Dick’s cul­tural com­bat zone


The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

RE­CENTLY I’ve been en­joy­ing an in­ci­sive new book by a left-wing cul­tural his­to­rian, which is a se­quence of words you won’t hear com­ing out of me too of­ten. Nixon­land by Rick Perl­stein, pub­lished in the US by Scrib­ner, is a study of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal cul­ture in the age of Richard Nixon.

Its ar­gu­ment is that Nixon was, in ef­fect, the first cul­ture war­rior: the first Cen­tre-Right politi­cian able to pack­age the Cen­tre-Left as elit­ist, snob­bish and out of touch with or­di­nary peo­ple and their val­ues.

The book is so thick with de­tail and in­sight, it re­mains en­thralling through all its 881 pages. Those pages drip with Perl­stein’s dis­dain for Nixon, but you don’t re­ally need to buy the po­si­tion­ing to buy the ar­gu­ment.

Nixon clearly was the first politi­cian on the Right who was able suc­cess­fully to brand him­self as pre­pared to stand for the or­di­nary Joe — or Joe the Plumber, if you pre­fer — against the mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ist, mar­riage-re­defin­ing, chardon­nay-sip­ping elites. Thus, he played a cen­tral role, in the early 1970s, in pris­ing bluecol­lar work­ers off the so­cial-demo­cratic band­wagon and turn­ing them into con­ser­va­tives. The Nixo­nian set­tle­ment sur­vived more or less in­tact un­til last month’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and meant the only Democrats ac­cept­able to vot­ers at the high­est level were south­ern­ers.

For an Aus­tralian reader, the ir­re­sistible in­sight im­plied by all this is that it is not Robert Men­zies but Nixon who pro­vided the true in­spi­ra­tion for John Howard, at least as a po­lit­i­cal strate­gist. Howard turned a sim­i­lar trick to Nixon’s when he brought the ‘‘ Howard bat­tlers’’ to the polls in the west­ern sub­urbs of the cap­i­tal cities in 1996. Like Nixon, Howard was a con­ser­va­tive from a mod­est back­ground who had no trou­ble car­ry­ing the ban­ner of out­er­sub­ur­ban val­ues into bat­tle against the latte belt. What dis­tin­guishes Howard from Nixon is that his or­di­nar­i­ness was far more gen­uine, he stood for more than a po­lit­i­cal strat­egy and his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer did not end in ig­nominy.

In Nixon­land, Perl­stein re­veals an early mo­ment in Nixon’s self-fash­ion­ing when, as an un­gainly kid from the sticks in the late ’ 30s, he en­tered Whit­tier Col­lege in Cal­i­for­nia. There he found stu­dent pol­i­tics dom­i­nated by a ‘‘ cir­cle of swells’’ call­ing them­selves the Franklins. In op­po­si­tion to the Franklins, Nixon set up a club called the Orthogo­ni­ans ( mean­ing upright or, lit­er­ally, at right an­gles). By ral­ly­ing other stu­dents who felt like out­siders, Nixon beat a Franklin for stu­dent union pres­i­dent. Perl­stein sums up the episode: Ever-ex­pand­ing cir­cles of Orthogo­ni­ans, en­com­pass­ing all those who ever felt their pride wounded by the Franklins of the world, were al­ready his con­stituency. Richard

MY eye­lashes are grow­ing, which is a lit­tle alarm­ing; when will they stop? The eye doc­tor told me they might; it has some­thing to do with the drops he pre­scribed to keep glau­coma at bay. I’ve never been much of a bat­ter of lashes — no point, re­ally — but I al­lowed my­self a lit­tle rapid blink­ing at my daugh­ter, just as a demon­stra­tion. She wasn’t at all sur­prised; she had lis­tened to a ra­dio pro­gram on which doc­tors said they were con­cerned that hun­dreds of young women were us­ing th­ese drops to en­hance their at­trac­tion, al­though they had noth­ing wrong with their eyes. Ask­ing for trou­ble, you might say.

I know more peo­ple who have had facelifts than you could pos­si­bly imag­ine.

There is one old duck who has had so many pro­ce­dures her voice box is prob­a­bly Nixon at their cen­tre, yet apart, as their leader. The cir­cle could be made to ex­pand, Richard Nixon might have re­alised even then. Though via a para­dox: the greater their power, the more they felt op­pressed. Nixon is very much in the cul­tural air at the mo­ment. Frost/ Nixon — the new Ron Howard film, based on the Peter Mor­gan play, based on the James Re­ston Jr mem­oir, based on the tele­vi­sion in­ter­views be­tween David Frost and Nixon in 1977 — opens in Aus­tralia on Box­ing Day. I was part of a lucky Syd­ney au­di­ence that got a sneak preview a few weeks ago.

The film is very much in the tra­di­tion of The Queen , di­rected by Stephen Frears but writ­ten by Mor­gan. As in the 2006 film, we get real peo­ple, some of them liv­ing, por­trayed by ac­tors, in­volved in scenes that are a mix­ture of his­tor­i­cal re-en­act­ment and sheer in­ven­tion. Among the plea­sures aroused by this tech­nique, the thrill of voyeurism is para­mount.

An­other link with the ear­lier film is the pres­ence of Bri­tish ac­tor Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in The Queen , as Frost.

Sheen seems fated to de­liver vir­tu­oso per­for­mances that are over­shad­owed by yet more vir­tu­oso per­for­mances. Last time it was He­len Mir­ren as the Queen and this time it is Frank Langella as Nixon.

For the open­ing



Langella’s gath­ered in a lit­tle knot on the top of her head. She didn’t stop at her face, ei­ther; last I heard she was hav­ing her knees lifted.

She is a fas­ci­nat­ing work in progress, and looking at her is rather like stand­ing in Madame Tus­saud’s gallery.

I spoke to a handy plas­tic sur­geon at a cock­tail party re­cently, and he told me that more women — and some men — were hav­ing surgery than you could poke a stick at. Since per­for­mance is a puz­zle be­cause he does not look or sound par­tic­u­larly like Nixon. And given that al­most any­body who was around in the ’ 70s has a Nixon im­per­son­ation, the temp­ta­tion for Langella to try to muster the mother of all Nixon im­per­son­ations must have been huge. In the end, he has left that job to cabaret artists such as Rich Lit­tle. Langella does not mimic Nixon; he re­builds him from the bot­tom up. It is a per­for­mance of enor­mous still­ness and some dig­nity, and the re­sult­ing char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion is far more mov­ing and tragic than any im­per­son­ation could be.

I’ve liked Howard’s films since Splash 24 years ago, in a which a very young Tom Hanks falls in love with a mer­maid, played by a very young Daryl Han­nah. Frost/ Nixon , how­ever, finds Howard firmly in Apollo 13 mode, in which a group of nerds gets through a daunt­ing tech­ni­cal chal­lenge by dint of teamwork and col­lec­tive brain­power. This time, the chal­lenge is to ex­tract an apol­ogy from Nixon. As with the Apollo 13 ac­ci­dent, we all know how it turns out, but Howard man­ages to keep the sus­pense go­ing.

A few months ago in The New Yorker, in an ar­ti­cle ti­tled ‘‘ The fall of con­ser­vatism’’, Ge­orge Packer de­clared that the rise of Barack Obama sig­nalled the age of Nixon was over. Packer ac­cepts the gist of Perl­stein’s ar­gu­ment but says the key terms of the Nixo­nian cul­ture war — elite, main­stream, pa­tri­otic, snob, lib­eral and so on — are fall­ing out of cur­rency.

He also seizes on the fact that the can­di­date cho­sen by Repub­li­cans to counter Obama, John McCain, is any­thing but a cul­ture war­rior: ‘‘ The fact that the least con­ser­va­tive, least di­vi­sive Repub­li­can in the 2008 race is the last one stand­ing — de­spite be­ing de­spised by sig­nif­i­cant voices on the Right — shows how lit­tle life is left in the move­ment that Barry Gold­wa­ter be­gan, Richard Nixon brought into power, Ron­ald Rea­gan gave mass ap­peal, Newt Gin­grich rad­i­calised, Tom De­Lay crim­i­nalised and Ge­orge W. Bush al­lowed to break into pieces.’’

Packer, of course, was writ­ing long be­fore McCain picked an Orthogo­nian from cen­tral cast­ing as his run­ning mate.

So, does Obama’s victory mean Nixo­nian cul­tural pol­i­tics is dead? Hardly. Much of the Obama hys­te­ria of re­cent weeks seems based on who he is, not any­thing he has done. ( The sug­ges­tion he is an ac­com­plished word­smith is dis­coun­te­nanced by the fact he has writ­ten a book called The Au­dac­ity of Hope .) This at­ti­tude to Obama hints at pre­cisely the kind of snob­bery Nixon lo­cated around the cult of the Kennedys, and ex­ploited. If that proves to be ac­cu­rate, the Orthogo­ni­ans may have some life in them yet.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au as did my mother. What can you say about a woman who, ev­ery Easter Sun­day morn­ing, would get up at the crack of dawn, bury hard­boiled eggs in the gar­den — which we could never find, mean­ing the back yard stank for months — and then stand on the com­post heap and yell COCK­ADOO­DLE­DOO? We avoided the neigh­bours for weeks.

But at least she never had a facelift, al­though ev­ery time she passed a mir­ror, she would clap her hand to her throat and cry: ‘‘ My neck has gone!’’

Well, so has mine. And my eye­lids over­hang the flour­ish­ing lashes, so that I re­sem­ble a droopy co­bra. The thing is, where would you start, be­cause age­ing has a domino ef­fect. At best I’d need putty to fill in the ruts. I think I’ll try to lift my act in­stead.

fraserj@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

the 1950s he said, there has been a sur­gi­cal re­nais­sance, which tells us that the body we are given is only a start­ing point; from then on it is a work in progress.

He pointed out a woman on whom he had worked ex­ten­sively, and said she wouldn’t mind me know­ing, so I pounced on her. She’d had a nose job, half her stom­ach ripped out, eye­brows lifted, chin de­creased, you name it. It was, she con­fessed, the most painful process she had ever been through, which strength­ened my re­solve to stay as I am.

In any case, you can take a knife to your body, but you’re still the same old you. No doubt there are parts of my char­ac­ter that could do with a bit of ad­just­ment; I fear some­times I may be­come some­thing of an ec­cen­tric old bat and em­bar­rass my chil­dren,

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