Bright Lights Film Journal

The Nixon of Our Dreams? On Robert Altman’s <em>Secret Honor</em>

We loved him, we loved him not

Of all the Presidents the United States has had to endure over the last couple of centuries, this country’s relationship with Richard Nixon — and make no mistake, it was a relationship, in every complex sense and syllable of that word — was easily its most perverse. A first-year student of behavioral psychology could quickly skim the record wrought by our three decades of interaction with his public life and write it off with a shudder as codependent, borderline sadomasochistic. To members of what Meg Greenfield so aptly called “the Nixon generation,” this mendacious, altogether dysfunctional specimen of humanity held a queasy fascination that proved all too absorbing. And like a hideous anomaly rushing unbidden into a once paradisical dream, thus transforming it to the condition of a nightmare, he became so indispensable to our recollections upon a cold awakening that, without him, no memory of that dream would be possible, or even worthy of the remembrance.

For it was that soul-splitting emanation of a culture, that majestic, boundless vision of American life in the latter half of the 20th century that Richard Nixon attached himself to. And no matter how many opportunities he gave us or how impassioned our desire, we would never find it in our hearts to cut him loose; not entirely, and not until he did the job for us. “I did not elect myself,” a defiant Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) exclaims in the final moments of Robert Altman’s Secret Honor(1984). “They elected me. Not once. Not twice. But all of my goddamned life. And they’d do it again, too . . . if they got the chance.”

And you know something? For once, he’s right.

Subtitled A Political Fable, Secret Honor recasts Richard Nixon’s political career as the center of a New Left parable; a storybook tale for the barricades about a man helplessly stranded in a landscape of poisoned idealism, trying to put sense to his own role in its creation, and dwelling within the lightless passages of its unseen realm. Late one evening, former President Richard M. Nixon (Hall) skulks into the study of his estate in Saddle River, New Jersey — a quietly ornate affair, dripping with oak, possessing all the comfort and warmth a top-dollar video surveillance security system can provide — for a climactic battle in the wresting war he’s been waging against History since his resignation from the Presidency in 1974. He’s armed and ready (with a nickel-plated .45), and he’s going to tell all, posterity be damned. Getting down to business, he dons a red velvet smoking jacket, opens a bottle of Chivas Regal, and pours himself a good one, to loosen his tongue and get him through the ordeal if nothing else. After several minutes’ struggle with a tape recorder, Nixon begins outlining his case against the foul injustice of an official history that, to him, knows no rules of charity or mercy.

“Your honor,” he begins, “may we take the matter of the pardon first? It was a complete fake. It solved nothing. Because . . . if I had gone to trial . . . and all the rest of it . . . if I had gone to prison. Why, I would be a free man today. A free . . . man.” But Nixon’s formal plea for the restoration of a good name that was never his soon collapses into a rambling, profane, almost stream-of-consciousness soliloquy about his life; a private oration wild and barbarous that continually swirls in a tormented stew of remembered triumph, vile regret, oaths of vengeance upon all who, living or dead, have earned his righteous enmity — be they named Hiss, Hoover, Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Kissinger, they all stabbed him in the back at one time or another — and a cautionary narrative of ambition and loss, purportedly revealing the locus of ultimate power in America.

It began in 1945, he tells the passive recording device whirring steadily on his desk. A young lawyer of low birth and high ideals, he answers an ad placed in the Whittier Daily Journal, his hometown newspaper, by an organization of businessmen calling itself the Committee of One Hundred. They’re looking for a young man, preferably a veteran, to run as the Republican candidate for Congress in his district. He auditions for the Committee, getting off a heartfelt speech in which he promises to honorably advance a platform of what he calls “practical liberalism,” and in time they anoint him as their man for the 1946 Congressional race. To celebrate, the Committee members bring him to their retreat, Bohemian Grove, deep within the Redwoods of Sonoma County. And it is there, among the armed guards and the hookers shipped in for the occasion and the distant sounds of the Committee members singing football songs in the drunken bosom of that ancient forest, that Nixon begins to see and know his sponsors for who they are.

The Committee of One Hundred are not just a group of California-based business leaders acting in the interests of public enterprise. They are the New Money leviathans of the American Century and, unlike the robber barons of old, those genteel amateurs, they aren’t out to monopolize railroads and other transient, nearsighted forms of industrial expansion. They seek nothing less than exclusive title to the future of the Western World. Chumps like Nixon — the prototypical hick idealist secretly looking to peddle his ass to the highest bidder — are simply the handmaidens of that effort.

“They gave me the blueprint . . . for my life!”, Nixon confesses, and the totality of their vision for his future has him possessed from the first. Each one of his sponsors, after all, is what he has yearned to be since he drew breath: A self-made winner in life’s lottery; so different in every respect from those blackballing princes of the Eastern establishment who wouldn’t give him the time of day when he got out of law school. “These guys weren’t . . . homos from Westchester County or Cambridge,” Nixon recalls from his study almost a lifetime later. “This was not Old Money or The Better Sort. These guys were Armenians and Italians and Irish. You know . . . assorted White trash. Men! And what they wanted was a political laboratory, and that is what they made California into . . . as a kind of a proving-ground for later on. Can’t you see why all this was music to my ears!”

But that was 1945; long before the Committee’s patronage got him to the White House, and their China Plan committed him to acts of inconceivable treason. “You know what I did? I sold my soul at Bohemian Grove. For shit,” he admits. Nixon’s crimes, we learn, were finally greater than anyone imagined. And Watergate, the purported cause of his undoing, was the deliberately placed tip of the wrong iceberg.

As a play — and it was brought to the screen with little alteration — Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s Secret Honor is an expert meshing of fact with fiction, creative conjecture with the public record. Its liberal use of the fictitious is not an exercise in revisionist history so much as it is a deft construction of the myth its subtitle promises. This is mainly because its theatrical examination of what lay beneath the surface of Richard Nixon’s career — and by extension its study of the corruptions inherent to the American Success ethos (a very old warhorse) — is inspired by one of the everlasting cultural phenomena of the last century, the Conspiracy Theory; a multimillion-dollar industry that the play’s principal author, Donald Freed, has been toiling in for several decades now, and which — as is true of any other fundamentally capitalist enterprise — ultimately knows no politics, save those of the bottom line.

The central assumption behind Secret Honor — that a small handful of Über-capitalists and totalitarian think tank habitués sit around in some remote setting like those fascist windbags in Pasolini’s Salo and determine this country’s fate — is by no means a new one, and variations on it are to be found all across the ideological map, embraced by every strain of thinker from far-right nuts on the short-wave band to well-respected icons of the academic Left like Noam Chomsky. It has operated in our culture as both a creed and a fashion, and no doubt it will continue to inflame people’s fancies to the last syllable of recorded time (a cursory glance reveals it to be the organizing principle around which virtually every conspiracy theory that ever gained purchase on the popular imagination has been generated). Indeed, raising the specter of Bohemian Grove — long a recidivist bugaboo in conspiracy musings of the American Left — is sufficient to place this work firmly within a tradition of public dread older than the Bohemian Club itself; so loaded is the place with diabolical significance for so many. The very name takes a seat alongside other such emblems (the Trilateral Commission, Skull & Bones, COINTELPRO, the CFR, 544 Camp St., the list goes on) as a kind of cultural shorthand signifying the essential bestiality of a vaguely defined American ruling class.

Surf the Internet for an hour or so (as I did) and you’ll find there’s no end to the stories about what allegedly goes on up there: old politicians, Rotarian globalists, corporate vultures gathered together among the redwoods in twisted concord, engaging in everything from pansexual orgies to rituals of blood sacrifice conducted in the shadow of a colossal owl made of stone (the kind of DeMille-inspired excess that spelled imaginative Paganism back in the 1950s, when most of the first wave of professional conspiracy theorists were in their pietistic formative years). If that isn’t exhausting enough — and one wonders exactly where these old piles of bones find the energy for such shenanigans — the standard itinerary for a Bohemian Grove bacchanal includes policy addresses by every big-name swine in the book, where nothing less than the manifold destiny of the Free World is weighed and then decided by the assembled elite.

In Secret Honor, both as a play and a film, this species of conspiracy-sowing, often too outlandish to be anything more than perversely entertaining here in the bleachers, yields what may be its most chilling harvest in cinema, largely due to the skill and conviction with which Freed and Stone weave it into the tapestry of Richard Nixon’s life. It’s easy, after all, to believe that Nixon’s appalling success for so many decades was the product of manipulation by forces larger than any we can reckon. It grants us a measure of relief; letting us, the voters, off the hook for repeatedly bestowing upon him the means to carry out his hideous emanations of statecraft (of course, the Nixon Presidency now seems an ethical Arcadia in contrast to the present gaggle of bozos and war criminals in the Executive branch).

But Secret Honor should not be taken as a recklessly cynical conspiracy workout in the manner of Nixon — that Ken Russell-ized travesty from 1995 which was about nothing more than Oliver Stone’s desperation to prop up the already decaying house of cards that was JFK. Nor, for that matter, is it as joyfully scabrous an assault as Emile deAntonio’s Millhouse: A White Comedy (1970). Departing from the tradition of mass-market conspiracy works, it is not a film of misanthropy or splendid malice, but true belief and a large measure of sympathy. Robert Altman may have approached the play’s premise from a slightly more jaundiced perspective (he’d made considerable sport of power elite hysteria in his 1979 film Health), but it’s clear that the co-authors really believe Nixon was ultimately a pawn of Mephistophelian capital, and that the mensurable truth of his life lies only a short distance from their “political myth, ” if anyone cares to look for it. It is a conviction that carries Secret Honor to its triumph every bit as much as Altman’s peerless execution. And that is no mean achievement.

Donald Freed would later say that Robert Altman’s chief contribution to Secret Honor was having the courage to film it at all. Indeed, Altman has echoed this self-diminishing sentiment when discussing the film, insisting that all he did with the play was film it, give it cinematic flesh, just as he had with Streamers and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Nothing more than that. It’s a fundamentally deceptive posture, implying as it does that Altman could have approached Secret Honor with the same enthusiasm he had for directing episodes of The Whirlybirds back in the 1960s and emerged with a film so extraordinary. While the play made it to the screen virtually intact — so much so that Robert Harders, who directed its stage run and continued to work with Philip Baker Hall during production of the film, was given an associate director credit — it would be foolish to believe that he had no commitment to this piece larger than figuring out where to put the camera.

Filmed in seven days at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where Altman had a Visiting Professor gig in their Department of Communications (a species of celebrity babysitting if ever one existed), Secret Honor has some of the most engaged, focused filmmaking of his career. There were times previous to this (particularly in a number of his late ’70s works), where his methods seemed fog-shrouded and meandering; as though he’d mostly forgotten whatever he had in mind but was going for it anyway before lassitude overtook him completely. Though the formal strategies in Secret Honor weren’t substantially different, they seemed less played-out, less fatigued than what had come just before. The zooms and pans and restless camera movement on this occasion were the mark of a Robert Altman more alert than he had been in years; perfectly matching Nixon’s wild, distracted inner state as he spills everything there is to spill. And despite his repeated assertion of a hands-off policy with regard to Philip Baker Hall’s performance, Altman’s filming style — not to mention broadening the dimensions of the set — afforded the actor a physical latitude that allowed his Nixon to breathe in a way he never could have before, to exist in a realm other than one of stage-bound claustrophobia.

Philip Baker Hall’s Nixon is a man with so much to say, so much in his mind to expel that he can barely complete a thought before the next one starts to pour out. Like a needle dropping and being lifted randomly across an old Caedmon LP of Dylan Thomas, he’ll howl and rant with a kind of righteous, paranoid omnipotence, and in the next moment his voice will fall, deepen to a register that fairly trembles from all the sorrow that ever was. He was in his early fifties when he played Nixon for the first time at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater (where Altman caught the production in its initial run); an actor of immense obscurity who, whatever his previous accomplishments on the stage, was never able to advance his profile beyond small, second-tier character jobs in television. Forget about being bankable, by 1983 Philip Baker Hall wasn’t even conventionally unbankable. But Altman was adamant about his repeating the role on the screen.

It’s the film’s everlasting triumph. In order to find another performance like it in cinema you have to go all the way back to the full-bore theatricality of a Charles Laughton or John Barrymore; actors who thrived on the knowledge that, whether on stage or on film, every eye in the house was trained on them. There is, in fact, a more than tiny resemblance between Hall’s Nixon as he rages maniacally from one end of his study to the next — as though trying in vain to outrace his thoughts — and the feral performances Barrymore gave in films like Twentieth Century or Hold That Co-ed. It’s not a species of camp or old-school hamminess of the George Arliss variety that Hall engages in. What he recaptured through his Nixon was a spirit of luminous madness that had been refined out of screen acting (generally replaced by more dour histrionics); crucified upon a cross of joyless nuance by otherwise fine directors like Elia Kazan — and many more not-so-fine ones. By taking Nixon to both comic and tragic extremes, by playing him to that proverbial hilt, he achieves the rhetorical truth Freed and Stone were aiming for, that they knew was there all along.

And this is why Secret Honor is the finest film ever made about Richard Nixon and all that he wrought in American life. Its Nixon is our Nixon; the man we couldn’t get rid of because we didn’t really want him to go. To borrow Tom Wicker’s phrase, he is truly “one of us,” the avatar of an American loser straight out of Sherwood Anderson or Nathanael West; a grotesque fun-house-mirror image so beguiling we don’t dare take our eyes off of him, lest we miss something we might never see again.

He’s not the Nixon of the Hiss Case or the Watergate tapes; of flickering kinescopes or other people’s memoirs. In all his tortured, ruined majesty, he is the Nixon of our dreams.