By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 25, 2023)
Castle by the sea, fig. 1: Richard Nixon’s “La Casa Pacifica” (California)
Castle by the sea, fig. 2: Donald Trump’s “Mar A Lago” (Florida).
In my 2008 review of Frost/Nixon, I wrote:
There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5-year long usurpation of the Constitution and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view. […]
[Actor Frank Langella] uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.
In a 2019 CNN panel discussion regarding lessons learned from Nixon’s ill-fated second term, former Watergate Special Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste had this to say:
“As I said in my book, written shortly after I left the office [as Special Prosecutor] …For the future, the lessons of Watergate are wonderful, in that the system worked–in this circumstance…but they almost didn’t work. For the future, does it take something more than what we have experienced in Watergate [regarding] the type of evidence: demonstrative, incredibly powerful evidence of criminal wrongdoing for a President of the United States to be put in a position of either resigning, or certainly [being] impeached and convicted?”
Panel member Carl Bernstein was more succinct, offering this take:
“The system worked in Watergate. But it worked ultimately because there was a ‘smoking gun tape’. It’s very questionable whether the system would have worked without that gun.”
Bernstein was referring to Nixon’s self-incriminating statements regarding a coverup and obstruction of justice…captured for posterity via a secret recording system the President himself had arranged to be set up in order to document all his Oval Office conversations.
I probably don’t need to remind you who the occupant of the White House was in 2019. Several days after that CNN panel discussion aired (45 years after Nixon resigned), the media, members of Congress and concerned citizens found themselves poring over the 400 pages of the highly anticipated Mueller Report (officially titled as Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election) and asking themselves the $64,000 question:
“Is there a ‘smoking gun’ buried somewhere in here…or a reasonable facsimile thereof?”
As we’ve learned in the fullness of time, in regards to allegations of “conspiracy” or “coordination” between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, the Mueller report concluded that the investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”. However, it also said that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was illegal and occurred “in sweeping and systematic fashion”.
As for obstruction of justice allegations, the report “does not conclude that the President committed a crime, [and] it also does not exonerate him”. On the latter point, the “investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations”.
The report also states that once Trump was aware that he was being investigated for obstruction of justice, he started “public attacks on the investigation and individuals involved in it who could possess evidence adverse to the president, while in private, the president engaged in a series of targeted efforts to control the investigation.”
Flash-forward 4 years, to earlier this week:
*sigh* Old habits die hard.
And it’s getting better all the time (it can’t get no worse):
With the spectre of criminal charges hanging over his third bid for the White House, Donald Trump has scheduled a massive rally in Texas this weekend.
The campaign event, planned for Saturday, marks the former president’s return to a traditionally conservative state in which he remains very popular.
But his decision to hold the rally in Waco – best known for an armed standoff 30 years ago – has raised eyebrows.
The 1993 tragedy is seen as a landmark event for the American far-right.
A city of about 140,000 people in the heart of Texas, Waco is celebrated these days as host to Baylor University, the Dr Pepper Museum and the home-improvement reality show Fixer Upper.
Three decades ago, however, it was where FBI agents, the US military and Texas law enforcement laid siege to a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians.
The small, insular Christian sect was led at the time by David Koresh, 33, an apocalyptic prophet who allegedly believed he was the only person who could interpret the Bible’s true meaning.
Under Koresh, the Branch Davidians had stockpiled weapons in order to become an “Army of God”.
Authorities intended to conduct a surprise daylight raid on 28 February 1993 and arrest Koresh, but what ensued was a 51-day standoff that left 76 people dead, including more than 20 children and four federal agents. […]
Two years after the siege, Timothy McVeigh – a young man who had shown his support at Waco and became fixated with the federal response as evidence of an impending New World Order – bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 others. It remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history.
The raid also had an impact on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who – as a young radio host in 1998 – organised a campaign to rebuild the Branch Davidians’ chapel as a memorial to those who had died. Mr Jones was among the most prominent early voices to back Mr Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign.
“Waco still resonates in this anti-government space as something that shows the federal government doesn’t protect people, is out to violate their civil rights, is out to take their guns,” [co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism non-profit Heidi] Beirich said.
“Nowadays that very much feeds into the ‘deep state’ conspiracies that we see on the far-right; the attacks on the FBI; the idea that federal law enforcement is a weapon of Democratic presidents.”
Mr Trump has often drawn on these frustrations, painting himself as the victim of a secret cabal of government operatives and effectively tearing down the walls that separated the mainstream Republican Party from its more extremist and radical fringes.
The former president’s sense of victimhood has only intensified since he left office. His conspiracies about the 2020 election still abound and he has framed the legal action he is facing on multiple fronts as an effort to destroy him.
In my 2013 review of the documentary Let the Fire Burn, I wrote:
Depending upon whom you might ask, MOVE was an “organization”, a “religious cult”, a “radical group”, or all of the above. The biggest question in my mind (and one the film doesn’t necessarily delve into) is whether it was another example of psychotic entelechy. So what is “psychotic entelechy”, exactly? Well, according to Stan A. Lindsay, the author of Psychotic Entelechy: The Dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology, it would be
…the tendency of some individuals to be so desirous of fulfilling or bringing to perfection the implications of their terminologies that they engage in very hazardous or damaging actions.
In the context of Lindsay’s book, he is expanding on some of the ideas laid down by literary theorist Kenneth Burke and applying them to possibly explain the self-destructive traits shared by the charismatic leaders of modern-day cults like The People’s Temple, Order of the Solar Tradition, Heaven’s Gate, and The Branch Davidians. He ponders whether all the tragic deaths that resulted should be labeled as “suicides, murders, or accidents”.
Keeping Linday’s definition of “psychotic entelechy” in mind:
“Potential death and destruction”?
One could also ask if “MAGA” is an “organization”, a “religious cult”, a “radical group”, or all of the above. I mean, they do have a flag:
I’m just asking questions.
Nixon famously stated in the David Frost interviews, “I’m saying that when the president does it…it’s not illegal.” Mind you, he made that statement several years after he had resigned from the office of the president in shame, ending a decades-long political career in the most humiliating manner imaginable. Yet he never publicly apologized for any of the questionable actions he engaged in while serving as the President of the United States.
If that pathology reminds you of somebody else…perhaps a specific “somebody” currently vying for the presidency (yet again), you will not be surprised to learn that there is a disturbingly prescient link between Richard M. Nixon and Donald J. Trump, in this letter:
How ironic that Nixon, the man who many historians posit lost his 1960 presidential bid because he was not as telegenic as JFK and never did get the hang of the medium (even once he eventually became the leader of the free world) was nonetheless canny enough to recognize a master manipulator of the idiot box when his wife saw Trump on a TV show.
As this post goes to press, tonight’s scheduled episode of Richard Nixon’s Ghost Presents: The Donald Trump Show will have just wrapped up on C-SPAN …live and direct from Waco, Texas.
Howard Beale: “Why me?”
Arthur Jensen: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”
Which brings me to why I felt this was the perfect week to pull out my dusty DVD of Robert Altman’s brilliant (and underappreciated) 1984 film adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man play Secret Honor (****) to take it for a spin on current events.
Originally titled as “Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon” when it opened in 1983 at Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, the film is a fictional monologue by Nixon, set in his post-presidential New Jersey office. Part confessional, part autobiographical, and (large) part batshit-crazy postcards from the edge rant, it’s an astonishing piece of writing; a pitch-perfect 90-minute distillation of Nixon’s dichotomy.
Philip Baker Hall (most recognizable from the Paul Thomas Anderson films Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) pulls out all the stops in a tour-de-force turn reprising his stage role.
His Nixon is at once darkly brooding and explosively feral, pacing his claustrophobic office like a caged animal, swigging Chivas Regal and alternately pleading his “case” before an unseen Court of Public Opinion and howling at the moon (not dissimilar to how late night TV satirists envisioned Donald Trump pacing the Oval Office, wolfing cheeseburgers and unleashing Tweet storms from the Id).
Nixon, who is taping his monologue on a cassette recorder (in a blackly comic reference to his purported technical ineptitude, he spends the first several minutes of the film fumbling and cursing while trying to figure out how to work it) largely speaks in the first person, but oddly switches to the third at times, referring to his “client” whenever he addresses “your honor” (it’s no secret Trump often refers to himself in the third person).
The word salad soliloquies Nixon utters as he prowls the long dark night of his soul in arctic desolation share spooky parallels with the word salad soliloquies that Trump bellows as he prowls podiums in the full light of day at his public rallies.
Nixon frequently rants at his “enemies”. He is particularly obsessed with “those goddam Kennedys”. This is one of the more revealing insights into Nixon’s psychology contained in Freed and Stone’s screenplay; Nixon, ever self-conscious about his modest Quaker roots, is obviously both resentful and envious of the Kennedys’ privileged patrician upbringing, Ivy League education, movie-star charisma, and physical attractiveness.
He also lights into the other usual suspects in his orbit: Henry Kissinger, President Eisenhower, liberals, “East coast shits”, Jews, the FBI, and the media (you know…the “deep state” and “fake news”).
In rare moments of lucidity, he sadly recalls the untimely deaths of his brothers (Arthur, who died in 1925 at age 7, and Harold, who died in 1933 at age 23, both from TB) and speaks tenderly to the portrait of his late mother (although it gets weird when he refers to himself as her “loving dog”…and promptly begins to bark).
Hall is mesmerizing; while he doesn’t physically resemble Nixon, he so expertly captures his essence that by the end of the piece, he is virtually indistinguishable from the real item. It takes substantial acting chops to carry an entire film; Hall has got them in spades.
Film adaptations of stage plays can be problematic, especially in a chamber piece. But since this is, after all, Robert Altman…not to worry. He cleverly utilizes the limited props to his full advantage; for example, the four CCTV monitors in the office pull double duty as both a metaphor for Nixon’s paranoia and a hall of mirrors representing his multiple personalities (shades of the symbology in Pete Townshend’s rock opera Quadrophenia).
It also helps that Hall’s performance is anything but static; he moves relentlessly about the set (in a supplemental interview on the Criterion DVD, Hall recalls the original running time of the play as 2 ½ hours…I can’t begin to imagine the mental and physical stamina required to deliver a performance of that intensity night after night). DP Pierre Mignot deserves major kudos for his fluid tracking shots.
Watching the film again in context of all the drama and angst surrounding the ongoing saga of former POTUS/current presidential hopeful Donald J. Trump, I was struck by both its timelessness as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and corruption, and its timeliness as a reminder of what democracy looks like at its lowest ebb-which is where we may be now (sadly).
As Oliver Stone reminded us in the closing credits of JFK: What is past is prologue. Stay tuned.