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RICHARD NIXON: 1913-1994 : FOR MORE YEARS : From '-Gates' to 'Checkers,' He Made a Lasting Impact on Pop Culture

April 27, 1994|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The question posed to the two shoppers was, do you recognize these quotations?

*

I am not a crook.

We could do that, but it would be wrong.

Expletive deleted.

No, said 28-year-old Kimm Leavitt of Fountain Valley. Dorothy Ziebel, Leavitt's mother, rolled her eyes.

"That's incredible," she said. "Those were like guaranteed punch lines back then: 'We could have dessert, but it would be wrong.' Everybody was saying it. Everybody knew what it meant."

"Nobody I know my age knows about that," said Leavitt. "It doesn't matter anymore."

Could this be true? Could Richard Nixon's pervasion of popular culture, so overwhelming in the late '60s and early '70s, be drawing to a close?

Next century, will they stop calling every Washington scandal Something-gate? Will winners stop using the two-fisted, overhead, V-for-victory salute? Will the photo of Elvis and Nixon at the White House fade from view?

"I think it was all pretty ephemeral, to tell the truth," said UC Irvine Prof. Jon Wiener, a specialist in recent United States history.

"I think it was a time when he represented everything bad about the war in Vietnam. There were all the off-Broadway plays, the songs, the cartoons, but that seems long ago and far away. . . . For people who grew up with Nixon, he was an unforgettable part of their lives. For those who didn't, he's just another dead President."

If so, they won't know what they missed. Richard Nixon shower heads and switch plates, Nixon candles and Ping-Pong paddles. Dick Nixon watches (pre-digital, pre-quartz). Nixon comeback T-shirts ("He's tan, he's rested, he's ready").

Comedy albums, including one that set famous news conferences ("You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore") to music and a laugh track.

Nixon on the "Tonight" show, joking with Jack Paar and playing the piano. Nixon on "Laugh-In" ("Sock it to me? "). Nixon impersonated by Rich Little and Dan Aykroyd ("Let me say this about that."). Nixon mocked by Rowan & Martin, even Sonny and Cher. Nixon savaged by the Smothers Brothers.

Nixon parties, called to guffaw at Nixon's "Checkers" speech or his Watergate tapes. Hate-filled portraits and caricatures by counterculture artists. Reverence-filled portraits by Norman Rockwell.

"In popular culture, he became a metaphor," said Mort Sahl, whose comic social commentary spanned the entire Nixon period.

"People looked at him, and he reminded them of their dark, pragmatic side," he said. "The audience I dealt with for years, they could never believe that Nixon was innocent or Reagan was guilty. I was on the 'Merv Griffin Show,' and I maintained that (Nixon) had been assassinated as much as Kennedy, but not with a gun. The audience booed me. That's how strongly they felt about him.

"They think of Nixon as the Marx Brothers; you hire them and they set out to tear up your house," he said. "Reagan was the Three Stooges; they tear up your house, too, but they try to do good."

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Stephen E. Ambrose, professor of history at the University of New Orleans and author of the three-volume biography "Nixon," believes some of Nixon's effects on pop culture will be lasting.

" Smoking gun, that's permanent. Smoking gun wasn't invented then, but its meaning (irrefutable proof of guilt) became solidified," he said. "The word - gate and its overuse, that's permanent. Every little scandal is going to be a 'gate.' "

And one item is sure to survive, he said, because of its overwhelming irony.

"That famous photo with Elvis (and Nixon in the White House) about which so much has been written and can be," Ambrose said. "Elvis, he was undoubtedly looped. And he's there with Mr. Stuffed Shirt who was 55 years old before he ever smelled marijuana, whose idea of heavy drug use was two martinis.

"I doubt he ever heard an Elvis song," he said. "His interest in pop culture was zero. He hated avant-garde. Any change in social life, he disapproved of. I'm now 60 years old, and I think what's happening in the American family is just terrible. Old people always think that, but Nixon thought that when he was 12 years old."

The only part of pop culture Nixon embraced was baseball and football, Ambrose said. "That was the one place where Nixon was Mr. Joe America. He really would spend his Sunday afternoons watching football and drinking beer." All other pop culture was alien to him, he said.

But if Nixon eschewed pop culture, pop culture embraced him, if only to deride him. The nastiest shots came from popular music.

Neil Young in 1970 after National Guardsmen fired on Kent State students: "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We're finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming / Four dead in Ohio."

John Lennon in 1971: "All I want is the truth / Just gimme some truth / No short-haired, yellow-bellied son of tricky Dicky / Is gonna Mother Hubbard, soft-soap me / With just a pocketful of hope."

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