Saturday, January 09, 2016

Richard Nixon: Bad actor or bad actor?

I came home from school recently laughing about a kid on my debate team whose response, each time his spar opponent made a claim, was: "Honestly, I don't understand what my opponent is saying."  One of the things coaches have to teach students is how to dissemble.  

There's an important life lesson in the need to dissemble, whether in a game or in life.  We claim that we loathe liars, but in fact we expect people to lie, and lie well.  Take President Richard Nixon, for example.  Why is he the poster-child for bad president?  In policy, he wasn't much different from his predecessors or successors, of either party.  He waged war on about the same level of barbarity as they did. His opening to China is hailed by everyone as a good thing.  His economic moves were not the worst or the best.  How does his record merit particular scorn?

Yes, Nixon had an enemies list and supervised a break-in at the Watergate Hotel to get dirt on his Democratic rivals, but this pales in contrast to the National Security Administration's Obama-sanctioned ability to read at will everyone's private correspondence.  Imagine this speech from Richard Nixon:

"My fellow Americans, tonight I am proposing a new department of the federal government, the National Security Administration, whose job will be to monitor every electronic communication of every American, no warrant or other evidence of probable cause or due process required.  Only in this way can we keep America safe."

Anyone who was of age during Nixon's term as president knows exactly what would have happened had he said such words: Riots in the streets.

Yet this hypothetical speech is exactly what President Obama said repeatedly- in so many words- after the Snowden story broke.  Why is the nation so calm?  Because Obama is a good liar. If he says something keeps the nation safe, people believe him.  Nixon looked and sounded like a liar, so words that already carried significant negative weight fell through the floor when he said them. 

It's ironic that Nixon did acting and debate in school, because he must have known the basics of melodramatic presentation: 

A person who is telling the truth will look you straight in the eye, speak clearly and give you a smile that fills you with warmth, and a truly villainous liar will do the same.  

The melodramatic liar, while looking you in the eyes briefly, will frequently glance to the right or left- looking "shifty," like a schemer whose machinations might creep up on you.  Liars sweat profusely and appear uncomfortable.

Nixon played the melodramatic liar, with shifty eyes, bumbling with words as if he were juggling so many stories he couldn't keep them straight.  When he debated John F. Kennedy on black-and-white TV, his "five o'clock shadow" looked like a gangster's. His upper lip and brow sweated under the hot lights and he had to continuously mop them with a handkerchief. One of his nervous slips was: "We have to get rid of the, the subsidies...."  Kennedy was suave and confident throughout.  He did not appear to sweat.

Nixon was a skilled and successful speaker in his youth and early career.  What happened to him later? He faced a tough transition in life from a background of blue-collar religious zealotry to the academic and industrial elites.  Something about that transition may have scared him, perhaps a conflict between rebellion and a desire to assimilate, and it may be that this pressure ruined his acting.

Whatever the cause, Nixon sounded like a liar, so the actual words he said didn't really matter- they were lies, while Kennedy sounded like he was telling the truth, and his words didn't matter, and they were deemed truth.

Thus derives our everlasting scorn of Richard Nixon, who played Snidely Whiplash to the American electorate, tying the widow to the railroad tracks. Barak Obama is trying to play the guy who unties her.  He's got the acting down tight; now he'd better hurry up and untie her.