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We Know Richard Nixon, But Do We Understand Him?

Date: Oct 19, 2012


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Many Americans have strong opinions about Richard Nixon, and playwright Douglas McGrath is no exception. But his play Checkers, now at the Vineyard, reflects how the myth of the disgraced can be at odds with his actual history.

The play focuses on Nixon's famous "Checkers speech," but as McGrath was doing research, he realized how much he didn't know. "I was fascinated by it because it was against what I remembered," he says. "I thought there had been some scandal with the election of 1952 with which Nixon was connected and that the Democrats had attacked him for it and he had to go on TV and give a speech about it, and the speech had been very successful because he had mentioned his dog, Checkers. That's all I knew about it. In fact, the truth is much darker and much more surprising."

The truth, in fact, was this: in September of 1952, Nixon, who was then a Vice Presidential nominee, went on live television for 30 minutes to openly address accusations that he had an illegal slush fund. His own Republican party wasn't fully in support of his staying on the ticket. Rather, they left the ball in his court to find his way out of the accusations.

In Nixon's speech, he revealed everything about his family's finances including what they paid for their house, what they still owed, what they borrowed from Pat Nixon's father, and what she inherited from her mother. Nixon also revealed the one gift he did accept while campaigning: a black and white Cocker Spaniel his daughters had named Checkers.

Nixon's speech reached 60 million Americans and resulted in an outpouring of support. Ultimately, of course, he stayed on the ticket and went on serve as Eisenhower's Vice President.  The televised speech (you can view part I here and part II here) marked the first major address by a candidate on national television. It also set a new precedent for how politicians discussed their personal finances. Says McGrath, "Before Checkers, it was kind of accepted that there were things you asked of a candidate and things you did not ask of a candidate. [Nixon] set the standard of openness, but it was ironic that later in his career, he was destroyed by it."

McGrath, who's also an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter (Bullets Over Broadway), wanted to wrestle with these contradictions.  "Whatever you think of Nixon, his secretiveness, his paranoia, there was a lot about him that fascinated me," he says. "You think, 'Who could be married to him? Who would be the person who would be married to him?'"

Inevitably, those questions made Pat Nixon a large part of the play. "She didn't want the limelight: He did. And she supported him," McGrath says. "But then when the limelight turned into a glaring light of an inquisition, it was just awful for her. Most political wives of presidents are able to put on a false front, a blank look, and she couldn't. I've always been fascinated by that. She always had a strained look, a certain kind of pain. It haunted me. And that's what drew me toward it. I wanted to use the play to explore her as much as him. As a dramatist, that's what you really look at."

However, McGrath doesn't feel Checkers is overly sympathetic. "It is not a play that doesn't believe he was still a very ruthless, troubled individual," he says. But that ruthlessness only enhances why McGrath is drawn to his subject. "The kind of person who just fascinates me is the kind of person who just does not give up," he says. "They could have high or crushing odds against them, but they don't quit. It's so easy to be discouraged and quit, but [Nixon] was the kind of person who just did not give up. Not a lot of people have that quality."

Ashley Van Buren is a writer and film production professional based in New York City