Sunday, May 13, 2012

There will be no books written about her

I don't remember whether it was on television or on the laptop. I had just woken from a dream. There I was watching the last few minutes of Oliver Stone's movie in which Anthony Hopkins plays Richard Nixon. He was embracing Joan Allen and beginning to weep glycerine tears. The two of them clutched in close-up. Stone then cut to the famous resignation speech. Hopkins's rubbery face was bathed in cheesy cinematic sweat. His eyes glistened. He looked out over a restive bunch of extras meant to represent the President's staff, cleared his throat, and began to deliver his lines. Hopkins was laying it on thick, but it worked. After all, Nixon himself had laid it on thick all those years ago.

I lay there watching and my cheeks got hot. I couldn't help myself. When he paid tribute to his mother, calling her a saint, I started to weep. Christ, I hate the way movies play with your heart. I pictured my mother and thought how true it was -- most of us could say the same thing about our mothers, just like Nixon was saying -- she too was a saint. There will be no books written about her.

It gave me a shudder to realize that I missed the man. His hunched shoulders, his jowls, his profanity, his darting eyes. His successors have been emotional ciphers by comparison, bleach jobs, unreal -- even Clinton and his little pecker. Pretend people. I thought to myself, Nixon needs a Caro. Sure, he was a deformed man, determined to hate the idle pleasures of his days, but he knew what the Presidency was meant to symbolize, even if he couldn't live up to it. No matter how bent and brilliant, he knew it wasn't his job to line the pockets of the rich.

As Hopkins spoke Nixon's lines, the credits began to roll. The camera cut between the blabbering star and his stunned and sorrowful audience. There I was, crying real tears along with their fake ones. Stone, by most accounts himself a paranoiac, had nailed Nixon. And Hopkins was remarkable, perfectly aping the posture of a man discomforted in his own skin. The movie faded to black and some goddamn advertisement popped up. I was still embarrassing myself with tears.

I spent the summer of 1973 watching the Senate Watergate hearings while keeping company with my sick mother. We sat in the living room together and drank iced tea while Sam Ervin pounded his gavel and shook his arthritic finger at one or another dissembling witness. The crafty Carolinian was my mother's favorite -- he resembled her uncle Leroy -- followed by the one-armed war hero Dan Inouye from Hawaii and Connecticut's Lowell Weicker. I was a fan of the committee's smart Jewish lawyer Sam Dash. He was principled, incisive, and didn't take bullshit from anyone. The telecasts were spellbinding and we were grateful they were on. They took our minds off my mother's chemotherapy treatments.

It's odd to think of it now, almost forty years later, how those twin disasters -- her advancing cancer and the attempted subversion of the democratic process -- brought us together in those indolent summer days. We were held tight in a kind of suspended animation as revelation upon revelation came to light, moving inexorably toward an unwanted denouement.

The hearings ended in early August 1973. Nixon resigned a year later, on August 9, 1974. My mother died fifteen days later on August 24.

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