Defending Your Life: Philip Baker Hall in Secret Honor

Defending Your Life: Philip Baker Hall in <em>Secret Honor</em>

If Richard Milhous Nixon, the thirty-sixth president, continues to inspire a morbid fascination in some of us, the reasons for this extend beyond the obviously exceptional aspects of his career—his reelection in 1972, one of the largest landslide victories in American political history; the ignoble, skulking exit from the White House; the drip of ghostly recordings from beyond the grave. In contrast to the Oval Office’s current occupant, so transparent in his appetites and governing drives, Nixon had furtive multitudes hidden within him, contradictions that can only partway be explained as base, two-faced hypocrisy.

This was a man who authorized the covert bombing of Cambodia, and whose headstone in Yorba Linda, California, reads, “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.” Classmates at the Duke University School of Law remember Dick as a true liberal aghast at the abuses in the pre–Civil Rights south, while the tale of the tape has the president telling H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, “I have the greatest affection for them [black people], but I know they’re not going to make it for 500 years.” Given to splenetic profanity and savage slander, he styled himself publicly as a gentleman of refinement. On The Jack Paar Program in 1961, Nixon, an able ivory tickler, performs his own “Piano Concerto #1,” accompanied by “fifteen Democratic violinists.” At the Richard Nixon Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, a display shows the contents of the president’s office in Saddle River, New Jersey, presumably as they were at the time of his death in 1994, and I am haunted by the detail that he apparently left unfinished a biography of Gustave Flaubert by Henri Troyat.

A decade earlier, seeing via a Variety announcement that he was soon to be subject of a film by Robert Altman called Secret Honor, Nixon sent the filmmaker a telegraph, later paraphrased by the film’s lead actor, Philip Baker Hall: “Dear Mr. Altman, I’m a great fan of your films and I have always been. I particularly like M*A*S*H.” Per Hall, the telegraph contains a not-so-hidden message: “Nixon, in his way, would write a letter—like, ‘Don’t hurt me, I’m just a nice guy who likes you.’ That’s what we take to be the subtext. It’s a good demonstration of the kind of odd cleverness of Nixon’s life and career. He’s saying one thing and trying to get a different result.”

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