Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

From inside, Nixon presidency surreal

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Documentary looks at Nixon White House from vantage of inner circle
  • He says it shows John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman as idealistic aides in early Nixon era
  • He says it also shows Nixon's crass viewpoints and aide's sycophancy
  • Avlon: Film humanizes Nixon, captures surrealism of life in White House bubble

Editor's note: John Avlon, a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, is the author of "Independent Nation" and "Wingnuts." He won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' award for best online column in 2012. CNN Films' "Our Nixon" presents a new look at the Nixon presidency at 9 p.m. ET Thursday.

(CNN) -- In the rearview mirror of history, the Nixon administration can look monstrous. It features a brilliant but insecure and almost constantly cursing chief executive who ruined a landslide 49-state re-election with a corrupt cover-up of a burglary ordered from within the White House.

But what's often forgotten is that Richard Nixon presided over a first term of surprisingly unifying and effective governance amid a time of deep cultural divides -- and that people went to work for him, at the hinge of the 1960s and '70s, with a genuine sense of idealism.

CNN Films' brilliant new documentary "Our Nixon" offers a firsthand look at the Nixon years from the vantage of his inner circle. The behind-the-scenes footage literally comes from the FBI vaults -- more than 500 reels of Super 8 home movies seized from key aides Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin before they went to prison for involvement in Watergate. Forty years later, the footage has been rescued from obscurity by filmmaker Penny Lane and edited in a witty way that transports the viewer back to the Nixon era. It is a surreal and illuminating experience.

John Avlon
John Avlon

I was born in 1973, the day before Nixon's second inauguration. "Our Nixon" offers a glimpse into an America on the periphery of my experience, awkwardly caught in between the crew cuts of the Nixon White House and the longhairs protesting on the Washington Mall.

Opinion: The inner demons that drove Nixon

The biggest revelation is Nixon himself, shown in his prime at the film's outset -- tan, tested and ready, confidently meeting with world leaders at a time of maximum American power. This was a man in full before his fall, starting the Environmental Protection Agency, opening relations with Red China and ending U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam.

Against this heady backdrop, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin come across as idealistic and almost giddy with the trappings of power. In the opening credits, the documentary shows Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, grinning widely and goofing for the camera over the ironic soundtrack of Tracey Ullman's "They Don't Know."

President Richard Nixon was in the White House from 1969 to 1974, when he became the first president to resign from office. He died at 81 in 1994. President Richard Nixon was in the White House from 1969 to 1974, when he became the first president to resign from office. He died at 81 in 1994.
Nixon through the years
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Nixon through the years Photos: Nixon through the years
'A political problem to the president'
A typical Nixon day
Richard Nixon on homosexuality

Domestic policy adviser Ehrlichman comes across as intelligent and initially independent. Special assistant Chapin looks like a J. Crew model moonlighting in midcentury government, earnestly pronouncing that "I never laughed as much as when I was in the Nixon White House." They are finally the stars of their own home movies.

But the old axiom that power corrupts quickly becomes apparent as we see and hear (courtesy of the infamous secret taping device) the Nixon aides jockeying for influence and sliding into self-serving group think.

At one point, Nixon is caught complaining about an episode of "All in the Family" -- a cultural phenomenon he needs explained to him by Haldeman -- and we are treated to this unvarnished Oval Office diatribe. "Aristotle was a homo. We all know that. So was Socrates," Nixon grumbles. "The last six Roman emperors were fags. ... You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general, these are the enemies of strong societies. That's why the communists and left-wingers are pushing the stuff. They're trying to destroy us."

Ehrlichman then joins the presidential pile-on and proclaims the dynamic "fatal liberality ... a different set of values that has been induced." This is evidence of the impulse to encourage a boss' worst instincts to curry favor.

That instinct ultimately led to the solicitation of the Watergate break-in and other fatal misadventures -- all unnecessary, given Nixon's 1972 landslide mandate. And so slowly the noose tightens around the Nixon inner circle.

Opinion: Four lessons from Nixon's failed presidency

Chapin, the last living member of the troika, becomes the first to get thrown under the bus and sent to prison. Nixon is caught on tape trying to claim plausible deniability about the break-ins in a conversation with Ehrlichman, trying to prompt his aide to give him absolution.

But under fire Ehrlichman won't play ball. "I should have been told about that, shouldn't I?" Nixon asks in a leading question reflecting his legal training. "Well, I'm not so sure you that you weren't. My recollection is that this was discussed with you," Ehrlichman replies. At which point Nixon starts nervously stammering and saying, "My God."

Ultimately, Nixon reluctantly requests the resignation of his right-hand men, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, in an attempt to cut out the cancer of scandal afflicting his administration. In perhaps the most raw Nixon moment caught on tape, the president asks Haldeman if he did all right by him after announcing his resignation on national television. "I'm never going to discuss this sonofabitching Watergate thing again," Nixon says, softly slurring his words, "but let me say that you're a strong man and I love you."

The sum total of the film is humanizing to Nixon and the men who surrounded him, capturing the surrealism of life in the White House bubble. These men aren't monsters, however disastrous and devious their actions in the Oval Office ultimately proved to be. "Our Nixon" won't satisfy the Nixon haters, of whom there are still many, but it is bracing, engaging history. It accurately reflects the long ago reality of this pivotal failed administration.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT