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CNN August 1: A President and His Men

Douglas Caddy

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A President and His Men

A Revealing Look at Richard Nixon Through the Private Films of His Closest Advisers

The Wall Street Journal

July 26, 2013



Let there be no misconception about this playfully named film, bitter at the core, the edges and everywhere else.

"Our Nixon" was put together from some 500 reels of home movies taken by Richard Nixon's chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic security adviser John Ehrlichman and special assistant Dwight Chapin, all of whom would end up doing prison time in the wake of Watergate. No member of this once youthfully happy trio—men who had considered themselves fortunate beyond belief to be where they were, serving in the Nixon White House—could have guessed that anything like such a future lay ahead as they took those endless films memorializing a time when life was all promise and working endless hours was a price willingly paid. There was the fun, the camaraderie—the faith in this president, mirrored in the film of the eager crowds, young and old, roaring their enthusiasm for him wherever he went—vivid reminders of Mr. Nixon's immense popularity. Already mired in Watergate when he ran for re-election in 1972, he would beat George McGovern in a huge landslide, losing only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

The temptation to film everything came naturally enough to Messrs. Haldeman and Ehrlichman, both advertising men prior to their enlistment in the Nixon campaign.The resulting movies would be among the materials the FBI confiscated during the Watergate investigation. After moldering in the files of the National Archives for the next 40 years or so, they've now been shaped—along with audio excerpts of the Nixon tapes and archival news footage—into a small film of devastating power. Filmmakers Penny Lane and Bryan Frye have, to a degree that borders on the miraculous, avoided most of the stock dramatic images of Watergate, with the result that their film manages to bring it back afresh in all of its miserable absurdity. You won't soon forget the growing atmosphere of dread, the mix of panic and defiance that oozed from the White House as it was enveloped by the scandal.

Our Nixon

Thur., Aug. 1, at 9 p.m. on CNN

The credit for the film's potent effects belongs almost entirely to Mr. Chapin and Messrs. Haldeman and Ehrlichman, both now deceased, or rather to their intimate view of events. In a snippet from a 1982 television interview, Mr. Ehrlichman says that the Nixon administration would not have gone under in the face of Watergate if the president had not had a compulsive need to control matters—if he'd been able to maintain his distance from the mess. He had instead involved himself obsessively and "pulled it into his office."

It would take time before the president's top aides had to come to grips with their chief's flaws and predilections. The Nixon team considered itself a family, one that could chuckle at the president's foibles. "You got the idea you were in the middle of a great big badly lighted television show," observes Mr. Ehrlichman. He had never laughed as much as he did in the Nixon White House, Mr. Chapin, surviving member of the trio, recalls.

They reveled in the first-term trip to Europe, a heady tour of eight countries that saw immense crowds turn out for the U.S. president, and the team's films show it. The zestful Mr. Ehrlichman shot everything—one minute the glory of the Arc de Triomphe; the next, the urinal in the hotel bathroom.

Things would change at home as the antiwar demonstrations—captured in the film's dramatic archival footage—grow in size and intensity. Their upsetting effect on the president also grows apace, as the taped recordings tell, not least the complaints directed at journalists—who, the president informs his aides, never show the crude and outrageous behavior of the demonstrators. The night Mr. Nixon gives his famous 1969 speech to the constituency he named "the silent majority"—that is, those Americans not out marching in the street and denouncing their government—he waits for the response from his cabinet. Which is, for the most part, silent. He's had messages from only three, he's heard telling one of the aides in chagrined wonderment. It's only a foreshadowing of the isolation to follow, with Watergate.

Still all is not gloom at the Nixon White House yet, far from it—though war protests had a way of breaking in unexpectedly, as we see in a vignette from January 1972 involving the Ray Conniff Singers, invited to perform for the president and guests. Among them would be a woman who unfurled an antiwar banner and then lectured the president on roughly the same subject while a frantic Ray Conniff tried to stop her. The president was forgiving, the audience was outraged and—too bad the film doesn't include this part—the redoubtable Martha Mitchell, wife of the attorney general, called for the woman to be torn limb from limb.

The president was somewhat less forgiving closer to home, as some of these insider reflections attest. He was not happy, for instance, that Henry Kissinger involved himself in flirtations with numerous gorgeous women, and directed aides to see to it that he wasn't, at least, seated next to glamorous beauties at White House dinners. Instead, he should be put next to some "interesting and intelligent woman." Qualities that would, the president evidently reasoned, pose no danger of glamour.

This highly personal view of the Nixon years is, for obvious reasons, a sad and wrenching one—a film that is nonetheless filled with spirit, humor and a bountiful sense of irony.

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I watched CNN’S “Our Nixon” last night. It was a two-hour special that essentially was a long series of commercials with snippets about Nixon squeezed in-between. I have never seen so many commercials in a single television program.

It had been billed as comprising home movies made primarily by John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman, and Dwight Chapin. There were indeed snippets from these home movies but old TV interviews of the key White House staffers were far more dominant in the show.

The only new insight came from an interview late in the program wherein Ehrlichman, years after Watergate, revealed that he come to the conclusion that he had not possessed a “full deck” in assessing Nixon’s real role in Watergate. From what he said I deduced that Nixon purposely kept from his closest aides throughout the Watergate scandal and thereafter information about his implementing a plan to kill Castro in 1960 that led to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962 and culminated in JFK’s assassination in 1963.

Both Howard Hunt and Nixon were aware of his role and an aspect of it may have been a key purpose of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex. But Nixon kept this information from Erhlichman, Haldeman, Chapin, John Mitchell, John Dean and others, who paid the ultimate price of disgrace by imprisonment for their roles in the Watergate cover-up. These aides were kept in the dark about Nixon’s personal stake in the cover-up and were essentially used as pawns by him to mask his role in setting into motion in 1960 a plan that ultimately led to the death of President Kennedy, although of course the latter’s assassination was never Nixon’s intent.

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