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Sweating it out with Mr. Nixon

In a new play, yet another portrait of the former president emerges. And it's almost ... endearing?

December 03, 2006|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

London — MIDWAY through "Frost/Nixon," flop sweat begins to trickle down the back of one of the protagonists. But in Peter Morgan's new West End hit based on the historic post-Watergate television confrontation between Richard Nixon and interviewer David Frost in 1977, it's not Tricky Dick but the cool, charming British TV playboy who's feeling the heat.

In fact, eluding Team Frost's goal of finally eliciting an apology for his role in the Watergate cover-up, Nixon feels more reenergized as the taping proceeds. "Let me tell you how bad things were today," moans one of Frost's dejected team. "After the taping finished, I overheard two members of the crew say ... they never voted for him when they had a chance. But if he ran for office again today, he'd get their support!"

Of course, there is one more showdown between the two unlikely combatants as "Frost/Nixon" barrels to its conclusion. Yet while one should never underestimate Nixon's lifelong penchant to give, as he puts it, his enemies "a sword" to cut him down, there appears to be a "new" Nixon on view at the Gielgud Theatre -- especially as captured through Frank Langella's acclaimed performance.

"As a Brit, I think I was untainted by the moral obligation to crucify him," Morgan says. "I hope what I've presented is an un-hateful representation of a lonely, complex man trapped by his own self-destructive urges. To me, he is like a man who has fallen through the ice and can't get out from under it."

To be sure, the "old" saturnine paranoid who nearly wrecked the presidency can't help but resurface. But Morgan, whose studies of political power include the recent films "The Last King of Scotland" and "The Queen," has added brushstrokes of empathy to his portrait of a president he describes as "a political supernova of enormous complexity."

What emerges is a man of stunning contradictions: an introvert in an extrovert profession, a bad actor who won over hordes, a politician who was both a victor and victim of early television, a Machiavelli who couldn't cover up a third-rate burglary, an unknowable character who is also a cliche. Little wonder then that after the production was greeted with rave reviews at the Donmar Warehouse, its film rights were quickly snapped up by director Ron Howard.

"I look at Richard Nixon and my heart goes out to him," Morgan says. "Here was a man who was reelected in a landslide, his position was completely untouchable and still he felt the need to self-destruct. He had this inexorable ability to drive himself to the top, again and again, but he was just not comfortable there. His very low self-esteem makes him a rather endearing character."

Endearing? Nixon? It's not a word usually associated with the man, even in such sympathetic assessments as Tom Wicker's biography "One of Us" and certainly not among filmmakers, such as Oliver Stone. Nor is it a term that crops up among the dramatists who have found Nixon an irresistible, if often satiric, subject. These include Gore Vidal ("An Evening With Richard Nixon"), Donald Freed and Arnold Stone ("Secret Honor," which was eventually made into a film by the late Robert Altman), and Russell Lees ("Nixon's Nixon").

The latter, a 1996 off-Broadway production, garnered even more critical praise when Manhattan Class Company revived it late last summer than it had during its initial run. Set on the eve of Nixon's resignation in August 1974, Lees' play imagines, in often comic terms, a meeting between Henry Kissinger and Nixon as the president desperately tries to hold onto power.

"The early plays tended to mock Nixon while the later ones have been intrigued by the more tragic shades of his character," says Lees. "On one level, Nixon's is just a great American story -- the son of a poor grocer and the stern Quaker mother who rises to become the most powerful man in the world, only to fall, through his own hubris. In the skulduggery and the tenacity there's something Richard III-ish about him. But Nixon wasn't only about power and its tragic misuse. He was extremely intelligent and revolutionized American foreign policy, in most cases for the better. There's something larger than life about him."

Indeed, in "Frost/Nixon," Col. Jack Brennan, the president's chief of staff, sneeringly recalls Nixon's last helicopter ride from the White House back to San Clemente. "Liberal America cheered. And gloated.... They had got rid of Richard Nixon. Their bogey man. And who did they get in his place? Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter."

In 2006, the comparison has resonance against the backdrop of all the failed presidencies since. Reflecting Lees' contention that the American public has a short attention span, the memories of the small-minded "crook" -- the "film noir" Nixon of the 5 o'clock shadow who nailed Alger Hiss and smeared Helen Gahagan Douglas in a Karl Rove-ian Senate campaign in 1950 -- have receded in favor of a more ambivalent profile, one repeatedly proven to draw a huge audience.

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