The 37th president and first to resign died nearly 25 years ago — April 22, 1994 — but in one obvious sense, Richard Milhous Nixon never really left us at all and never really will. Last fall's excellent if obsessive Charles Ferguson film on Watergate aired over three nights. Nixon has also recently appeared in films on Jane Fonda (2018), activists (2017), China (2015) and cancer (also that year).
The most Zelig-like of politicians, alive or dead, Nixon pops up regularly and unannounced, but Sunday at 9 p.m. and over the next three Sundays, the camera holds steady, or at least as steady as possible for a political career as varied and divisive as this one. CNN's "Tricky Dick" — and we'll get to that title in a minute — deconstructs this career solely through the use of archival footage. While this may not be the first film on Nixon with this approach — HBO's "Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words," back in 2014, essentially managed the same feat — what's unique is the impression this four-parter leaves:
For all his anti-media tirades and apparent dismissal of TV gimmickry over a long career, Nixon had a particularly shrewd and early grasp of the medium. In the late hours of this four-parter, he largely withdraws into the Oval Office, where his words would be consigned to the most famous of tapes and which will eventually doom his presidency.
But in the early ones, he seeks out the cameras and the cameras seek out him. It's a symbiotic relationship that had its first moment of glory in the Sept. 23, 1952, "Checkers speech," in which he sidestepped charges that he had taken money from rich donors.
Here a line for the ages is deployed — wife Pat has only a "respectable Republican cloth coat" as opposed to a mink one — and a dog for the ages is as well. ("Regardless what they say about this right now, we're gonna keep him.")
John F. Kennedy may have been the first television president, but Nixon — as this CNN film makes abundantly clear — was the first television vice president. Checkers saved the ticket and the career — lessons never forgotten, by him or anyone else.
"Tricky Dick" was of course the sobriquet attached to Nixon during the 1950 California U.S. Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, when Nixon "cross-filed," or sought nominations on both the Democratic and Republican ballots. An outraged Democratic rival, newspaper publisher Manchester Boddy, then created an ad which ran in his paper. The tagline: "Look at 'Tricky Dick' Nixon Republican Record." (Alas, Boddy's own slogan was not quite so memorable: “Manchester Boddy, the Democrat Every Body Wants.”)
This essential background isn't mentioned in "Tricky Dick," which is the shortcoming of any film that relies strictly on footage. But the footage that's here still tells a valuable and lesser-told story.
Mary Robertson — the film's executive producer and a former producer of Showtime's political series, "The Circus" — says it's "the story of power in American politics and how it's wielded and how it's diffused and lost." She adds, "We worked entirely with archival material to create a film that's immersive and transports the viewer to another time, and really allows Nixon and his contemporaries to speak for themselves."
Robertson said she and other producers had worked with a network of university archives "to locate, identify and transfer material, and in some cases we were able to read about [an old] broadcast and ask our partners to transmit it."
In one instance, she learned of the existence of a misguided ABC documentary that aired in 1962 and was subsequently locked away.
For good reason: It was, she says, entitled "The Political Obituary of Richard M. Nixon" and confidently reported that his political career was over. (Nixon had just lost the California governors' race to Edmund "Pat" Brown.)
She also found Nixon home movies. Per CNN, much of this material has never been seen, while much else — like that premature ABC broadcast — had been swallowed whole by archives, then forgotten.
But that genuine surprise, at least in the early hours, is that TV acumen. In the de rigueur discussion of the 1960 prime-time debates with Kennedy, "Tricky Dick" wisely sidesteps the standard footage of Nixon with sweaty brow and hooded glare, unattended by "pancake" makeup, which was also a reason most people to this day believe he lost the debates.
Instead, the archival footage — which does include contemporary commentary from broadcasters like Howard K. Smith and others — argues that Nixon lost because he was "nice" to his rival JFK, or one observer says, "within the first two minutes I was convinced he wasn't going to fight back." Per these contemporary accounts, Nixon gave the lesser-known Kennedy the opening he needed.
Nixon himself also offers an amusing post-mortem. He had worn a light-colored suit on the night of Sept. 26, 1960, which appeared light gray on TV. Nixon himself then seemed to disappear into the light gray background.
(Looking back on his sartorial blunder years later, Nixon rhetorically shrugs his shoulders, then says, "Oh, well … hell."
The best line here goes to David Brinkley, the longtime NBC and ABC News anchor. Turning to Chet Huntley — who shared the booth with him during coverage of the 1960 Republican convention in Chicago — he observes, "Nixon and Pat are back at the Sheraton-Blackstone [Hotel] watching on television, looking at us looking at him — looking at us."
Funny, but in that quip there's a sober truth. As Nixon was the first to recognize, television elects presidents. Tricky indeed.