I miss Nixon. I want him back on TV.
How is it that in five minutes of telling us about an earth-rattling change in American policy toward China, Jimmy Carter can be paralyzingly dull-can even make John Chancellor look like the King of the Mardigras by comparison-but a whole hour with Nixon at Oxford on public television proved not only as fascinating as the birth of a baby but entirely too brief?
Something is wrong somewhere.
Of course, no one is advocating that Richard M. Nixon be restored to a position of power or influence in the government of the United States. Whoa, boy! Hey-oh! But we need him on television. TV made him, and he is still one of the camera's favorite subjects.
Watching the show recorded at the Oxford Union, with Nixon making like phil Donahue as he roamed the hall fielding, rephrasing and dodging questions, (in news photos fo the event, he is standing with his arms out as if he were singing; he looks like the New Jolson-while outside roared the chants of protesters, as continuous and regular as the shoosh-shoosh of the surf at malibu-this was heaven on air. Whatever else you say about Nixon, you have to admit he is the most Nixonian person who ever lived.
Nixon at Oxford was soapier than the dopiest soap opera, happier than the happiest "Happy Days," dripping with pathos and bathos and Old Warrior hootchy-kootchy. Peck's Bad Boys have always made for extremely watchable television, from Joe Pine to be McCarthy to Elmer the Elephant, a personal favorite of mine when I was growing up with TV near Chincago.
Elmer would propel these large cream pies into the face of announcer John Conrad, who hosted the program, and John would exclaim, "Oh, the Peck's Bad Boy of television! The Peck's Bad Boy of television!" Nixon would come later.
Actually, Nixon's career has from the beginning been inescapably linked with the growth of television. From the Checkers speech to the kitchen debate with Khrushchev to "I am not a crook" to "crack 'em in the puss," the immortal advice Nixon gave david Frost on dealing with the press, Nixon has been television's and television has been Nixon's. It is a symbiotic relationship.
This TV Nixon was chronicled and celebrated in a one-hour videotape, "Richard Nixon: 1968-1974," assembled by video gadflies John Margolies and Billy Adler and shown at the Whitney Museum in New York. Hte tape was a portrait of Nixon through his own television appearances, without any commentary from outside.
It was just the kind of thing that should be shown on public television, but CBS News has seen to it that it not be shown anywhere. Because some of the material had been recorded off the-air unauthorized, CBS News, the biggest bunch of party-pooping stuffed shirts you'll find outside the federal government, sued to prevent further screenings of the tape. Thus is the public being deprived of a fresh perspective on an old pal.
The literature of Nixon television includes not only his many, many, wet-lipped speeches and press conferences and one-man vaudeville shows; there is also a privately circulated collector's item tape of Nixon attempting to be buddy-buddy with a TV crew as to he prepared to deliver the great speech of his career, his resignation via television on Aug. 8, 1974.
During this little prelude to history, Nixon labored through a few half hearted jokes with photographers, got suspicious about there being too many people in the room, seemed not to recognize some of his Secret Servicemen. and shuffled his papers. The scene was recorded because a CBS technician accidentally opened "the line" to the network pool-and most of the nationhs TV stations-before the appointed hour of the telecast, and a few engineers had the presence of mind to turn on their tape machines. Every Americna has the right to see this tape, but few ever will.
Without question there is a place for Nixon in the future of television. McLuhan has said that cartoonish humans come across best on TV, and Nixon, like Tom Snyder, Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Gene Shalit, proves the thesis correct; no wonder Nixon has inspired our best political cartoonists to their grandest and most passionate moments, and no wonder Danny Aykrod's two best impressions, of equal irresistibility, are of Nixon and Snyder.
The thought of Nixon joining the B-list of circulating talk show drop-ins, however, does sound like a compromise of his beleaguered tragic dignity. One hates to think of him trundling out to hobnob with Merv-what if he had to sit between Hermione Gingold and Jill St. John?-or having to humor Mike Douglas by dredging up some limp excuse for a bon mot.
This sort of thing could even lead Nixon to a humiliating cubicle on that living rest-home for over-exposed celebs, "The Hollywood Squares." Can you see him crowded into the lower right-hand corner with a big x in front of him? And some little old white-haired lady from Wichita would say, "I'll take Nixon to block."
And Peter Marshall would reach for "a Nixon question" after the dutiful plug: "Richard as you all know is opening this weekend at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe."
"Well thanks for mentioning that, Peter."
"That's okay, Dick and-hey, how about those memoirs! I couldn't put'em down. But now here's your question. According to Dear Abby, should a girl 'go all the way on the first date?"Wll, Peter, I'm glad you asked me that question . . . "
A series would be nice-"I Love Dickie," about a whacky redhead who marries a president who resigned in disgrace. She keeps trying to break into politics and they have this perfectly ghastly son-in-law. Or "Eight Months is Enough," which each week follows the exploits of a convicted co-conspirator after he is released from the slammer. "Laverne and Nixon" has a nice ring to it, but it probably wouldn't work, and "Grandpa Goes to Washington" has already been tried once without success. "Nixon Days," however, could take us all back to those wild and whacky '50s-cloth coast in the closet and microfilm in pumpkin patches. We were young, we were innocent, and we must have also been pretty damn stupid.
Nixon's years of "public service"-that ultimate in euphemisms-may be over, but Nixon's years in television may be just beginning. I for one would never stop tuning in. At the very least, the following two developments strike me as deliciously compulsory:
First American Express should pay Nixon $1 million to make a commercial in which he is discovered sitting in the first-class section of an airplane and says into the camera, as plaintively as possible, "Do you know me? I used to be president of the United States."
And then McDonald's should pay Nixon $2 million to film a commercial in which he walks into a fast-food restaurant intending to order an Egg McMufain but is surprised by a chorus of workers behind the counter who jump up, point at him, and sing out to beat the band, "You-you're the one."