Trying to Make Richard Nixon's 'Henchmen' Seem Human

The home movies of Our Nixon bring out more dimensions of the president and his staff than history usually allows.

Gary Denham/flickr

Thirty-five-year-old filmmaker Penny Lane grew up hearing the myth of Richard Nixon and his aides. The "dirty tricks" they pulled during the 1972 presidential campaign, the thugs they hired to loot their enemies' offices, their way of stonewalling the press: This is the collective memory of the Nixon administration.

But their home movies tell a different story. "The minute you turned on these Super 8 films, it was impossible not to grapple with the fact that that's not what you see in them. It doesn't mean the Super 8 films are true, and the other image is untrue, but it certainly complicated the stereotypical, black and white version of the story that I had grown up with," Lane said on Thursday in an interview at The Atlantic's headquarters -- the Watergate, as it happens.

Lane, whose documentary Our Nixon has won attention from media outlets and film festivals across the country, didn't know much about our 37th president when she started the project. "I was like, 'Why'd they shoot so much in China?'" she joked. She and her co-producer, Brian Frye, actually tried to avoid including the Watergate scandal, mostly because it seemed like a boring and predictable part of the Nixon story. "But people were just kind of like, 'Don't you know anything, kids?'" she said.

So she began looking through reels made by the three Nixon aides who later went to jail for their involvement in Watergate. By the time she had finished, John Erlichman, H.R. Haldeman, and Dwight Chapin had become human.

"I felt that John Erlichman was a very sensitive, artistic, interesting, intellectual person who had been flattened into this one photographic image with his lower lip sticking out during the Watergate hearings," Lane said. "What a disservice to a life, to have an entire life of rich and varied experiences reduced to an obituary that could have been written in 1975."

True, it's hard to watch these men wear fluffy hats on a historic U.S. trip to China, wave to their bell-bottom bedecked wives, and make funny faces for the camera and still think of them as the one-dimensional characters they have become in U.S. history. One doesn't expect symbols of government duplicity to play with their kids at a White House Easter egg roll.

But they were also deeply weird, with deeply weird relationships; Nixon seems to have had a deep love for and dependence on his staffers. On April 30, 1973, right after Nixon publicly announced that he was firing Haldeman and Erlichman to clear the air about Watergate, the president talked with Haldeman about how the announcement went.

"I don't know whether you can call and get any reactions and call me back, like the old style, would you mind?" Nixon asked of the man he had just fired.

"I don't think I can -- I'm in an odd spot to try and..."

"No, I agree, don't call a goddamned soul -- to hell with it," Nixon decided.

Well-known stereotypes about Nixon also show. In one exchange, the president is discussing policy his top staffer, Haldeman, when he suddenly starts complaining about homosexuality. "They are the enemy," he fumes.

"It's fatal liberality," Haldeman agrees. "It's a different set of values that have been induced."

"Jesus Christ," Nixon responds. "But getting back to my point..."

Such earnest, off-topic asides about the value systems of gays, blacks, and Jews might be humanizing, but in a darker way than Lane describes: they betray a casual bigotry that was apparently part of everyday life in the Nixon administration.

Our Nixon reads a little like King Lear, Lane allows. "There's plenty to be said for the idea that Watergate was a tragedy because a great president was brought down by his own hubris, or by his enemies on the left. Or you can say it was a tragedy because a really bad guy tried to destroy government. It is a tragedy -- there's no question. But you can explore the human dimension of it in a way that hasn't been done."

Our Nixon opens in select cities around the country next week.