Judge Ben Saylor is not a crook.
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Richard Milhous Nixon was a complex man and president. However, you'd hardly know it from the History Channel's cursory treatment of the subject with Nixon: A Presidency Revealed, a production that, despite landing some very big names to talk about the nation's 37th president, rarely goes beyond the surface.
The documentary quickly breezes through Nixon's youth and political career prior to his election to the nation's highest office in 1968. If you come into this program hoping to learn more about Tricky Dick's days going after Alger Hiss as a young California congressman, his eight years as Ike's vice president, or his failed bid for governor of California, get ready to be disappointed. The fabled "Checkers" speech is discussed, but beyond that, we learn very little about Nixon prior to the start of his presidency. To be fair, though, the program is called A Presidency Revealed. Guess I should have taken that literally.
Even so, did the folks at the History Channel really think they could provide a comprehensive overview of Nixon's time in office in just 90 minutes? Their A Presidency Revealed program on JFK is on two discs, and he didn't even serve one whole term! A president as complex and complicated as Nixon really deserves a much longer, in-depth treatment. Not that I considered myself a Nixon scholar going into this, but having watched this program, I really didn't learn anything new. The presentation is done almost as if someone created a list of bullet points to briefly go over: Nixon goes to China; Nixon creates the EPA; Nixon goes into Cambodia; and so on. Most of these and other topics are given a brief mention, with comments from a few talking heads, before the film moves on to the next topic. How did Nixon open China? What did that entail? I couldn't tell you from watching this program. Even the documentary's treatment of Watergate, the event it probably spends the most time on, isn't all that revelatory if one is familiar with the history behind it.
There is one saving grace, however. The History Channel assembled some great commentators for their "talking heads" segments. Some of the significant players from the Nixon era who appear on this program are Henry Kissinger (National Security Advisor, 1969-1974), John Dean (White House Counsel, 1970-1973), Charles Colson (Counsel to the President, 1969-1973), Alexander Haig (Senior White House Military Advisor, 1969-1970), Alexander Butterfield (Deputy Assistant to the President, 1969-1973), and Ben Bradlee (Managing Editor of The Washington Post, 1965-1991). It was great to hear these individuals' takes on Nixon as a president and also as a man.
The program also offers some interesting tapes from Nixon's infamous collection of recorded conversations in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, the program uses them a little too sparingly to my taste, relying instead on photographs and archival footage that are all right but nothing spectacular.
The program also attempts to explore Nixon as a person, coming to the conclusion that (You better sit down before you read this doozy) Nixon's presidency was not without its accomplishments, but was marred by scandal provoked by the commander-in-chief's deep-seated distrust and paranoia. What a revelation! Where were the members of his family to offer thoughts on the president's personal side? Nixon's daughter, Julie, turns up on the disc's bonus feature; she was sorely needed on the main program.
Speaking of bonus features, Nixon: A Presidency Revealed has an excellent one, called Inside the Presidency: Eisenhower vs. Nixon, which narrows its focus on the relationship between Ike and Nixon, particularly during the eight years they served as president and vice president, respectively. This program, running at just half the time of A Presidency Revealed, nevertheless manages to go into greater detail on its subject. We learn how Nixon came to be on Eisenhower's ticket and also get a more fleshed-out telling of the "Checkers" story and its long-term effects on the relationship between these two very different men. The program also goes into the post-Eisenhower years as well, leading up to Nixon's own election as president. After watching this program, I can definitely say I know more about the topic than I did going in. The program also benefits from the participation of Ike's grandson David and his wife, Julie Eisenhower Nixon.
Nixon: A Presidency Revealed is recommended only for those who want the "Cliffs Notes" take on the 37th president, although the bonus feature is certainly worth a viewing just on its own. Barring that alternative, pick up a Nixon bio instead, or even check out Oliver Stone's controversial Nixon, which, historical inaccuracies aside, is a lot more interesting than this offering from the History Channel.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• "Inside the Presidency: Eisenhower vs. Nixon" Bonus Documentary
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