Nixon, Stone--And Me

As a longtime Nixon intimate, I was surprised when I saw Oliver Stone's 'Nixon: it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. After three hours of popcorn and pop history, even I was ready to believe that Anthony Hopkins had tried to assassinate Fidel Castro. But as an explanation of Richard Nixon, the movie flunks. In my 15 years of ever-closer association with the real Nixon, I never heard a hint that he might have been involved in such a Gastro plot--or that he was guiltily obsessed with JFK's murder. Nor was he the drunk Hopkins plays. And the film seriously distorts the day-to-day workings of the Nixon White House.

The movie is accompanied by a thick tie-in book--including an annotated text of the 127-scene screenplay. In it are "footnotes" purporting to provide some factual basis for what transpires on screen. One example: the Haldeman character reminds Nixon that the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office was presented for approval by Haldeman and consented to in advance by Nixon. I was certainly interested in footnote No. 82, the citation for this scene, because I was the one convicted and jailed for allegedly approving all of that.

Alas, No. 82 cites books by Nixon, Haldeman and journalist Fred Emery that don't actually support Stone's version. (So that's not exactly the kind of evidence that might have helped me when I needed it.) Footnote No. 142 says I had a big part in the Ellsberg break-in, citing Gordon Liddy--whom I had never met, seen or talked to.

Things that did not really happen are cited as "composites," which apparently means "We made it up." Stone has Nixon dragging the chains of JFK's assassination with him. I saw no sign of this. The only time I recall Nixon raising the subject was the day Bobby Kennedy announced for president in 1968. Nixon and I were in a hotel in Oregon, watching television. Nixon shook his head. "I was in Dallas just before Jack was shot," he said. "And that was bad. But this"--he motioned toward the TV--"is going to unleash wild forces that can only be worse for the country."

In the movie, my character dissects Nixon, blaming the president's psychosis on his failure to make his college football team. Stone also has me asking Haldeman about Nixon's "thing" regarding the Bay of Pigs. Haldeman explains that the fixation is connected to JFK's murder. He and I said nothing of the kind, then or ever.

Stone can't have it both ways. He says the movie is not "history," but his book is tricked up to appear to be a scholarly work. There is a bibliography of 100 books and articles; some, however, are dramatically uninformed, so it was easy to find a citation for almost any proposition.

Hopkins plays his role convincingly. But his Nixon is not the one I knew from 1959 to 1975. The script usually requires Hopkins to have a drink of Scotch in his hand. Once, in 1967, I talked to Nixon about drinking because I thought he was dangerously susceptible to liquor. When I'd been around him in the early '60s, he had been drunk a couple of times. He was out of office in those days, and was free to do as he wished. But, I told him, if he ran in 1968 and wanted me to work for him, he would have to assure me that he would control his drinking. He promised me he would, and he did. In the five years I was with President Nixon, I never saw him drink in any of his offices, and only rarely elsewhere.

While I am treated somewhat better, the film badly depicts the Haldeman I knew so well. The character is a pale figure, a mere foil to Nixon. That misunderstands the Nixon-Haldeman relationship, but an assertive chief of staff--which Haldeman was--would not jibe with the Stone thesis that Nixon was the chief source of everything taking place in his White House.

The film rings false in other ways. Haldeman is shown downing liquor; he never drank anything stronger than beer, and seldom that. In 15 years with Pat and Dick Nixon, in extended private times cruising the San Juan Islands, in their New York apartment and sitting up front on Air Force One, I never once heard him call Pat "Buddy." In the film that's all he calls her.

Alexander Butterfield and John Dean, who advised Stone on the movie, were hired to catch such details, but how would Dean know? He probably saw Nixon in person fewer than 15 times over three years. Butterfield, Nixon's office gofer, did not have a close relationship with the president. And John Sears, another Stone consultant, left the White House after a brief tenure.

History has suffered a serious compression fracture. If the film were any guide, nothing ever happened around Nixon except dark conspiracy and heavy drinking. There was no effort at welfare reform, environmental protection or budget-balancing (Nixon was the last president to come close to doing so). There were a few summits (dirty jokes with Mao, talking politics with Brezhnev) but the rest was unrelieved wrong-doing. I fear this history manque may become a cultural Cliffs Notes to the Nixon era. That would be a shame.