Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Thematic—Monsters

Richard Nixon, Modular Man

Even knowing every awful thing Richard Nixon would go on to do, you had to respect, as the phrase goes, his hustle.

Phil Christman

Graffito with portrait of Richard Nixon; Zoonar GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo.

What to make of Richard Nixon? Is he a kind of monster, or a classical tragic hero—unlikable, paranoid, and authoritarian in much the same way as Sophocles’s Oedipus? Historians and biographers oscillate between these two poles. His scrappy background, his Quaker beliefs, the ways in which he is both interesting and awful, all combine to form a puzzle to which even his ideological enemies react in sometimes unexpected ways. In their 2004 single “For the Love of Richard Nixon,” the Welsh Marxist rock band Manic Street Preachers hymn a man who stood against everything they have ever manically street-preached:

The love of Richard Nixon, death without assassination
The love of Richard Nixon, yeah they all betrayed you
The love of Richard Nixon, death without assassination
Yeah they all betrayed you
Yeah and your country too11xManic Street Preachers, “The Love of Richard Nixon,” Sony Records, 2004, CD single.

The song seemed, like so many of Nixon’s speeches, a carefully executed act of provocation. To singer Nicky Wire, however, it was “purely a love song,” as he told one reporter.22x“Nixon’s Cheerleaders,” The Scotsman, October 24, 2004, https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/music/nixon-s-cheerleaders-1-1398760. To another, he said, “I’m attracted by egotistical, megalomaniacal, paranoid people. There’s a sample on the record where Nixon says, ‘I have never been a quitter.’ I feel a bit of empathy with that. It’s the idea of the ugly duckling. Radiohead are Kennedy, Manic Street Preachers are Nixon.”33xDorian Lynskey, “Not So Manic Now,” The Guardian, October 1, 2004, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2004/oct/01/2.

From the beginning, he was polarizing. By the 1980s, even those who agreed with him saw him as somehow ill omened, a subject to avoid. Nixon skulked around the edges of politics, snubbed by former rivals and protégés, most of them equally villainous—at least if we take the impact of domestic and foreign policy on the size of the quadrennial human body count as seriously as we do our procedures, our textbook separations of powers. He sat in California, writing dull, massive books, proving once again the salience of his law school nickname, “Iron Butt.”

For a moment, in the 1990s, the country seemed to recalibrate its low estimation of Richard Nixon. Iran-Contra made Watergate look quaint, a comedy (for Watergate ended, as Iran-Contra had not, with vice soundly punished). Historians such as Joan Hoff and Tom Wicker argued that Nixon had, from sheer pragmatism—the same calculating-politician intelligence that had horrified Nixon watchers throughout his career—delivered important policy victories to the center-left. In celebrating Nixon, however grudgingly, for what was in many cases merely a canny willingness to bargain with the other side, the center-left was really mourning the loss of its own power,  the end of an era in which it had seemed to represent part of that political reality which pragmatism must conciliate.

The high-water mark of this tide of revisionism was, perhaps, Oliver Stone’s memorably batty 1995 film Nixon, which portrays the thirty-seventh president as a monster of ambition and psychosexual dysfunction, yet also as a principled victim of deep-state conspiracy, who stakes his presidency on unfreezing relations with China. Like its subject, the film contradicts itself brazenly and unconsciously. In the director’s cut, the film ends with footage of then-president Bill Clinton speaking at Nixon’s 1994 funeral. “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close,” Clinton said, pleading for nuance, as he might well do.

By the end of the twentieth century, the tide had turned again. New White House recordings surfaced. Nixon said racist things. He evaluated the respective long-term survival prospects of black people and “Mexicans” as one would size up the chances of football teams in preseason. In a tape that surfaced early in the 2000s, he complained about the Jews to Billy Graham, who enthusiastically agreed with the complaints. In this way, his political intelligence, his desire to stage-manage the way history received him—the desire that drove him to fight the release of every recording until the last possible point in time, rather than letting them emerge in the 1970s and be forgotten—ensured that little hits to his reputation would continue to appear well into a century he could barely imagine, and that could barely imagine him. He had reinstalled tape recorders in the White House, in 1971—Johnson had used a far less effective recording system, which Nixon had removed in 1969—because he was already planning his postpresidential memoirs and wanted a thorough account. The tapes, of course, ended his presidency. Again, political intelligence and folly seemed inseparable in him—seemed, indeed, one thing.

Thus, in his more recent depictions, Nixon is back to being a monster. In a 2011 Doctor Who episode, in which the time-traveling hero visits the year 1970, Nixon is made to utter the line “There are no monsters in the White House!” It’s treated as a joke, of course. In Frost/Nixon, the play (2006) and film adaptation (2008) based on his famous postresignation interviews with journalist David Frost, Nixon is a specifically lawyerly kind of malefactor, a person so well-versed in lawbooks that he cannot be bound by them. “If the president does it, it’s not illegal!” he says, and the viewer is meant to remember that Dick Cheney, too, believed this. In this way, Nixon actualizes the potential for evil inherent in a written law code, in law as a thing that a person might master and use to selfish ends. The current television show Watchmen (2019–) follows its comic source material in imagining a world where Nixon, in abolishing term limits and winning the war in Vietnam, has paved the way for an eternal hegemony of the superpowerful. (In the TV show, he is succeeded by a President Robert Redford, who bans guns, blocks all social media, and gives black people reparations. The world of this TV show also does not appear to be menaced by climate change. For some reason, we are intended to regard this world as a dystopia.)

In 2016, in the course of writing the most sympathetic biography of Nixon one could honestly produce, John A. Farrell unearthed something more consequential than any racist slurs muttered on tapes. He found notes proving what journalists and historians had long suspected: Nixon, then still a presidential candidate, sabotaged the 1968 Paris peace talks by promising the South Vietnamese that he’d get them a better deal once he was elected.44xJohn A. Farrell, “Nixon’s Vietnam Treachery,” New York Times, December 31, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/31/opinion/sunday/nixons-vietnam-treachery.html. See also Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (New York, NY: Summit Books, 1983). Even those of us who find American foreign policy generally cynical and imperialistic must rank the knowing prolongation of a war, for political benefit, an infinitely worse crime than the bugging of a hotel room. That Nixon is a monster seems henceforth a fact beyond the recuperative powers of even the most intrepid revisionist.

That Face

Then again, to many people, the guy always seemed off. I mean this not in the banal sense that our political enemies are easy to hate because they disagree with us about matters of life and death. Nor do I mean it in the only slightly less banal sense that leaders of hegemonic countries wield, by definition, powers that a human can only fail to use well. Nixon was not merely bad but, for his enemies, a kind of slapped-together parody of a man, an exemplary freak who told us what was normal by deviating from it.

We may begin with the face, as his critics often did. The long-serving Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn, liked to pronounce it, by turns, the meanest, most devious, or most hateful he’d ever seen in Congress. Rayburn “would vary the adjective” like a man choosing which of his three ties to wear to work.55xJohn A. Farrell, Richard Nixon: The Life (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2017), 202. This detail does not so much impugn Rayburn’s sincerity in thus judging Nixon’s face as remind us that sincerity, in politics, also becomes a tool. But it also reminds us that something in Nixon always seemed, even to those inured to partisan warfare, excessive, grotesque, comic.

Before the 1960 presidential debates, Nixon’s handlers “requested and adjusted two tiny spotlights…to shine directly into his eye wells and illuminate the darkness there,” wrote Theodore White. It did not work. The TV camera gave the candidate’s “naturally transparent skin” a vampiric sheen.66xTheodore H. White, The Making of the President 1960 (New York, NY: Atheneum House, 1961), 343, 347. He looked creepy, half-dead. Ill from a knee operation, he stammered while Kennedy glowed. (In that debate, as throughout the campaign, Kennedy outflanked him to the right, asking why the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had not, in effect, done more to provoke the Soviet Union. As recently as 1957, Kennedy had opposed a civil rights act that Nixon supported. History winds the great around its fingers.)

In these early stages, the idea of Nixon’s monstrosity was linked to the most obvious fact about him: his immense talent as a politician. On entering politics—at the invitation, it should be said, of a coterie of wealthy California businessmen—he acquired a reputation as a smear artist, mostly by trying to win at all costs. His “scorched-earth tactics” against early opponents such as Representative Jerry Voorhis (1946) and Senator Helen Gahagan Douglas (1948) today sound like the products of basic opposition research. In his crusade against the State Department official and Soviet spy Alger Hiss, he was mean, ugly, a redbaiter, and, as we now know, factually correct. He helped pass some harmful legislation—the Taft-Hartley Act, which banned closed union shops; the Subversive Activities Control Act, which forced Communist Party members to register with the government. (Nixon was a cosponsor.) But if he is wrong here, he is wrong in ways hardly atypical of American politics in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Like Nixon, Jerry Voorhis had served on the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Robert Kennedy had spent time on the staff of Senator Joe McCarthy.) From a left perspective, these things make Nixon bad, but not yet a monster, since monsters must stand out in some way from their surroundings.

This is the Nixon of the McCarthy era, invariably depicted in Herblock cartoons as a pair of thick eyebrows emerging from a sewer somewhere, a solemn man solemnly lying. Early photos disclose, in fact, a perfectly acceptable-looking man, one from whom a person might indeed buy a used car. “Age would accentuate the flaws in his features—jowls, the spatulate nose and receding hairline—but not for decades,” writes Farrell of the young Nixon.77xFarrell, Richard Nixon, 3. The first thing that surprises a viewer of the famous “Checkers” speech of 1952—in which the young nominee for vice president successfully defended himself against accusations (correct but, some historians argue, vacuously so) that he benefited from a campaign slush fund replenished by the rich—is how sincere Nixon’s face appears throughout, how open and ingenuous. Although the speech remains a byword for political cynicism, the man does not look cynical.

And in all likelihood, he honestly believed everything he was saying. The special fund was corrupt, but only in the sense that any situation in which wealthy people can donate more to candidates who represent corporate special interests is corrupt—utterly so, but not illegally or unusually so. (Adlai Stevenson had a slush fund too.) And even knowing what’s coming, the viewer takes comic pleasure from Nixon’s subtle defiance of his boss—the glint of triumph in his eye when he invites viewers to contact the Republican Party’s national headquarters and let him know whether or not he should remain on the ticket. (He had already been asked to resign.) Nixon’s honest Machiavellianism seems paradoxically more reliable, more honest, than Eisenhower’s anger at a strategically ruthless running mate Ike had chosen precisely so that the general himself could maintain the pretense that he was above politics.

Nixon’s monstrosity and his talent, at this point, were one: It was somehow not human to be this good at politics, this hard to get rid of. Scandals and losses hurt him but could not make him disappear. The antigovernment paranoia of early-to-mid-1970s American film is often described as a response to Watergate, but given the lag time—it takes months or years to make a movie—it is probably better to read movies like The Candidate (1972), Executive Action (1973), and The Parallax View (1974) as responses to the mere fact of Nixon’s election. Even more likely, they have little to do with him at all. They are responses to the murder of Kennedy, the machinations of the CIA at home and abroad, to Vietnam, to the growing power and secrecy of the corporate conglomerate.

When Nixon returned to politics in the late sixties, writers who sought to give him a second chance had to do so by assigning him a kind of ugly gravitas. “There was something in his carefully shaven face—the dark jowls already showing the first overtones of thin gloomy blue at this early hour,” writes Norman Mailer in 1968. “He had taken punishment, that was on his face now, he knew the detailed schedule of pain in a real loss, there was an attentiveness in his eyes which gave offer of some knowledge of the abyss, even the kind of gentleness which ex-drunkards attain after years in AA.”88xNorman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (New York, NY New American Library, 1968), 44. Even someone who does not know how Norman Mailer spent the early part of the 1960s can detect in these one-after-the-other clauses the deferred desperation of a man projecting.

That same year, a reporter for the Harvard Crimson who interviewed Nixon imagined the face in which Mailer saw a new, grizzled wisdom as a terrifying artifact of mass production, a face with nothing human left in it at all:

I imagined for a moment that his face had been remodelled by representatives of the mass media to match the image which they have popularized—even more, he looked like a Nixon cartoon given life.… As we talked, I thought with astonishment of the millions of synthetic Nixon-images which this one Nixon-mold had spawned.… The electronic image of the man’s face has so invaded our senses that the relationship between the face and its image becomes reversed.99xDavid I. Bruck, “Talking to Nixon,” Harvard Crimson, January 20, 1969, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1969/1/20/talking-to-nixon-pbdburing-the-wisconsin/.

As he wrote, historical circumstances were already working to literalize this writer’s fantasy of “millions of synthetic Nixon-images.” On January 19, 1969—the day before the article was published—thousands of protestors staged a counterinaugural parade in Washington. One of them wore a Nixon mask, the nose of which he pretended to pick for twenty blocks. His commitment to the bit landed him in a New York Times report on the protest, the article being, it was later observed, “the first time a presidential mask was mentioned in newspapers.”1010xCarrie Hagen, “What’s behind America’s Obsession with Presidential Masks?,” Smithsonian, October 28, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/whats-behind-americas-obsession-presidential-masks-180960937/. Soon mass-produced, Nixon masks became Halloween favorites, outselling even masks of incumbent presidents during that holiday for decades afterward.1111x“Nixon Halloween Mask Wins in Landslide,” Baltimore Sun, October 31, 1981, A3; Kathleen Williams, “In the Mask Business, Nixon’s the One,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1994, VC21. Robbers wear Nixon masks in the 1991 movie Point Break and, occasionally, in real life. The scene where an upsettingly young-looking Christina Ricci dons one to make out with an equally fresh-faced Elijah Wood, in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), remains, in a film full of potent images of ravaged Gen X innocence, the creepiest, and the funniest. Citing these and other examples in his superb study Nixon’s Shadow, David Greenberg remarks, “The Nixon mask is powerful because it’s redundant—the mask of a man who seemed to be wearing a mask already.”1212xDavid Greenberg, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2003), xvi. It suggests the idea of a face that is simply stock faces, all the way down.

Modular Man Rising

The TV series Futurama extended this notion into the far future, depicting Nixon’s severed, preserved head as a character in its own right. In one episode, he shares a seemingly human moment with the head of Bender, a robot, after Bender has sold the rest of his body to a pawn shop. While this tête-à-tête is happening, however, representatives of Nixon’s head purchase Bender’s body out from under him, enabling Nixon to run for president yet again. Hilarity ensues:

Bender, Fry, and Leela scheme to get Bender’s body back by sneaking into Nixon’s room at the Watergate Hotel (classic!), catching his diabolical plan on tape (classic!), and using the recording to blackmail him into returning the robot body he purchased (not so classic!). But they’ve underestimated Nixon’s desire to win and the marginalized robot vote, which you could call a silent majority. In an era ruled by the whims of a con man who ran his own grievance-tinged insurgent campaign to capture the hearts of the disaffected, parts of this may make for a slightly too-close-to-home watch 20 years after its original airing.1313xNitish Pahwa, “Where to Start with Futurama’s Galaxy of Aliens, Robots, and Reanimated President Heads,” Slate, October 16, 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2019/10/futurama-where-to-start-watching-nixon-head-episode.html.

In this vision, Nixon is not a person but a series of modules sequentially occupied and abandoned by a bare impulse of will, resentment, and calculation. (Shades of the various “New Nixons” the press once liked to discover.) Because there is so little self here, it can replicate itself indefinitely through time, spreading its malignancy throughout history, making even the far future a mere imitation of 1968. (This thought, too, makes the episode feel too close to home in 2020.)

The 1970s are animated by the fear, or desire, of such a way of being human. In his 1970 book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler anticipated a world of fast-moving, distributed, decentralized organizations in which employees would live as “transient cells” within an “Ad-hocracy”—“Ad” capitalized, presumably, in reference to the advertising industry that would make all of this possible.1414xAlvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York, NY: Random House, 1970), 144. (Nixon’s team was unusual, at the time, for the large number of advertising people involved.) They are human stem cells; they can become anything. Toffler calls the kind of person such a regime requires “Modular Man.”

Such a future, writes Eugene McCarraher, “pivoted on a new kind of selfhood.” It demanded a fundamental depersonalization of persons:

Like the market whose accelerating velocity cast everything and everyone into constant oblivion, “modular man” had to cultivate a talent for perpetual, remorseless self-transformation. Thanks to the escalating rate of change triggered by “flexible” capitalism, the stable and dependable self of the classic bourgeois moral imagination had to yield to a protean mode of evanescent, “serial selves” as Toffler put it. Needing to travel light in the world of hypermobility, modular men and women could not (and apparently would not want to) establish exclusive and enduring ties to companies, communities, or individuals, preferring relationships of “medium duration” and making “numerous and rapid on-off clicks in their interpersonal lives.” Professionally, the modular person was “basically uncommitted to any organization”; personally, he sported a Whitmanesque multitude of identities, each expendable at the slightest dip in the market or fear of emotional entanglement.1515xEugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2019), 578.

Thus, for all of Nixon’s celebration of old-fashioned American values and mores—which was itself, to judge by the references in his speeches and books, merely the vague memory of the period from roughly 1870 to 1890, as reimagined by the 1920s and 1930s—he emerged from, and advocated for, the very people whose organizations have helped make the rest of us more accepting of transience, shallowness, and disloyalty. (In 1975, he spent some time trying to get his daughter Julie a print of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, in which a presidential candidate named Hal Philip Walker talks of “new roots for the nation.” Roots invented after the fact are the essence of American conservatism. Supposedly the film was a favorite of Julie’s. I would pay hard cash to know what she made of it.1616xMark Feeney, Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 317.)

The California millionaires who funded Nixon’s first congressional campaigns needed modular men, millions of them. And the former admen who helped him to run the country were, in their ways, exemplary modules. Richard Reeves, in the midst of describing the “merchandising and marketing skills” of the people who ran Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign, describes its “faceless managers” and asks the unanswerable question, “What does Bob Haldeman look like?”1717xRichard Reeves, “Nixon, Inc.,” New York, September 4, 1972, 37. (Seriously. Image-search this man and imagine trying to pick him out of a police lineup.) John Ehrlichman, the presidential adviser-turned-suspense-novelist whose characters, in a novel like The Company (1976), are so modular that the book ceases to resemble hack fiction and begins to seem an avant-garde meditation on the depersonalizing qualities of government work, describes his own divorce, in his 1982 memoir Witness to Power: The Nixon Years, like this:

I was out of work, exhausted and feeling incredible pressure. Somehow I had to figure out where we were all headed, and all that yelling and crying wasn’t helping. Whereupon, for the second time in recent weeks, I followed my instincts. I threw some clothes in a car and left. I don’t think I’d ever before just gotten into a car and driven away without knowing where I was going, let alone how far, or for how long.1818xJohn Ehrlichman, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1982), 379.

He ends up at a “quiet wood lodge” in Oregon, where he takes beach walks and reads Scripture. “I had to begin to move; I had to begin to go slowly in some direction, a step at a time,” he writes. The content of one’s choices are nothing; that one move, that one fit oneself into a new organ system, find a new function, is everything. “Now Santa Fe is home,” he writes a few pages later, relocated and remarried. “I don’t know where I’ll be in ten years.”1919xIbid., 379, 382.

“Modular Man”—Toffler’s phrase sounds like the name of a comic book character. A few years after Nixon’s resignation, that obliging medium gave us, in fact, a Modular Man, who made brief appearances in Rampaging Hulk but whose story appears in its fullness in a 1980 issue of Marvel Team-Up. He is a scientist who has “delved into the secrets of molecular dissolution,” and now must wear a containment suit, lest his body diffuse entirely. His lack of personal coherence, however, gives him seeming invulnerability; he simply discards the parts of himself that are too damaged to go on with. He taps into the cable company, and the resulting “concentrated microwaves” put within his reach “power beyond that which any man has ever known!” (In what could be read as an evocation of Watergate, with its parade of jailed subordinates, the newly empowered Modular Man betrays his partner, Killer Shrike.) Spider-Man and the Beast damage his suit, however, which causes him to disintegrate at last, “cabled to half the homes in the city.”2020xSteven Grant (writer) and Mike Vosburg, Bob McLeod, Al Milgrom, and Jack Abel (illustrators), “Spider-Man and Beast,” Marvel Team-Up 90, Marvel Comics (February 1980), 4, 16, 30. The televised copy of the person, as in that Harvard Crimson reporter’s reverie, replaces the person forever.

Modular Man represented a horrific new possibility. But Modular Man was also, always, simply, the exemplary American subject, the free-to-roam wealth seeker: Nixon’s ancestors pulling up stakes for California, John Ehrlichman heading to New Mexico. Modular Man was simply white American settler colonialism on a faster treadmill setting. “Proving oneself in the free arena of competition is the test of manhood, truth, and political wisdom,” wrote Garry Wills in 1970. “The striver,” he continued, “can never stop striving.” In Nixon Agonistes, Wills recognized, two years before Watergate and a decade before the triumph of neoliberalism in the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, that Nixon “represents the integral liberalism that once animated America and now tries to reassert itself.”2121xGarry Wills, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), 581, 585, 585.

From the references to Locke, Smith, Malthus, and Darwin that immediately follow this statement in Nixon Agonistes—and from the rest of the argument—one can infer that Wills means “liberal” here in the nineteenth-century sense of the word. “The concept of the self-made man has been the key to America’s liberalism,” he writes.2222xIbid., 586. The term “self-made man” calls up associations that seem at odds with Modular Man: You think of Self-Made Man as someone with integrity, with a cradle-to-grave consistency of purpose. Whether that’s true or not, however, depends on which cues a person follows in deciding how to make that self. If they are the cues of the market, then the “self” that is making itself is merely—again—a little trapped impulse of calculation, resentment, and competitive will, one that picks up its own parts and puts them down again. “Self-Made Man,” in this view, is just another name for Modular Man.

Today we are busy; today we juggle gigs and lovers, locked and public social media accounts, ideologies that we drift in and out of as freely as though they were fandoms (which, to a large degree, they are). We are forced to be self-made people. Our heroes and icons are those who mythologize the mechanics of their own branding. Today, it seems impossible not to feel something like Nicky Wire’s empathy for the Nixon persona, that egotistical megalomaniacal, paranoid, and most of all relentless will that adds and sheds parts as needed. What beloved pop star does this litany of adjectives not describe? What major player in the Republican or Democratic Party—with a few exceptions, who feel, for better or worse, like self-conscious throwbacks—does not exude a Nixonian consciousness of the impression they create, the deal they’re getting from the press, the image they contrive even as we watch them contrive it? Who does not appreciate the self-conscious villainy of reality-show stars more than the equally faked virtue of the eventual season winners?

When I first watched the “Checkers” speech—about which I’ve been hearing my whole life—I was alarmed by my own reaction, which was full, appreciative, frequent laughter. Even knowing every awful thing Richard Nixon would go on to do—not just the silly Watergate burglary, but the surveillance of black activists, the bombing of Cambodia, the overthrow of democracy in Chile—I had to respect, as the phrase goes, his hustle. For I, too, have left some pieces behind; I, too, have fashioned selves I liked more than others. And I no more than anyone can make the world of the Ad-hocracy slow down long enough to fashion a self outside it.