Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image/Richard Nixon, Watergate, and the Press: A Historical Retrospective

Article excerpt

Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image. David Greenberg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 460 pp. $26.95 hdbk.

Richard Nixon, Watergate, and the Press: A Historical Retrospective. Louis W. Liebovich. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. 143 pp. $45.95 hdbk.

Three decades after his resignation as president, Richard Nixon continues to fascinate his old enemies in the news media. It is not just the periodic posthumous releases of Nixon's secret White House tapes, with dependably bigoted and paranoid comments, or even the occasional discovery of repressed memories from aged Watergate figures. It is also, as Yale Professor David Greenberg writes in his superb new cultural history, that Nixon was a protean figure whose image, if not his personality, changed over the years as if viewed through a kaleidoscope, a metamorphosis symbolized by the phrase so often used to describe him: the "New Nixon."

"Nixon is perceived as a flickering shadow, not a flesh and blood person," Greenberg writes. His goal is not to explain Nixon the man but to illuminate the shadowy image, arguing that what matters for history is not just who Nixon was but also what he symbolized. Drawing on novels, plays, films, and songs as well as traditional primary and secondary historical sources, Greenberg concludes that Nixon's changing popular portrayal "provide[s] a window into the postwar history of American culture."

Nixon's Shadow is beautifully written, graceful and even elegant in style, sophisticated and nuanced in content. It is accessible to the lay reader as well as the scholar without sacrificing intellectual complexity or depth. And it is a particularly ideal book for a media history course because it traces the crucial half-century from the 1940s to the 1990s when television came to dominate political image-making.

Greenberg uses Nixon as a vehicle to discuss how this imagery has "consumed" modern American politics. Ironically, the author notes, for all of Nixon's obsession with manipulating the media, he was actually quite clumsy at it. This failure transformed Nixon into the ultimate symbol of the "svnthetic" Dolitician. Greenbere writes, and helped turn the public cynical about politics, one of Nixon's "most lasting legacies."

The author traces the evolution of Nixon's many images, noting that each said as much about its time and place as it did about Nixon himself. In the 1940s, when the young Navy veteran began his career in Congress, he was viewed as a clean-cut, churchgoing, "conservative populist everyman ... an authentic emblem of the promise of the budding postwar age." By the 1950s, after his televised "Checker's speech," Nixon morphed into "Tricky Dick." Greenberg argues that this view of Nixon as "a manipulator of the masses" was rooted in the recent rise of Nazism that "fueled a fear of the mob and a distrust of ordinary people's capacity for rationality in the face of propaganda and demagoguery." By the 1960s, leftists viewed Nixon as a fascist "dark conspirator." Psycho-biographers portrayed him as brooding, insecure, and paranoid. Yet Nixon supporters saw their Watergate hero as the victim of a liberal conspiracy.

In later years, as Nixon sought political rehabilitation, his image softened. Foreign policy analysts portrayed him as an elder statesman. Revisionist historians argued that he was a domestic liberal-although, once again, this says more about the conservative era that followed Nixon's presidency than it does about Nixon himself. Like beauty, Nixon's shifting images are inevitably in the eye of the beholder.

So who, in the end, is the "real" Nixon? Greenberg is coy about his own views: "Nixon was too elusive to be so easily pigeonholed, too controversial to allow for agreement about what he really meant. What's more, it is in the nature of history to revise, as we realize the limitations and biases of earlier interpretations and stay vainly vigilant about our own. If history can help us to understand Nixon better, it will do so not by stripping away and discarding the many images of him that have proliferated over the years, but by gathering and assembling them into a strange, irregular mosaic. …