Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tricky Dick

(Above image, no joke)

In "The Hermit of Iapetus," a book for which I've completed the first draft, the hermit, wandering alone on the icy surface of Saturn's moon Iapetus, meets Richard Nixon. The hermit and the former president of the United States share one thing in common: They've famous for their famousness. Both are hounded (Nixon beyond the grave, obviously) by people who want to be near them or associated with them or to hate them merely because they are well-known, while the fawners and haters are not.

David Greenberg, in his superb "Nison's Shadow, The History of An Image," has this to say about Nixon's "famousness":

People wanted to hear [Nixon's] views because he was America's chief villain, or at best a figure of bewitching inscrutability, but not because they expected or wanted him to solve the world's ills. Many who interviewed or dined with Nixon felt similarly. David Frost called him "the most intriguing man in the world." Bob Greene of the Chicago Sun-Times, who landed one of the early post-resignation interviews, wanted to talk to him for the same reason "en eight-year-old wants to go to Disney World." Nixon had become a celebrity, well known for his well-knownness, a human pseudo-event. Nixon himself accepted this fact. Of his audiences, he said to Newsweek, "They're here because they want to hear what I have to say, but they're [also] here because they say, 'What makes this guy tick?'" To Nixon, what mattered was that they wanted to hear from him. Toward the end of his life he was heard to ask anxiously, "Do you think interest in me is down?"

After reading Greenberg's book, I can tell I need to augment the hermit's commiseration with Nixon much more than I have. What a fascinating character.

Greenberg's book is written compellingly, never feeling like a dry bit of history -- of course, given the subject matter, how could it be dry? Also valuable is Greenberg's assessment of other Nixon books, many of which I've read.

This book is an essential read for many reasons:

1) For voters, it's a good peek into the history of the first modern image-conscious president, and how we've come to depend on imagery, rather than substance, to choose our leaders. If you thought Obama and Romney were all image and no substance, well, here's the guy who started it all. Not to say any of these people are without substance -- but it's that lack of substance that we choose to pay attention to now as we select our leaders.

2) For politicians, it's an excellent study on the futility of doing anything but present an image -- because when a message of authenticity is sent, thanks to the cynicism that bubbled over in politics in the era of Nixon, we doubt even the most authentic and sincere images our politicians present, figuring it's all part of the show.

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