Department of Theatre and Film
Performing Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon’s Transformation into Popular Culture Caricature
Present day popular culture is one that is simultaneously created and surrounded by performance. According to Raymond Williams, “we have never as a society acted so much or watched so many others acting” (Williams 3). Since the mid-twentieth century, public performances and dramatized narratives in the media have become an increasingly visible and mutable aspect of American culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States (1969 – 1974). A politician whose sometimes “failed” public performances highlighted the artificial qualities of media society, Nixon fits the role of what Williams calls the “improbable but plausible figure” that presents itself to “the public eye” (Williams 9), and his sometimes threadbare attempts to create an authentic, sincere, trustworthy public image can be seen as an inspiration for the increasingly stark caricatures of Nixon in film and television.
As president, Nixon presided over one of the most turbulent times in American history, serving through events such as the opening of China, the SALT talks with Russia, and the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War. More to the point, it is difficult to find a politician who “can match the captivating force that Nixon exerted – and continues to exert – on the culture of the United States” (Frick 7). However, this lasting attention is more often for negative reasons; for many, “Watergate and what it symbolized are called to mind whenever Richard Nixon’s name is mentioned” (King 111). Nixon’s image as a dark and mistrustful personality with a “flawed character and darkly complex story . . . made him a popular figure for [writers] and audiences alike” (Pattillo 55). Nixon’s rise from “unheralded beginnings to the pinnacle of success” echoed the American dream (Kirchberg 1), yet his public image sometimes revealed the contradictions of popular American myths. With Nixon’s public appearances also seeming to expose contradictions in Nixon himself, he has often served as a popular figure of caricature that is filled with symbolic potency, a straw man whose image represents not only a twisted, corrupt figure, but also a tragic example of the dark side of the American dream.
To fully understand Nixon’s transformation from public figure to caricature, it is useful to look at three stages of representation of Nixon in popular media. The first stage concerns his actual political career, encompassing his run for the California Senate in 1950 through his eventual fall from the Presidency and grace in 1974. In that stage, his manipulation of the media and those around him served as the bedrock of his image as a calculating, paranoid figure. The second stage involves representations of Nixon as a dramatic figure in historical fiction, specifically in the films Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995) and Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008). In the third stage, Nixon’s image becomes a symbol of unchecked power and decadence in work such as Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (1986-1987), the book’s film adaptation (Zach Snyder, 2009), and the popular television show Futurama. Because of the sizable body of evidence presented by the television show, this analysis will focus on the show’s use of Nixon as found in the Futurama film Into the Wild Green Yonder (Peter Avanzino, 2009). The sixty year span of these representations shows the ways in which Nixon’s complex, contradictory public image has evolved into more simplistic caricature.
Nixon as Historical Figure
From the very beginning, “Nixon considered his image just as important as policy,” and he has stated that “concern for image must rank with concern for substance” (Stapleton 130). In his earliest political actions, Nixon can already be seen as a political opportunist. In the 1950 race for the U.S. Senate seat representing the state of California, he ran as the Republican candidate against Helen Gahagan Douglas, Democrat and wife of actor Melvyn Douglas. Having already gained notoriety in the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he had a record of attacking people’s political backgrounds. It is a popular view that he used this form of manipulation to gain personal advantage. Indeed, the Alger Hiss case stands as an important springboard for his rise to power and fame, and in the subsequent Senate campaign, he “wasted no time in brandishing the liberal Douglas a left-wing extremist” (Kirchberg 34). By striving for success, even if it meant discrediting people, Nixon appealed to the “widespread support for the myth of mission” (Frick 33). Playing to the era’s fears of Communist takeover, Nixon won the 1950 California Senate election by 600,000 votes. It is important to note that Nixon believed that press coverage of his actions as a HUAC member and Senate candidate meant that he had been “permanently blacklisted . . . in the eyes of what he referred to as the liberal East Coast press” (Kirchberg 33). While Nixon would attribute problems in his public image to the media’s bias, and the press would identify Nixon himself as the source of the problem, the reality was that many of Nixon’s contemporaries came to see him as “a slick liar” who deserved attack.
At the same time, it was his successful use of television that gave Nixon traction with the American public. This was most effectively demonstrated by his televised speech in 1952 that addressed allegations of a secret “slush fund” he had purportedly used for personal expenses (Kirchberg 35). Though he called it the “fund speech” (Feeney 42), it has since been remembered as the “Checkers speech” (Monsell 15). Nixon began by addressing Americans as “a man whose honestly and integrity have been questioned” (Monsell 15). Seated off to the side was his wife, Pat Nixon, who offered moral support at important times. Nixon made note that Pat had never been on the government payroll, even though she was “a wonderful stenographer” (Monsell 15). Never using cue cards or the loose collection of notes beside him, Nixon divulged his family’s “entire financial net worth in front of a national television audience, a practice unheard of in the political arena” (Kirchberg 36). Not content with merely reassuring his supporters, Nixon sought to earn an even greater degree of kinship by discussing a gift from a wealthy Texas businessman. Nixon explained:
You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that they sent all the way from Texas . . . and our little girl – Tricia, the six year old – named it Checkers. And you know, the kids love that dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it. (Kirchberg 36)
The public support Nixon received that night was overwhelming, and the speech was, for the moment, an overwhelming success. However, it also provoked a divided reaction among critics. Of specific interest is Darryl Zanuck’s remark that it was “the most tremendous performance [he’d] ever seen” (Feeney 42). The speech had reduced serious allegations about an illegal fund into “a piece of melodrama, a bit of sleeve pulling, something undignified and mawkish: an address about a dog” (Feeney 42). Three years later, Nixon acknowledged that “he had staged the show” (Monsell 18).
One might note that Nixon had a background as an amateur theatrical performer, and that he had first met his wife at a tryout for a Whittier community theatre production in which they were both cast (Monsell 7). His theatrical background may indicate that Nixon understood enough of stagecraft to manipulate audiences. For example, Nixon “proved” his integrity by using his “daughter and a cocker spaniel for an alibi” (Holst 70). In terms of performance, it was already possible to see that Nixon would play any role required. The speech also gave rise to the public’s sense of “Nixon as man on the make” (Holst 70). The situation made defensive behavior something to be expected but his performance created the impression that “anyone [who was] capable of such self-righteousness and cant cried out for investigation” (Feeney 42).
In the years following Nixon’s terms as president, Stephen Ambrose observed that the “Checkers speech” was uncomfortably similar in terms of theatricality to the “I’m not a crook” speech, which again featured Nixon defending himself against attackers (Feeney 41). When Nixon was elected President in 1968 and again in 1972, attention focused on the ambiguous meaning of his speeches and public appearances. By 1972, Walter Kerr of The New York Times remarked that Nixon “seems an actor to me in the sense that his gestures and inflections have an adopted rather than a reflexive air about them; he is conscious of the role he is playing and he has tried to train himself to its needs” (Monsell 9)
When the Watergate scandal broke, Nixon defended himself continually. On 17 November 1972, he finally appeared to crack when talking to reporters he likely believed were his enemies (Kirchberg 129). Conveying authentic frustration, he stated:
In all my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I could say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. (Kirchberg 129)
The way this last line is remembered is important when considering Nixon’s public image. Often, the sentence is remembered as “I am not a crook” (Feeney 42). However, Nixon’s delivery is more conversational and the contraction signals informality and authentic feeling. As Mark Feeney notes, by using the phrase “Well, I’m not a crook,” Nixon was trying to tell reporters something (43). However, “I am not a crook” is what is remembered; and its staccato rhythm appears to be an artificial slogan designed to sell something (Feeney 43). For Feeney, the fact that the line has been misremembered alludes to Nixon’s public image as an untrustworthy character; he observes that “it’s the latter we . . . remember Nixon as having said, [because it] reveals something about our fundamental assumptions concerning him” (Feeney 43). In other words, by the 1970s Nixon’s public image as an untrustworthy character had become so dominant that even his ostensibly authentic public appearances came to be viewed as evidence of ulterior motivations lurking just beneath the surface.
Indeed, Nixon was “dogged through much of his national political career with questions about his moral character” (King 110). Dubbed “Tricky Dick” during the 1950 Senate campaign, the very moniker described Nixon as “shifty and untrustworthy” (King 110).  Nixon’s fear and recognition of the power of celebrity speaks to his consciousness of the power of image. He “often remarked [that] his own lack of movie-star glamour” stood in sharp contrast to “the Kennedys abundant possession of the same” (Feeney 44). An important incident is the famous televised debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy, where Nixon’s sweaty brow and pale complexion is believed to have cost him the debate in the minds of television viewers. The debate is later referenced to establish Nixon’s paranoid concern in regards his own personal appearance on-camera in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon.
Feeney argues that what prevented Nixon from securing a positive public image was a lack of “a fundamental characteristic of Hollywood stardom” (44). He notes that Nixon never possessed the sort of cultural immunity that allowed stars to “do whatever they wanted and never have to pay for their actions, while movie stars, or [the] Kennedys, have a license for license” (Feeney 44). As late as 1992, Nixon was known to complain that the Kennedy clan “thought because of who they were that they could get away with anything” (Feeney 44). To a large extent, Nixon tried to match his public life to the image created by Kennedys, an image guided by a dramatization of the Presidency that matched Hollywood conventions. As a consequence, he seems to have continually sought to transform himself to portray a role for which he was not entirely well suited.
Nixon in Historical Drama
Nixon has been the subject of so many works of fiction that an entire book, Thomas Monsell’s Nixon on Stage and Screen, is devoted to them. They include Emile de Antonio’s documentary Millhouse (1971), the opera Nixon in China (1987), the screen comedy Dick (Andrew Fleming, 1999), and the portrayals in Watchmen (2009) and Futurama (2009). More traditional cinematic historical dramas include Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon (2008).
While Oliver Stone’s Nixon portrays Nixon as both hero and villain, from start to finish Nixon is the tragic center of the 1995 film. Stone implies that the magnitude of the loss of Nixon’s identity is on a biblical scale; quoting the Book of Matthew, the film begins with a title card asking, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” By placing Nixon as the tragic center of the narrative, Stone creates a narrative that does not use Nixon to critique of the consequences of unchecked power but instead explores Nixon’s story in ways that lend support to the American Dream.
The opening scene reveals Nixon cowering in his chair as he awaits the delivery of one of the famous Watergate tapes. Lit by firelight, hiding in shadows, and shrunken, our first impression of Anthony Hopkins’s Nixon is that he is a dark man, filled with self-loathing, hiding away from the eyes of the world in a massive, empty mansion. By waiting to reveal his face until the last second, the film builds tension and suggests that Nixon is a sinister figure. Stone took a great deal of time casting the role of Nixon. His decision to cast British actor Anthony Hopkins taps into pop culture associations: four years earlier, Hopkins had gained fame through his portrayal of the serial killer Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991). Although in the four years between Silence of the Lambs and Nixon Hopkins had appeared in Howard’s End (James Ivory,1992), The Remains of the Day (James Ivory, 1993), and Shadowlands (Richard Attenborough, 1993), the character of Hannibal Lector is such a potent popular culture figure that it gives a sinister dimension to Hopkins’s characterization of Nixon.
The fact that Nixon, a historical figure, could be essentially equated with a familiar fictional character says something about how his public image had become transformed and reduced to caricature (Feeney 332). In other circumstances, an actor playing a historical figure would face a series of problems. First, the familiarity of the public figure would ensure that too close an imitation would lose any validity because it would be mimicry. Alternatively, if the actor’s performance was not close enough to the public image, the result would seem to lack verisimilitude. However, in this case, Hopkins’ physical presence captures Nixon’s public image through the use of hunched shoulders, the familiar hair, and tightly clenched-in elbows.
As Oliver Stone’s film progresses, it makes various comments about Nixon’s life as having fulfilled some aspects of the American dream. It shows Nixon’s humble beginnings in a Quaker homestead and his ideal courtship of his wife, Pat (Joan Allen), who Nixon refers to as “Buddy” throughout the film. At the same time, even in his interactions with Pat, Nixon appears to be a performer who fails to maintain an aura of authenticity. When Pat confronts Dick after he loses the 1962 election for governor of California, she threatens to leave him. Aware that without her he is unable to function, Nixon promises never to run for office again. However, the film soon shows him preparing for another office run. In other words, Stone emphasizes the image of Nixon as a callous manipulator who will do anything to get what he wants.
Later in the film, Nixon exclaims to his wife, “We are gonna win this time!” just before claiming the Presidency. With Nixon draped in a red, white, and blue flag following his electoral victory, the film suggests that the American Dream has come true in the most vivid sense. However, in this moment the film also taps into the established view of Nixon as an untrustworthy public figure, for the image of Nixon and the flag rings false. Rather than gaining power from his association with the American Dream, Nixon seems to lose legitimacy because his claim to natural, authentic leadership seemed forced and artless. Thomas Monsell observes that “artful falsehood is more [powerful] than artless falsehood, because fewer people can see through it” (208). Stone’s portrayal of Nixon’s victory highlights Nixon’s failure to achieve the “artful falsehood” and reveals instead Nixon’s inability to create an aura of truthfulness because of the public’s longstanding sense of Nixon as flawed, manipulative politician.
Hopkins’s Richard Nixon longs for the performance required by politics, and for the personal rush he gets from it. At one point, Nixon states “I miss the pure acting of it. I gotta get back in the arena!” 2 As if to emphasize the fact that politicians engage in public performances, in Stone’s film when Nixon debates his actions in Vietnam, he is told by Henry Kissinger to “play the madman” so as to intimidate his enemies. By the last third of the film, Nixon stops referring to himself as “I” and instead calls himself “Nixon.” By this point, Hopkins’s Nixon has transformed into a critique not of the corrupting influence of the American Dream, but rather what happens when people reach too far to achieve their goals.
The more recent film, Frost/Nixon (2008), contains both performance and narrative choices similar to those in Stone’s epic biopic. However, Frost/Nixon deals less with historical events and more with the perception that the world is a site of performance and of dramatization. That focus emerges from film’s representation of the Nixon interviews conducted in 1977 by David Frost. The film makes the interviews appear to be artificial, pre-scripted events. The topics to be discussed are given in advance to Frost and Nixon so that they can prepare. The conversations are then filmed in the comfort of the California Republican’s suburban home. The film thus makes the point that there was little truth to be discovered in the interviews concerning Watergate or Nixon’s Presidency. The film’s recurring theme is that modern media cheapens and distorts truth in order to create its own fictional world (Edelstein). This idea echoes Williams’s view that public figures are like actors on the “public stage.” Tellingly, Frost/Nixon presents the interviews as “championship boxing match” rather than a quest for truth (Edelstein). Frost and Nixon are both looking for a comeback, and by portraying the interviews as a continuation of Nixon’s pursuit of the American Dream, the film shows Nixon aiming to be a “Great White Hope,” even though by this point in his career he was “dead in the water” (Edelstein).
Like Stone, director Ron Howard had earlier tackled American historical narratives in films such as Apollo 13 (1995). In Frost/Nixon, he again tries to make a drama out of American history. The film, scripted by Peter Morgan from his original play, makes it seem as though Frost has led Nixon to reveal more than he had in the past. (In the actual interviews, Nixon was able to deflect every revealing point with a meandering comment.) The film’s portrayal of Nixon becomes caricatured in several ways that are similar to Stone’s Nixon. Here played by Frank Langella, Nixon’s dialect is much darker, and it more closely resembles the Nixon caricature in the more recent depictions in Futurama. However, Langella’s physical performance features mannerisms similar to Hopkins’s. The jabbing gestures and hunched shoulders create a tight performance that resides inside itself, rarely venturing into an outside sphere of movement. The addition of a prosthetic nose comes more from political cartoons than it does from anything based in real life. 3
Like Hopkins’s portrayal of Lector, performances in Langella’s career are evoked in his casting as Nixon. When confronting his aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), Langella remains concealed in shadow, hiding from the light of public image. This vampire-like image perhaps recalls Langella’s portrait of Count Dracula in the film Dracula (John Badham, 1979). For some audience members, Langella’s thick accent retains enough of Dracula to draw attention to Nixon’s almost vampire-like tendencies that involve using others to support his public performances. In tracing the evolution of Nixon’s public image, it is telling that both the Hopkins and Langella versions of Nixon can elicit comparisons to such demonic creatures as vampires and serial killers. At the very least, that association serves to suggest an aura of sinister intentions about Nixon’s character without actually stating it.
Langella’s Nixon is acutely aware of the cameras before him. In the first interviews of the film, he uses these to start rehabilitating his public image. By relaxing, yet dominating the conversation, Nixon not only makes himself look good, he also makes Frost look like a vain, smiling fool (Edelstein). Later in the film, Frost finally turns to Watergate. Langella begins in a relaxed, conversational fireside pose, preparing to make eloquent, charismatic comments. His gestures are pointed but grounded, and they have a sense of ease about them. However, Michael Sheen’s David Frost is able to cut off Nixon’s sense of ease by revealing that he has information about the Statute of Limitations that affected the Watergate hearing. Countering with “you have, you say,” Langella is no longer at ease, shifting forward and trying to regain his momentum. With each subsequent beat, Langella peels back a layer of Nixon, revealing a darker soul through which both Nixon and Frost, and by extension the audience, seem to be “glimpsing, for a minute, the abyss” (Edelstein). At the end, Nixon is reduced to a closed posture of being trapped; his performance as a trustworthy character with nothing to hide has failed. Yet even here, Nixon never apologizes. He refuses to grovel and never once says the word “sorry.” This Nixon is someone who refuses to back down until the very end, a depiction that mirrors entrenched public perceptions about this public figure.
Nixon in Popular Culture
An even much more caricatured version of Nixon’s public image can be found in Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel Watchmen. In the story, an alternate timeline in which superheroes exist has placed America firmly in a hyper-paranoid Cold War era in the 1980s. The establishment and subsequent disbanding of vigilante groups has led to their marginalization and use as government agents that carry out dirty missions. One superhero, the only one to feature superpowers in the traditional sense, maintains a tepid world peace, forever keeping the doomsday clock at “Five Minutes till Midnight.”
In this alternate reality, the presence of the superhuman Dr. Manhattan has led to a scenario where the U.S. has won the Vietnam War. This major turning point in American history is alluded to by The Comedian, another costumed superhero, when he mentions that “losing this war might’ve torn this country apart” (Moore 2.13). Shortly thereafter, Nixon lands in Saigon, giving his traditional V-fingered salute for victory (Moore 2.13). Capitalizing on the U.S. victory in Vietnam, Nixon uses it to secure his own victory in the next presidential election.
In the graphic novel, readers learn that immediately after the U.S. victory in Vietnam, there is an effort to create a constitutional amendment allowing presidents to run for multiple terms unopposed. The amendment is successful, and Nixon is elected to a fifth term of office. The idea that Nixon would have abused his Presidential power shows the degree to which the caricatured image of Nixon as power hungry character has shaped perceptions of Nixon. In this future, Watergate has never happened, and Nixon retains the aid of confidants Gordon Liddy and Henry Kissinger (Moore 10.3). When they discuss plans to delay bombing the USSR, Liddy suggests bombing Russia in advance. Consistent with the public image of Nixon as overly paranoid, Nixon responds by attacking Liddy for being loyal to the CIA rather than to him. Interestingly, the representation of Nixon’s physicality is somewhat mild compared to other portrayals. There is only a minor hunch in the shoulders, and the nose is not as pronounced as it might be. That choice might be due to the fact that the book was published at the height of the Reagan era.
By comparison, the film adaptation of Watchmen (2009) does not minimize caricature but instead seems to revel in it. The use of Nixon in this film is intended as a satire; Nixon’s nose is comically large, and there is an accent that might have been drawn from a late night comedy sketch. Portrayed by Robert Wisden, a series of low angle shots make him into a powerful, threatening figure. The hunch in the shoulders and the shaking jowls, moderately used in Nixon and Frost/Nixon, is in full force here, as are several other negative Nixon stereotypes. When Kissinger and Nixon discuss their options after Dr. Manhattan has fled the Earth, in a war room scene that perhaps recalls moments in Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964), Kissinger tells him to hold the threat of annihilation over the USSR, a prospect that Nixon replies to with glee. Again, the phrase that they must fear the “madman Richard Nixon” is used, with the chilling implications that this time there will probably be an opportunity for the madman to come unleashed. There is almost a childish delight in Nixon holding his finger over the doomsday button, saying first, “we can’t let these fuckers think we’re weak!” and then later, “I say when doomsday is approaching.” These statements are indicative of depictions that highlight the public image of Nixon as mad for power. Other events in Watchmen echo the negative associations with Nixon’s image: The Comedian, now serving as a government agent under Nixon, becomes the second shooter at the Kennedy assassination in Dallas; he also kills Nixon’s Watergate opponents, journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Perhaps the most striking visualization of Nixon’s public image as a power-mad politician is conveyed by his reaction to the pronouncement that an attack by the USSR would destroy the entire East Coast. Rather than show any concern for his country, Wisden’s Nixon proudly announces: “The last gasp of the Harvard establishment. Let’s see those fuckers think their way out of this!” Rather than caring for America, he is more concerned with beating the East Coast liberals who snubbed him when he was in public office. That type of backlash against his critics again plays on the image of Nixon as a resentful figure who never learned how to carry himself as a magnanimous public servant.
By placing these stereotypes into a mainstream film format, the film perpetuates the popular image of Nixon as a power-mad, corrupt dictator who would stop at nothing to rule the universe. By representing Nixon as a dictator, the film suggests that he belongs to a wave of corruption that has destroyed or at least tarnished the American Dream. Unlike Nixon, in this filmic representation, Nixon is not a victim of circumstance or a casualty of ambitious overreaching. Instead, this Nixon has achieved everything he desired and is thus an example of how the American Dream can be corrupted by selfish desire.
The transformation to caricatured, fictional figure is illustrated even more clearly and more literally in the cartoon series Futurama. Set in the year 3001, the ability to preserve talking heads in formaldehyde jars has resulted in people such as Leonard Nimoy and Lucy Liu continuing to exist 1000 years in the future. No head is more popular, however, than the talking head of Richard Nixon. In this future, specifically as represented in the full length feature film Into the Wild Green Yonder, Nixon has been elected President again. Nixon has reanimated Spiro Agnew’s body (sans head) and is carted around by Secret Service minions at his beck and call. The Nixon head features nearly every caricatured physical and verbal characterization ever attributed to the President, including the pointed nose, shaking jowls, and a deep growling vocal expression punctuated by grunts of excitement and rage (generally voiced as “Ha-roo!”). This version of Nixon leans closer to the filmic Watchmen in style and tone, with Nixon’s head none too shy about toying with national security and secret operations. For example, Nixon’s image as a politician who saw himself as above the law comes through in a conversation with the robot Bender:
Bender: We’ll need to authorize a wiretap.
Nixon: As many as you like!
Bender: Well, I only need one.
Nixon: Let’s call it six.
At another point, Nixon’s inner thoughts reveal that the one secret he has kept all these years is that the moon landing was staged on Venus. This fictional detail is grounded in Nixon’s public image as a politician who tried and failed to keep secrets. Such brief comedic moments are common occurrences throughout the TV series on which the film is based, and at any given point, Nixon’s head is concealing another dirty motive from the rest of the world. The fact that the head is an isolated figure in its final triumphs reflects the image of Nixon as a public figure who mistrusted those around him. The symbolism of the head cut off from the body, and from things such as the heart and soul, highlights Nixon’s image as a heartless purveyor of backroom deals. Nixon’s perceived lack of humanity is reflected in the fact that as characterized here he no longer knows any ethical limitations as an authority figure in a corrupted future. This Richard Nixon has buried the “memories of his less-fortunate days” with his body and moved onto an all-encompassing reign as galactic dictator (Kirchberg 98).
Although the series is sprinkled with allusions to history, such as Nixon being served by the headless or spineless body of Spiro Agnew, the dramatic narrative of Futurama picks and chooses what aspects of Nixon to convey, embellish, or overlook. As in Watchmen, this conception of Nixon serves both a comedic and satirical function, using Nixon’s public image as a vehicle for both humor and social commentary.
By examining representations of Nixon in popular media forms, it is possible to see the distinct set of characteristics that make up his public image. These include the visions of Nixon as a paranoid, corrupt, twisted politician and a tragic character caught in the contradictions of the American dream. His public image includes the ideas that he was unable to embrace support and was forever fighting the entire world, and he has been seen as a politician who regarded himself as an island amidst a sea of friends who would “come and go, depending solely on whether their support would benefit their own interests” (Kirchberg 37).
There seems to be a certain ease in shedding Nixon’s actual persona in favor of the caricatured image because his public appearances often revealed forced or failed performances. One question that arises is how the different periods of Nixon’s public life colored the public image that developed over the course of his political career. While a life in the public eye might have contributed to his image as an untrustworthy character, the unwitting transparency of Nixon’s various public performances likely made Nixon’s attempts at authenticity seem like “artless falsehoods.” Nixon was ineffective at creating a seamless public image, and his failure provided an abundance of images and ideas to use against him. With a complicated public image already established in the Cold War era, Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam War turned him into a lightning rod for protestors and critics, who seized upon him as a dishonest manipulator of public trust. The events surrounding Watergate confirmed that image in the public eye, even though Nixon struggled against it. As a study in public images, one way to read Nixon’s transformation into a caricature of villainy and deceit is to see that evolution as an attempt to keep “artless falsehoods” out of public performances.
 Nixon kept a long list of enemies, as was famously publicized, and it is important to note that this list did not include just politicians and journalists; others making appearances on the list were celebrities such as “Carol Channing, Steve McQueen, Barbara Streisand, Gregory Peck, Bill Cosby, and Joe Namath” (King 111).
2 Not only does this quote play off of the title of one of Nixon’s many autobiographies (Nixon, Richard M. In the Arena: A Memoir of Victory, Defeat, and Renewal. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.), it is originally found in a famous Theodore Roosevelt quote, showing both Nixon’s awareness and manipulation of the presidential stage.
3 This inclusion particularly shows how the screen portrayal of Nixon has taken on a life of its own, even making physical changes that fly in the face of historical photographs and other such records, readily available. In this instance, a manipulated version of the truth is more likely to be remembered than recorded fact.
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