We had never had a President like Richard Nixon before we elected him in 1968, and we will never have one like him again.
He was, to put it plainly, a crook; he installed an atmosphere of lawlessness virtually the day he assumed office, and every day barked out orders — routinely ignored — which would have resulted in a prison sentence had you or I issued them. His contempt for American institutions reached its apogee in the Watergate affair, in which his overeager minions were arrested for breaking into Democratic headquarters and he attempted to orchestrate a cover-up. And, yes, he had a drinking problem: two cocktails would get him completely schnozzled, at which point his dominant weakness, self-pity, would take over.
Also, this: his administration created EPA, devised a way to get government contracts to minority-owned firms, passed the Clean Air Act, ended the war in Viet Nam, brought the People’s Republic of China onto the international stage, and opened up relations with the Soviet Union. He did dozens of things — like bring about the Code of Federal Regulations — that only government geeks would appreciate. Oddly, it was this same sense of self-pity, of thwarted entitlement, which impelled these formidable accomplishments as well.
In short, he embodied that most American of characteristics, ambition, on behalf of his virtues and his vices. He was the American Myth and the Protestant Ethic blown to a thousand times its size. Horatio Alger came up from poverty, but Nixon had a miserable childhood, with two brothers dying young, a brutal father and an austere, judgmental mother who Nixon loved insanely but could never satisfy. His climb to the White House was more Richard III than Alger, full of growling bitterness and slights and defeats large and small, but he got there anyway. He was the true American Psycho, and he haunts us even today, twenty-two years after his death.
Oddly enough, he has inspired more art (the opera Nixon in China, the Oliver Stone movie “Nixon”; the play and movie Frost/Nixon, “All the President’s Men”, and the movie “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”, with Sean Penn, among others) than any other contemporary President.
To this list we must add Secret Honor, Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s hallucinatory and scabrously funny fantasy in which Richard Nixon finally reveals the dark secret behind Watergate. I won’t tell you what it is, but if you go there with Steve Scott, who plays Nixon, you’ll agree with me that it’s a long, strange trip.
Freed and Stone obtain their effect by conflating two real-life organizations: the Committee of 100, the group of California business executives who recruited Nixon for his initial Congressional run against Jerry Voorhis, and the Bohemian Club, an all-male group which includes some of the most powerful men in the world who camp annually for two weeks at Bohemian Grove. In this story, the Committee of 100 not only recruit Nixon to run against Voorhis but take him to Bohemian Grove, where they plan his whole life for him against a background of tom-toms, distant sounds of dancing, and prostitutes.
Except for their shared widow’s peaks, Scott doesn’t look like Nixon, and he makes no attempt to replicate the former President’s sing-song baritone. But he is spot-on in everything else, including Nixon’s astonishing unfamiliarity with the workings of his own body and his tendency — immortalized in the White House Tapes — to leave sentences unfinished, or finished with some incomprehensible gesture.
The story is set in some imagined post-Presidential venue. Nixon has been pardoned, but he is in his fantasy standing before some court, from which he is seeking vindication. And there is a tape recorder, of course. Nixon begins by pretending he is an attorney pleading to the invisible court on behalf of his client, Nixon, but soon turns into Nixon himself, fallen from grace and awash in self-pity.
Running time; 1 hour, 5 minutes
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He drinks, of course, but Scott wisely does not have him slur his words, as the real Nixon did when drunk. Instead, he burrows more and more deeply into his fantastical life: thinking of the prostitutes at the Bohemian Grove makes him think of Jack Kennedy, the man who thwarted his Presidential ambitions in 1960. Nixon loved and hated Kennedy; identified with and envied him.
Kennedy, as the world knows, had an easy way with women, while Nixon had an easy way with no one. This reminds Nixon of his brother Harold, seductive even as he was dying of tuberculosis. This reminds Nixon of his mother, to whom he once wrote an abject letter which he signed, “Your Little Dog, Richard.” This reminds Nixon of how he served as a carnival barker, to earn money to help with Harold’s treatment.
And so we free-associate with Richard Nixon, or the Richard Nixon on the stage before us, traveling backward and forward in his bizarre life. It is largely true, and where it is not it is in service of the fantasy which Freed and Stone have cooked up for us. The fantasy, of course, is not true, but you may find yourself wishing it were, as it is a much more satisfying explanation for Watergate than the one that seems to be true.
If Richard Nixon is not a lodestone in your understanding of American political life, Secret Honor might not be as stimulating, or as fun, for you as it was for me. Some of the references will be unfamiliar, and hard to follow. If that is you, I recommend you Brush Up Your Nixon, and then go see the show. You will see a fascinating section of American history open up.
On the Capital Fringe postcard for Secret Honor, it says “Anyone can be President.” But if that’s true, Secret Honor is not the proof of it. Richard Nixon was an extraordinary man, and Secret Honor is an extraordinary production.
Secret Honor by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone . Directed by Nigel Fairs . Featuring Steve Scott as Richard Nixon . Produced by Bootcamp Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.