Re-Bunking Dick

Article excerpt

The last time I saw Oliver Stone in public we were together on The Nation Institute's platform at Town Hall in New York, and he was trying to persuade an audience (made up of our special constituency of malcontents, veterans and paranoids) that his theory of the Kennedy assassination was both radical and true. Now here I sit, in the auditorium of that ghastly "Palace of Culture" on the Potomac, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and watch as Stone is introduced by Jack Valenti, the dapper little flack of the Motion Picture Association. Valenti recalls how he "went to war" against Stone over JFK, determined to defend the reputation of his onetime boss, the oafish Lyndon Johnson. Yet, he signals twinkily, this night is to be one of reconciliation and breadth of mind. Stone is growing up, and appreciating complexity. He is man enough to take a square look at the "tortured" figure of Richard Nixon. Stone himself, replying to the introduction, seems to delight in that most dubious of appellations--the title "unpredictable." He desires to represent Nixon as a "Shakespearean" figure, riven by irony and contradiction and thus, inevitably, more human than he is usually portrayed. The unspoken corollary is that a more human Nixon is less deserving of unequivocal condemnation. In our one-dimensional culture this means, Brace yourself, a re-bunking is on the way.

Shakespeare himself was guilty of defaming one great historical figure--another Richard, as it happens. His Richard 111, or "Crookback Dick," has long served as the pattern and metaphor for regal villainy, palace coups and the foul clawmarks left on the path to the throne. Not until Josephine Tey published her Daughter of Time was any measure of justice done to the slain Richard (most gratifyingly, it put a stake through the heart of that monster of medieval conceit and cruelty, Sir Thomas More). If you want an appreciation of the potency of historical revisionism, read Shakespeare and Tey over the same weekend.

Stone's project of the shadowed and mellowed Nixon is insipid by contrast. This is chiefly for two reasons. First, the Nixon revision has been under way for some time. Clinton made a throaty oration at his graveside. Liberals like Robert Scheer (a consultant on Stone's movie) have proposed a kinder and gentler Dick, and a longer perspective in which to savor his fragrance. Second, we have the Diaries of Nixon's chief henchman, H.R. Haldeman, now available on CD-ROM. Those diaries, written in real time by the least impeachable source, contain all the evidence for concluding that Nixon was a dirtier bigot, a more callous war criminal and a more energetic subverter of democracy than anyone had previously dared to guess. So, since we are allegedly in the historical irony business, let's not fail to note that the liberals are being more lenient with Nixon even as his own court supplies a fuller indictment. (This "irony" applies especially to those simple souls who think Stone's film is a work of"sixties radicalism.")

Here are some things that make no appearance in Stone's film, even though the material was coming on stream even as the movie was being scripted. …