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'Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words' review

Richard Nixon in HBO's

Richard Nixon in HBO's "Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words." Credit: HBO

THE DOCUMENTARY "Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words"

WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 9 on HBO.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Peter Kunhardt's ("JFK: In His Own Words") documentary is based on 3,700 hours of secret recordings made by President Richard Nixon of phone conversations as well as those in the Oval Office, and other White House locations from 1971 to 1973. These recordings, known to only a few when they were made, have been studied by historians at the University of Virginia since 2000. Portions have been interwoven with archival footage and some of Nixon's post-White House interviews.

MY SAY "Nixon by Nixon" is damning -- a veritable self-demolition derby of words, lies (and audiotape) that could scuttle the very legacy that he cared so deeply about. His observations about Jews aren't just appalling, but sickening. His ideas about homosexuality, blacks, Catholics and even Protestants are medieval -- all offered to listeners with a disregard for fundamental human dignity, including his own.

That's sad, in fact tragic, but to make this even worse, Kunhardt has structured this broadcast to juxtapose Nixon's public statements about momentous historic events -- notably the war in Vietnam -- with his private comments. Did he order the bombing of dikes and dams in North Vietnam, he is asked by Dan Rather during a news conference? Absolutely not, he says -- even as the audiotape establishes the exact opposite. Sounding like Gen. Jack D. Ripper from "Dr. Strangleove," he verbally bludgeons a general into stepping up the air campaign against the North Vietnamese, later ruefully remarking to another that he wished he could just demolish the whole country.

Kunhardt makes a half-hearted effort at balance, with Nixon's words about his diplomatic efforts in China and the Soviet Union, but by then the damage is done. Is this program fair? After all, 3,700 hours is a vast span of time -- 154 days, to be exact -- and "Nixon by Nixon" may well be an exercise in posthumous character assassination. Let the historians decide, but do listen to the words. He did say them, and Nixon can't hide from that part of the legacy, even from the grave.

BOTTOM LINE Fascinating and deeply troubling.


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