Why Nixon Is Tricky for Novelists

We have Nixon to kick around again. During the election and then early presidency of Donald Trump …

You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.

—Richard Nixon, November 6, 1962


This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!

—Donald Trump, March 4, 2017


We have Nixon to kick around again. During the election and then early presidency of Donald Trump, references to Richard Nixon—his personality, his policies, his paranoia, his rise and fall—have appeared pretty much everywhere. To cite just a few examples: “Trump, like Nixon, Is Incapable of Change” (Washington Post); “Is this Watergate?” (Politico); “On the Road to Another Watergate?” (New York Times); “Kremlingate: What Did President Trump Know and When Did He Know It?” (Los Angeles Times); “Comey’s Firing Is—and Isn’t—Like Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre” (New Yorker); “OK, NOW Is It Watergate?” (Politico); “Trump Goes Abroad. Nixon Tried the Same Thing” (New York Times). Indeed, for more and less obvious reasons, Nixon—the perennial comeback kid—has come back, and onlookers are revisiting aspects of his career to appreciate our present: his dark-arts appetite for legal and constitutional overreach, his hatred of the press, his alchemical knack for transforming personal resentment into political power, his barely suppressed chauvinism, the ruthless incompetence of his advisers, and the ultimate crisis and collapse of his presidency.

Comparisons between Nixon and Trump were invited by Trump and his team before and after the election. From the untimely appearance of Nixonian revenants like Roger Stone, Monica Crowley, K. T. McFarland, Roger Ailes, and Henry Kissinger (with whom Trump staged an inexplicable photo op a day after firing FBI Director James Comey) to Trump’s second-hand calls for “law and order” in response to tall tales of urban blight, from his cynical invocation of another “silent majority” to the 1987 letter from Nixon that he planned to hang in the Oval Office, from Trump’s “Monday Night Massacre” of acting Attorney General Sally Yates to his embrace of the Old Man’s notorious “madman theory” of diplomacy, from his return to the dog-whistle politics of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to his cultivation of an “enemies list” that includes the press, intelligence agencies, coastal elites, and upscale department stores: in these ways and more, Trump and his aides seem to have gone weirdly out of their way to reproduce both Nixon’s gun-to-a-knife-fight tactics and the calculated nihilism that brought those tactics to fruition. More recently, when Trump fired Comey in the midst of his expanding investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian election meddling, comparisons to Watergate were all but inevitable: “This,” said Sen. Bob Casey, “is Nixonian”; “Not since Watergate,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, “have our legal systems been so threatened”; “Somewhere,” added the redoubtable Roger Stone, “Dick Nixon is smiling.”1 What’s more, commentators, rightly confounded by the unprecedented nature of his win and of his early days in office, have sought both to highlight and to temper the hard edge of what would seem dangerous about Trump’s ascent by looking to Nixon as past prologue to our present. Maybe Trump is just another Nixon, and if we survived that, maybe we can survive Trump.

However, as much as Nixon has come back as equal parts threat and promise, his return raises other less immediate but still significant questions. Although in many ways a vivid, iconic, and even exaggerated figure, Nixon has from the beginning posed challenges to aesthetic as well as to political representation. Always already a readymade caricature (think of the ubiquitous rubber mask), Nixon tends not to be thought of as a character in the way other presidents—Lincoln, JFK, Clinton, et cetera—are thought of as rich, rounded, or psychologically deep. Nixon is rather cast as a man too anxious for insides, as someone with secrets but without the kind of value-laden privacy that we have associated with literary characters, at least since E. M. Forster first separated the round from the flat and Ian Watt praised Jane Austen for her “harmonious unity … of the internal and of the external approaches to character.”2 The traditional novel, as the story goes, comes over the course of its rise to rely on a necessary structuring tension: between an otherwise inaccessible private realm of thoughts and feelings and the shape those thoughts and feelings take on when publicly expressed in actions and words. In some broad sense, a familiar version of the novel relies on the idea that we are essentially formed out of a contest between public and private selves, and that the novel as a form emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries as the best way to capture that contest, and thus life itself.

The Nix nixes Nixon, and would have to nix Trump, because neither president makes sense within a social world that takes the novel as its representative form.

This is where much thinking about Nixon seems to reach a kind of limit. If to represent a character is to represent that contest between inside and out, Nixon has seemed oddly resistant to novelistic representation. Instead of a character (like Lincoln with his melancholy, Teddy Roosevelt with his lingering childhood hurts, or JFK with his apparently limitless appetites), Nixon has often been imagined as natural-born caricature, an overdrawn grotesque, or a paradoxically hyperbolic cipher. As Garry Wills writes in Nixon Agonistes, “Nixon is, of all recent Presidents, the one with the least taste, least stamp of personality.”3 Although Nixon was a secretive man, little about him—his rage, his resentment, his ambition—was all that secret. What ruined Nixon was not in fact his secret (the “third-rate burglary” that he and his aides sought incompetently to hide), but rather the effort to plug that secret’s leak, to deny that there ever was anything secret enough to hide; it was his effort to believe that, as Trump might have it, “The leaks are real, but the news is fake.” The issue, as the saying goes, was thus always the cover-up and not the crime. This paranoiac architecture, elaborately constructed to conceal, disown, or cover up almost nothing at all, is emblematic of Nixon’s whole career and evidence of what Michael Rogin takes as Nixon’s nigh scatological anxiety about the very idea of leaking (Liddy and Hunt weren’t “Plumbers” for nothing): “Nixon,” he writes, “had conducted a search-and-destroy mission against his interior.”4If there was nothing inside, then the insides—as dirty as they would be were they allowed to exist—would not leak.

Just consider some of the best-known literary and cinematic representations of Nixon. In the 1976 film version of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, director Alan J. Pakula makes no effort to represent Nixon directly. A rare exception comes late in the film, as Pakula lingers over a wide shot of the Washington Post newsroom in which Woodward and Bernstein work in the background; the shot’s left foreground is taken up with a television showing Nixon being sworn in again as president. The screen-within-a-screen structure of the shot gets both at the mediated nature of the modern presidency and at Nixon’s odd status as the absent and yet sovereign center of both the film and the broken state apparatus the film represents. Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984) presents us with a disgraced Nixon, a sentimental brute drunkenly prowling his study and offering a profane, paranoid, and unintentionally comic monologue in which the line between private fantasy and public reality has collapsed. The phrase “secret honor” refers partly to the audio and video equipment Nixon imagines as his unblinking judge; a move that again turns technological mediation into a figure for Nixon’s spectacular collapse of the political and psychic distinctions on which both American democracy and the novelistic character depend.

We might also think of John Adams’s opera Nixon in China (1987), which exploits the flat and weakly “classical” appeal of Nixon’s character. Relying on a tension between Adams’ minimalist score and Nixon’s clotted, stuttering speech, the opera’s opening aria embodies the attenuated, flattened virtues that Nixon shares with the modern epic: “News … news … news … has a … has a … has a … has a kind of mystery.” Although Thomas Mallon’s Watergate: A Novel (2012) does much to get inside the heads of its different characters—especially Pat Nixon, Howard Hunt, Rose Mary Woods, Elliot Richardson, and Fred LaRue—its take on Nixon remains self-consciously opaque, focusing both on the events, notes, and jokes that a distracted Nixon ignores, forgets, or doesn’t get, and also on the inarticulate throb of his phlebitic leg. Similarly, Anthony Hopkins’s mannerist performance in Oliver Stone’s 1995 film treats Nixon less as a character than as a series of marked attributes—the sweaty lip, the flapping hands, the shifty eyes—gathered loosely around a center that will not hold.

So with a more recent example: despite its succinct and suggestive title, Nathan Hill’s The Nix (2016) isn’t exactly about Nixon. Although the novel is partly set in 1968 and deals with the fallout from that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago, it never represents Nixon directly and refers to him only a handful of times. The “nix” of the title instead names a Nordic spirit that one of the novel’s protagonists, Faye Andresen-Anderson, believes she somehow offended as a child:

“What is it?” Faye asked, and her father said it was a house spirit, a ghost that usually hid in basements, back in old Norway, in a time more enchanted than this one, it seemed to Faye, a time when everything in the world must have been paranormal: spirits of the air, sea, hills, wilderness, house. You had to look for ghosts everywhere back then. Anything in the world might have been another thing incognito. A leaf, a horse, a stone. You could not take them literally, the things of the world. You always had to find the real truth the first truth concealed.

A nix, in this sense, is not itself a character, but rather that which, when found, reveals the character of other persons or situations; it is less a thing than a tone running under both the individual life and the historical moment; it is a mordant and minor version of what they used to call the spirit of the age.

Hill’s novel is dedicated to catching at those spirits as they drift through three related moments in time. The novel’s narrative present is the late summer of 2011, where Tea Party politics and the Occupy Movement form a backdrop against which the hapless protagonist, Samuel Andresen-Anderson, seeks to mitigate his disappointments as a writer, a son, and a lover. Its second moment is Samuel’s youth in the late summer of 1988 as a Spielbergian (or maybe a Stranger Things-ian) suburban adolescent, just abandoned by his eccentric mother, Faye, and newly taken up by sophisticated Franny and Zooey-type twins, Bishop and Bethany Fall. The third moment is the deeper past of late summer 1968, when Faye finds herself in the midst of cultural and political forces that roiled the Chicago Democratic National Convention. Late summer is rightly the novel’s representative season. Although Hill brings skeptical attention to his characters and their situations, that skepticism is softened by his nostalgic back-to-school affection for the stuff of the novel’s three settings: for Home Economics class, army surplus jackets, and revolutionary chic; for the arcade game Missile Command, frozen dinners, and cassette tapes; for drum circles, human microphones, and the threat of financial collapse.

This halcyon treatment is proof of Hill’s faith in the novel’s ability to make good on the remembrance of things past. Samuel wants to know why he is unhappy, nervous, lonely, blocked as a novelist, a failure as a teacher. He sees, finally, that to understand he needs to look back to his childhood, back to Bishop and Bethany, back to his mother and her time on the frayed edge of social protest. Hill casts the moment at which Samuel grasps this in frankly ethical terms:

Pwnage [the screen name of one of his World of Elfscape buddies] once told Samuel that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps. And for both Samuel and Faye, circa summer 2011, people were definitely enemies. Mostly what they wanted out of life was to be left alone. But you cannot endure this world alone, and the more Samuel’s written his book, the more he’s realized how wrong he was. Because if you see people as enemies or obstacles or traps, you will be at constant war with them and with yourself. Whereas if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into any body, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar.

The Proustian or Wordsworthian suggestion here is of course that Samuel is able now not only to understand his life and the events of the previous 600 pages but also to write a novel that will, we assume, look something like The Nix.

The neatness of Hill’s conclusion is evidence of the novel’s larger accomplishment; it is a big and smart and technically ambitious first novel that often manages both to move and to impress. That said, The Nix can also come off as overly workshopped, slightly dutiful in its efforts to check the contemporary novel’s various boxes: scores of variously drawn minor characters; multiple temporal frames; virtuosic set-pieces reminiscent of big names in contemporary fiction (Franzen, Pynchon, Chabon, Wallace, etc.). In one such moment of callisthenic display, Hill divides an ugly office-hours encounter with a student into sections named after the logical fallacies that the student embraces in conversation with Samuel, after failing to address them in her plagiarized essay on Hamlet. Seen next to these achieved set pieces, the novel’s final act of thread-gathering—Samuel’s last-act sense that 40 years of intergenerational conflict and political unrest can be resolved into a sadder-and-wiser moment of writerly reflection—feels maybe a little too easy.

The problem is also, as it were, political, and it brings us back to the novel’s other Nix. Hill has written a novel that raises an important historical question: how are we to understand the apparently exceptional character of our political present? Can or should we treat the rise of the Tea Party and the unfolding emergency of Trump’s presidency as “unprecedented,” or instead as the culmination of a longer Nixonian narrative sequence? This is where the title of Hill’s novel offers a coy nod towards its unstated thesis: although he appears nowhere in the novel, to understand the events that link 1968, 1988, 2011, and 2017 one needs to confront the Nix, the disgraced and disavowed president whose embarrassed absence belied—until recently—his overwhelming, almost paranormal influence on an America we might—after Rick Perlstein—still call Nixonland. It is, in that case, noteworthy that despite his significance to the events it represents, Hill’s novel never represents Nixon.

This is partly an effect of Hill’s decision to focus not on history’s major players, but rather on minor figures who were touched by events as they unfolded. Samuel is interested in but removed from the Occupy Movement; although the young Faye is attentive to politics, she moves to Chicago for largely personal reasons. That said, Hill does look at what was happening inside a few historical figures, relying on free indirect style to show us what Allen Ginsburg was thinking when he started chanting in Grant Park; how Walter Cronkite felt as he realized on the convention floor that television could do more harm than good; and why Hubert Humphrey, a “Happy Warrior” hiding out in his hotel room, felt he had to bathe while Chicago burned: “The smell still lingers on his clothes, even though he’s changed clothes. He can still smell it in his hair and under his fingernails. If he can’t get rid of this smell he thinks he’s going to go crazy. He needs another shower, to hell with what the staff thinks.”

That is, although the novel does focus on ordinary people, its occasional dives down into the world-historical heads of Ginsburg, Cronkite, Humphrey, and others encourage us to see Nixon’s particular absence from the novel as doubly significant. If there is nothing in the rules of the novel’s game to prevent Hill from representing the man whose name is at least latent in that novel’s title, why does The Nix nix the Nix? Or, rather, why does it only gesture towards the man who, more than any other, was the spirit of his age?

To understand the events that link 1968, 1988, 2011, and 2017, one needs to confront Nixon.

Perhaps—even now—there is something in Nixon that resists novelistic representation. The novel, it has been said, is at its best when it captures a negotiated relation between public and private, between what a character says and does and what that same character thinks. This is why critics point to free indirect style as one of the novel’s peculiar achievements. Moments in narrative when, as in the case of Humphrey’s shower, a narrator’s voice seems—ironically or otherwise—to take on the verbal quality or affective tone of a character whose experience it narrates, free indirect style reveals the novel’s assumptions about the close but distant relation between inside and out. Free indirect style is thus something like the novel’s version of the political leak; it is one of several ways in which a novel allows the private, secret stuff of inner life to make its way—drip, drip, drip—into the public world of readers and, in some cases, other characters. It was that distinction between public and private that, for all his apparent secrecy, Nixon refused; how else can you make sense of his absurdly catholic decision not only to bug his own office but also to tape and to save absolutely everything?

So why does The Nix nix the Nix? Perhaps because it intuits something essential about Nixon, about his paranoid resistance to the very existence of privacy, and about what was historically distinctive about his presidency. Nixon’s crimes and collapse after Watergate were understood as a threat to political and institutional norms. We could see this in another, related sense: while posing a direct threat to those norms, Nixon also undermined a set of aesthetic, psychological, and representational norms that we associate with the classic realist novel. Where an LBJ or an Abraham Lincoln can be presented as the neurotic and thus narratable bearer of a rich—because troubled—inner life, the paranoiac liar Richard Nixon is a tragic and tactical rebuke to social and psychological norms—the idea that an individual is the public expression of private interests—on which both liberal democracy and the novel as a form rely. Unlike a slip or a tic, the lie offers no necessary index or proof of what’s going on inside; this is why the lie as lie must undermine the novel and the social contract both.

This might be another way to understand Nixon’s resurgence in the moment of Trump. Like Nixon, Trump often comes across as a reproach to the value of a rich inner life. Where Nixon, however, seemed bitterly intent on destroying an interior that would leak, Trump seems simply to say what he thinks, even when what he thinks is hateful, stupid, or simply untrue. Trump’s for-its-own-sake assault on the idea of political correctness supports the fantasy of a psychic life untroubled by repression, and thus an unconscious, and thus interpretation. Trump seems, in other words, to have perfected the Nixonian resistance to psychological expectations and interpretative norms that we associate with both the novel and a democratic society. The Nix nixes the Nix, and would have to nix Trump, because neither president makes sense within a social world that takes the novel as its representative form.

That said, despite their similarities, Nixon does at last demand a generic treatment different in kind from what would work for Trump. Often considered a tragic—as opposed, perhaps, to a novelistic—figure, the liar Richard Nixon did at least fall from some relative height; an already fallen or false height, but a height nonetheless. His humble origins, his long years as a political streetfighter, his real knowledge of diplomatic history and international politics, his misguided reach towards Lincoln’s sacrifice on the one hand and Wilson’s global ambitions on the other, and the sheer, corrosive scale of his resentment, all imbued Nixon with a sham majesty that informs some of his more bathetic but humanizing moments: the drunk conversations with presidential portraits, the early morning visit to the Lincoln Memorial to talk college football with war protesters, the frankly Oedipal reverence for his mother’s unnerving piety. (Melville might have had mother and son in mind when he referred to Nantucket whaling families as “Quakers with a vengeance.”)5 From what we have seen so far, Donald Trump seems to lack even that broken capacity for grandeur; for all the idiot ambition of his catchphrase, “Make America Great Again,” he seems to exist in the absence of an idea of what a great or good life could or should be. Seeing that he has nowhere from which to fall, we can at least thank Trump for proving, once again, that what was even only a little tragic the first time around must still come back as farce. icon

  1. Casey, Blumenthal, and Stone quoted in Peter Baker, “In Trump’s Firing of James Comey, Echoes of Watergate,” New York Times, May 9, 2017.
  2. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (University of California Press, 2001), p. 297.
  3. Gary Wills, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1970), p. 182.
  4. Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology (University of California Press, 1988) p. 108.
  5. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851; Penguin, 2001), p. 82.
Featured image: President Richard Nixon tossing out baseball at Senators’ opening game with New York, Washington, DC, 1969. Photograph by Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress