He’s baaack, thanks to a spate of books, movies, and in an unvarnished version now playing at the Nixon library in Yorba Linda. But how will the former president’s image change now that it’s in the hands of historians and scholars?
What better evidence do you need of an incipient revival of interest in Richard M. Nixon, Orange County’s favorite-son president, than that his retired cinematic double, the esteemed Richard M. Dixon, is planning a professional comeback? “I’ve been getting some calls,” says the actor-comedian, who according to the Internet Movie Database has appeared as President Nixon in eight movies, including such low-budget ’70s-era classics as “Presidential Peepers” and “The Faking of the President.” “That’s after I hadn’t gotten any in years.”
Like Nixon’s small-but-determined cadre of diehard political loyalists, the late president’s satirical doppelganger still revels in the halcyon days of the Nixon administration, when he could drive down to La Casa Pacifica, Nixon’s Western White House in San Clemente, and Nixon’s security detail would come out to joke with him. “Henry Kissinger and I got to be friends,” he recalls with some wistfulness. “I raised $11 million for Israel when I did a benefit with Golda Meir. I told the ushers to block the exits, and not let people out to go to the john unless they signed a donation pledge. And I did commercials. A Nixon voice-over; I got it in one take. That was after David Frye had 35 takes and couldn’t get it right. Mine was superb.”
The president’s resignation in 1974 was as painful for Dixon as it was to Nixon loyalists. “I was out of a job, too,” he says. But now, 34 years later, things are on the upswing.
We’ve heard these rumblings before—remember those “He’s Tanned, Rested and Ready: Nixon” T-shirts that periodically resurfaced at Republican national conventions?—but there are other signs pointing to a genuine Nixonian resurgence. Director Ron Howard’s movie version of the smash Broadway drama “Frost/Nixon,” based on the late president’s celebrated 1977 interview with British TV host David Frost, is scheduled to hit the theaters this year. A cable-TV miniseries based on Nixon’s infamous White House tapes also may be in the works. The past year and a half also has seen an assortment of major new scholarly tomes on Nixon, including Margaret MacMillan’s “Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World,” and Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America,” which highlight the influence that Nixon’s legacy still exerts upon current events.
And last year, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, which had existed since 1990 as a privately financed, privately run stronghold against critical historians and investigative journalists, officially became part of the National Archives system of presidential libraries. Now, plans are under way to transfer Nixon’s presidential trove of 44 million documents—seized by Congress in 1974 to prevent Nixon from destroying evidence of lawbreaking—to a new building in Yorba Linda by 2010.
What’s more, the library’s new director, historian and author Timothy Naftali, has embarked upon an ambitious program to remake the library into a trendy Internet-age tourist attraction and a staunchly nonpartisan institution catering to scholars of all persuasions. Already, Naftali has dismantled the infamous Watergate exhibit that portrayed Nixon as victim of a Democratic vendetta, and has invited speakers such as Nixon’s journalistic arch-nemesis Carl Bernstein, the sort of visitor that Nixon partisans once vowed to bar from the premises. In June, the library even staged a reprise of the 1971 “pingpong diplomacy” match between the U.S. and Chinese national teams that served as a curious precursor to Nixon’s historic visit to China the following year....