Dick’s cultural combat zone
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
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,