works contrast with Philip Roth's Our Gang, no less powerful a satire, but more traditional in form. Our Gang reports the story of Trick E. Dixon, President of the United States, a man with the courage to declare, "the unborn have rights...recognized in law." Though the premise is an actual Nixon proclamation of 1971, the action thereafter is fantasy. The best testimony to Roth's satirical skills is the effectiveness with which his fiction captures the reality of Nixon and of the country's reaction to him.
The story line is brilliantly absurd, beginning with Dixon's exulting over the perfect political pitch: support for the rights of fetuses. The Boy Scouts descend on Washington in unanticipated, but outraged protest. If Dixon supports the burn . They reason he most also favor me tercourse. How can they believe that, Trick E. wonders, after his lifelong attempt to disassociate himself "from anything remotely resembling a human body?"
Like the other works, Roth's story evokes laughter which is sadistic, even self-righteous, but he helps us to understand the roots of liberal hatred for the image of Nixon. Trick E. Dixon epitomizes the most evil, calculating and self-serving ambition. He is totally amoral. When he is assassinated, thousands pour into Washington, each hoping to be arrested as the one who accomplished the feat.
Satires like these serve both as art, in some sense, and as propaganda. Milhouse and An Evening with--Richard Nixon are important polemical satires; their aim is more to be part of an anti-Nixon arsenal than highly crafted film or literary works. Roth concentrates less on the literal reality of Nixon, instead capturing an essential human and political horror whose relevance will extend beyond the life of the Nixon administration.
The amount of laughter evoked by such satire is hardly a satisfactory criterion for measuring its success. After all, a man responsible for dropping, on the average, the equivalent of two-and-a-half Hiroshimas in bomb tonnage over Vietnam every week for four years is not the sort of figure to provoke unmitigated hilarity. Rather, one must ask if these works are persuasive, whether they are aware of their own aims and capable of achieving them. In this sense, all three works succeed overwhelmingly, though only Roth's has the universality to endure as more than a dated artifact of political culture.
The satire of the 1970's reflects the disillusionment of the last decade; it transcends the congenial buffoonery which has left Meader already forgotten. The success of these works inevitably leaves us to ponder the price in blood we have paid to achieve them. Mort Sahl, in 1968, summed up a feeling with which de Antonio, Vidal and Roth would assuredly agree. It would be easy for the satirists to make fun of a President Nixon, he said, "but please don't cast your votes for our sake."
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