I have a crush on a dead president. It started innocently on Twitter.
As the White House Correspondents Dinner was unfolding last year, I clicked on the #WHCD hashtag to follow the fatuous horror in real time. This tweet stuck out, and not just because of the bold-faced name attached to it:
Bunch of drunk bastards sitting on their fat butts pretending, wishing, praying to God above that they're in the arena. #WHCD
— Richard M. Nixon (@dick_nixon) May 3, 2014
It was funny, it was correct, and it just happened to be in the name and style of the 37th president of the United States. A quick skim of other tweets by @dick_nixon proved this wasn’t a Twitter dilettante using a famous personality to compensate for a lack of wit (e.g. @BiIIMurray and, um, @PresNixonUSA). Here was someone who seemed to have a firm grasp of both Twitter as a reactive social medium and the 37th president as America’s erstwhile ego.
If Nixon were alive in the social-media era, I thought, this is how he would engage with the world: through a stream of statesman-like megalomania, told-you-so indignation, sly references to old grudges, cutting criticism of current events — and, yes, the occasional late-night drunk tweet slurred with typos.
Richard Nixon tweets what we’re all thinking but would never say publicly.
Eating chicken in Iowa with a bunch of fat dumb drunken bastards. Can you imagine?
— Richard M. Nixon (@dick_nixon) May 16, 2015
His followers number in the 16,000s, which is respectable for a civilian but a pittance compared to actual living, tweeting presidents — Barack Obama and Bill Clinton each have more than 3 million — and other impersonator accounts (@TheTweetofGod has over 2 million). That hasn’t stopped Nixon from punching up. Last month his account was blocked by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), whose own Twitter feed (1.57 million followers) is a fire hose of political platitudes and yearbook-caliber quotations. Nixon’s response to the slight:
Weak. A charlatan. A coward of limited mental capacity. But the Senate loves that type. Look at Thune. pic.twitter.com/hk8Wc2tCwd
— Richard M. Nixon (@dick_nixon) June 21, 2015
And when Hillary Clinton, during her official campaign announcement, delivered a line about not being a quitter:
"I have never been a quitter." Who said that?
— Richard M. Nixon (@dick_nixon) June 13, 2015
Nixon himself said that, of course, during his televised resignation speech, 41 years ago next week. A nine-word tweet drew a direct line from a cunning politician surrendering the presidency in 1974 to a cunning politician clamoring for it in 2015. Most of Twitter, especially around a big event, is nonstop nonsense, the equivalent of a billion babies with a billion rattles. But @dick_nixon has become the only pundit I look to for Campaign 2016 analysis, because he handles it with the seriousness it deserves, which is to say: little.
I have no evidence of it but I do wonder if Mrs. Clinton made a deal with Trump. Logic demands the consideration.
— Richard M. Nixon (@dick_nixon) July 14, 2015
Leaking a Walker-Rubio ticket at this point is deeply stupid. It shows Rubio you are afraid of him.
— Richard M. Nixon (@dick_nixon) June 11, 2015
“My God” was routinely uttered by the real Nixon during times of surprise or alarm. With one image and one catch phrase, a fake dead president lamented the state of his party. What a world.
For the past year and a half I’ve wondered who was behind this exercise in precision. At the same time, I didn’t want to find out. I liked fake-believing that it’s actually Richard Nixon, that his final dirty trick was resurrecting himself within a social medium that rewards trolls, scolds and gadflies. Journalist and Watergate chronicler Elizabeth Drew likes playing along, too. Their occasional repartee ennobles the medium:
The user has Nixon’s tone and thinking down cold, according to Drew, whose book “Washington Journal” anthologized her New Yorker columns from 1973 and 1974. “It’s fun!” she says. “You know, it’s a nice, pleasant diversion.”
It is indeed. Nixon on Taylor Swift:
The Swift girl seems nice, good to her family and all that, but she doesn't understand that your diary is not the same as art.
— Richard M. Nixon (@dick_nixon) October 20, 2014
Nixon on Reagan:
Poor damn dumb Reagan is 102 today. And where the hell is he? I'm right here, goddammit. Still in the chair. Eye on the main ball.
— Richard M. Nixon (@dick_nixon) February 6, 2013
Nixon trolling former White House counsel John Dean (very much not dead), who cooperated with Watergate investigators:
Pure as a goddamn virgin in blizzard, aren't you John. RT @JohnWDean Got to unfollow The Onion until they apologize.
— Richard M. Nixon (@dick_nixon) February 25, 2013
Speaking of John Dean, what does he think of the Twitter resurrection of his former boss?
He thinks fake Nixon is giving real Nixon a little too much credit.
“Since Nixon needed talking points to be social with visitors, I can’t envision him using social media —he would have had staff do it!” Dean says via e-mail. “Having listened to endless hours of the real Nixon on tape, not to mention my own conversations with him, he was strikingly inept at quips, not to mention largely humorless, so he probably would have spent several hours, and several pages of his legal pad, coming up with a 140-character comment.”
Tweeting comes more naturally to the man behind @dick_nixon, whom I had to contact for the sake of journalistic diligence. Justin Sherin, a playwright who lives in the Bronx, created the account in 2008 and first tweeted verbatim excerpts from Nixon’s White House tapes.
“As a playwright, those transcripts are just a wonderland to be in,” says Sherin, 34. “His weird, muscular, convoluted syntax — it was fun to retype and live in it. It’s like a musician playing scales.”
He put the account aside for a few years but in early 2013 began tweeting original material in earnest. A niche following slowly amassed. He has no plans to resign.
“It’s too rewarding,” says Sherin, who has three plays in various early stages of development. “You can never get to the bottom of Richard Nixon. Many people have tried and failed… Whether we like it or not, we largely live in the world he created. Especially politically… I think people respond to the account because there is some sense, in a lot of us, that he’s not gone.”