Near the end of the new play "Frost/Nixon," about the former president's 1977 post-Watergate interview with television journalist David Frost, the phone rings in Frost's hotel room. Thinking it's his girlfriend calling to ask what he wants for dinner, Frost picks up and barks: "I'll have a cheeseburger." But it's Nixon, and he's been drinking. "Mmm. Sounds good. I used to love cheeseburgers," the ex-president says. "But Doctor Lundgren made me give them up. And switched me to cottage cheese and pineapple instead. He calls them my Hawaiian burgers." Then Nixon—who had a habit of drunken dialing—remembers the real reason for his call. Frost has been interviewing him for two days and in the morning will conduct the final session on Watergate. Nixon wants to acknowledge that only one of the men can survive the next day's face-off with his image intact, but he relishes the prospect of the fight—and he's not above baiting his opponent. "Watergate. It's a small consolation to me that for the next couple of days, the word will be as much of a millstone around your neck as it has been around mine," says Nixon, adding at one point: "I ... ah ... hope I'm not disturbing."
Of course, Nixon is disturbing—when hasn't he been? More than a decade since his death and half a century after he first came onto the nation's political radar, Nixon still haunts the culture like a restless ghost. Naturally, historians love him—Margaret MacMillan's "Nixon and Mao" was just published; Conrad Black's "The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon" and Robert Dallek's "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power" are due in the next few months. But our most notorious president fascinates playwrights, novelists, filmmakers, even opera composers. In addition to "Frost/Nixon" (written by Peter Morgan, the screenwriter of "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland"), Tricky Dick figures prominently in the upcoming Richard Gere movie, "The Hoax," about Clifford Irving, who wrote a fake biography of Howard Hughes in the 1970s. Nixon never actually appears in the movie, but nonetheless he manages to cast a very long shadow.
No other president, with the possible exception of John F. Kennedy, has provided such a consistent source of inspiration for artists and writers. Why is the man Kissinger once described as "odd, artificial and unpleasant" so compelling? First and foremost, Nixon is inherently dramatic. His physicality alone begs for impersonation. His hangdog face is singularly unmistakable—and memorialized in all those rubber Nixon masks—but it hasn't mattered if the actors playing him actually look like him (Frank Langella is playing Nixon when "Frost/Nixon" opens on Broadway this month). The most important Nixon prop is his Richard III-like sense of indignation at having to inhabit such an unlovely form. "His quivering cheeks and humped back," critic Paul Berman once said, "are an actor's dream."
But the misshapen body is just the outward manifestation of a misshapen soul. Gore Vidal, the author of two plays about Nixon (including 1972's "An Evening With Richard Nixon"), says it's his "darkness" that makes him so intriguing. "If I were in a tough situation and needed a lawyer," Vidal remembers Walter Lippmann's telling him, "he's the first person I'd turn to." You can see that most starkly in Oliver Stone's "Nixon," where Anthony Hopkins plays the president as a solitary, brooding figure, at war with the world and himself. Nixon liked to call himself a self-made man, perhaps in the hope of softening his starchy Republican image for working-class voters. A more apt description might be a self-destroyed man. "He has the classic elements of tragedy," Morgan says.
And he wasn't very good at hiding his dark side. The undiluted bile after losing the California governor's race in 1962 ("You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore!"), the uncontrollable sweating during the debates with Kennedy, the whole sorry saga of Watergate—Nixon was his own worst enemy. He was like a one-man reality-TV show, telegraphing all the flinch-inducing desperation of the most tone-deaf "American Idol" loser. "Most politicians are very guarded, always speaking in double talk," says Vidal. "Nixon did his share, but then he went on these fascinating rampages." In Vidal's "An Evening With Richard Nixon," George Washington chides Kennedy and Eisenhower that Nixon "is just more naked than the rest of you."
In spite of all that misery and self-loathing, over time Nixon has become as much a figure of humor as pathos. All sitting presidents are fair game for mockery—where would "Saturday Night Live" be without them?—but the laughter dies once they leave office. For Nixon it's only intensified, which is ironic since he notoriously couldn't tell a joke to save his political life. (According to MacMillan's "Nixon and Mao," H. R. Haldeman once gave the president a dog, hoping it would make him appear "relaxed and spontaneous," but "it had to be cajoled with a trail of dog biscuits to go near Nixon.") No wonder he was name-checked by Frank Zappa, lovingly lampooned in the movie "Dick" and lent a version of his middle name to Bart's peevish pal Milhouse on "The Simpsons."
One thing that both comic and dramatic Nixon treatments share is that the man who was so lonely in life almost never appears onstage alone. Both Stone's "Nixon" and Vidal's "An Evening With Richard Nixon" co-star John Kennedy as the blinding sun to Nixon's midnight of the soul. In the John Adams opera "Nixon in China," Mao sings with confidence, while Nixon frets and worries. In Russell Lees's play "Nixon's Nixon," Nixon and Kissinger drink and pray the night before Nixon's resignation speech, Kissinger's self-assurance a striking counterpoint to Nixon's neediness. "Nixon on his own would feel like a very leaden, saturnine, earthy, damp story," says Morgan. "He's a very powerful ingredient. If you were cooking and you just had Nixon, it would be an overwhelming flavor." And yet, somehow, we still can't get enough.