We are Dr. Frankenstein and Nixon is our monster. Television is the laboratory in which he was created.
There's not a lot that's new in "Nixon," the three-hour biography of Richard M. Nixon on PBS tonight -- part of "The American Experience" series -- but there's plenty of fun and frolic to be relived in this TV retrospective about one of the most public public lives of all time.
It airs at 8 on Channels 26 and 32.
One realizes again how many of Nixon's ecstasies and agonies have been played out on TV for all the world to see: the Checkers Speech, the genial haggling with Nikita S. Khrushchev (seen here in rare color footage, and looking like a clip from an old game show), the presidential debates with John F. Kennedy, the Watergate hearings, the announcement of his resignation, that last brave wave from the helicopter that carried him and wife Pat away from the White House.
In 1948, the year TV first began to make an impact on American life, Nixon also rose to prominence, mainly by rooting around in Alger Hiss's pumpkin patch. Television and Nixon grew together, and both would show an almost limitless ability to delight and appall.
Nixon has been the hero of a long, long play that has swung wildly from tragedy to comedy and back again -- a television masterpiece, like "Marty."
The assembled highlights amount to a "Nixon's Greatest Hits" video album, a keepsake to make one nostalgic for the great political theater Nixon gave us, and grateful that after more comebacks than Dracula, his political life does finally seem to be over.
In addition to all the vibrant images, plenty of pungent phrases are recalled, many of them now part of American folklore -- "respectable Republican cloth coat," "You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore," "the great silent majority," "Let others wallow in Watergate" and the immortal "Well, I'm not a crook."
As it turns out, well, he was a crook. But at least he was not a wimp.
One might have hoped for more pop psychoanalysis from the program: How did Nixon get to be Nixon? As a youth, we learn, he was a victim of class prejudice, a shopkeeper's son rejected for membership in a snobby college club. When he started his own counter club, he was perhaps already deep into the me-against-them mind-set that apparently became raging paranoia later in life.
"He began to really cry, and I didn't know what to do," recalls John Ehrlichman of a 1973 session with Nixon at Camp David, when the man Helen Gahagan Douglas nicknamed "Tricky Dick" had at last run out of tricks. Among others interviewed for this report are John Dean, Leonard Garment, Charles Colson, Herb Klein and Elliot Richardson, who says the "inner core of insecurity" that destroyed Nixon was also the spark that drove him to succeed.
Not interviewed is Nixon or any member of his family, all of whom, says host David McCullough, declined to participate. One assumes such conspicuous absentees as Henry Kissinger and H.R. Haldeman did the same.
The three hours are divided into chapters: "The Quest," "Triumph" and "The Fall" -- a little grandiose, but so is the subject matter. Elizabeth Deane is the executive producer; Ken Burns, who made "The Civil War," is listed as a creative consultant; and Geoffrey Ward, one of the "Civil War" writers, did the script.
"Nixon" is less a case of telling you what you never knew than it is a reminder of things you'd hate to forget. It doesn't reach a set of conclusive findings any more than "Twin Peaks" does; it's "Citizen Dick" with no "Rosebud," but with plenty of likely candidates.
He is our most Shakespearean political figure, after all, and the program deserves credit for trying to understand, rather than just heaping abuse. Nixon's career was a collaborative effort; we invited him into our homes just as we invited television. We made them both stars. As Cassius said, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves ..."