Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Tricky Dick’s resignation, on August 8 at 9:00 p.m. (EST) CNN is airing encore presentations of the documentary “Our Nixon”, an award winning compilation film by Penny Lane about the only U.S. President (so far!) who resigned and had to leave that office is disgrace. The documentary is largely composed of 500 hours of never-before-publicly-seen Super 8 home movies shot by three Nixon aides that were seized by the FBI during the Watergate investigation, then filed away and forgotten -- until the intrepid (and obstreperous) Lane unearthed and rescued this cinematic treasure trove for posterity. She has shaped out of the raw material of this footage an eye-opening insider’s glimpse of President Richard Milhous Nixon and his benighted administration.
Lane painstakingly matches sound and wry musical choices to the silent chronicles and adds archival video from network news vaults. The fly-on-the-wall Nixon remix includes celluloid shots by advisor John Ehrlichman, chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and special assistant Dwight Chapin. The documentary reminds us how young this regime’s hacks and hatchet men were -- Ehrlichman was 43, Haldeman 34 and Chapin a mere 27. But boy were they ever on the wrong side of the ’60s/’70s generational divide!
Chapin, the youngest, went to college with dirty trickster Donald Segretti, whose Nixonian specialty was “ratfucking,” (pardon my French, but the Nixon administration was known for its “expletives deleted”) the Democrats, such as that phony “Canuck” letter to presidential candidate Sen. Edmund Muskie that supposedly caused him to cry and appear weak; tossing marbles on the ground at a Democratic rally; and other pranks gone berserk. The film discloses that “Segretti” translates, appropriately, from the Italian to “secrets” in English.
Our Nixon contains great behind-the-scenes footage of historic events, such as Tricky Dick’s 1972 breakthrough Beijing trip, where the veteran anti-communist met with Mao and applauded a performance of the revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women. The doc also springs some surprises. Did you know that the right’s idiot savant, William F. Buckley, was on Nixon’s China trip? And Tricky Dick’s comments on Henry Kissinger (the National Security Advisor’s sex life is far more offensive to Nixon than his mass murders), eavesdropping, his approval ratings, and more are eyebrow- and hair-raising.
The documentary’s most jaw-dropping moment took place not behind closed doors in the Oval Office but in the White House East Room on January 28, 1972, when Nixon -- presiding over a dinner marking the 50th anniversary of Reader’s Digest -- introduced the decidedly unhip Ray Conniff Singers by defiantly snarling: “And if the music is square, it’s because I like it square.” But then, one of the singers did something cool enough to give Nixon indigestion. Canadian alto Carole Feraci pulled a Medea Benjamin, held up a banner that declared “Stop the Killing,” and proclaimed to the astonished crowd that included aviator Charles Lindbergh, astronaut Frank Borman and Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “President Nixon, stop bombing human beings… You go to church on Sundays and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb.” As the bandleader tried to snatch Feraci’s banner, the 30-year-old held onto it and added: “Bless the Berrigans and bless Daniel Ellsberg.”
Penny Lane is the perfect name for someone who compiles documentaries out of archival footage. (The Beatles song is all about a trip down memory lane.) After a screening at the 2013 LA Film Festival, Penny Lane did an interview while her crew handed out buttons declaring “Hi. I’m an effete, impudent intellectual snob." Our Nixon is a pointed reminder about the U.S. surveillance state run amok, as America grapples with another presidential Big Brother snooping scandal under Tricky Baracky, whom Republican House members would like to impeach.