Saturday, May 12, 2007


Those Were The Days, My Friend
It seems no spring semester is really over without a trip into NYC for some kind of entertainment. Last year it was a performance by Tom Verlaine in the Bowery. This time it was a couple of documentaries from the '60s by Emil de Antonio. The first, America is Hard to See, covered the McCarthy campaign in '68. It was instructive since it's sometimes hard to remember when presidential candidates were witty and urbane and didn't feel they had to dumb down unduly, or weren't already pre-dumbed-down. But of course that's why McCarthy didn't have a prayer. Maybe if they'd passed a law that only college-educated citizens could vote . . . then at least it would've been a question of college-educated liberals vs. college-educated conservatives. But McCarthy was never talking to "the people," only to the people like him. But footage of him set against the Hube and Tricky Dicky sure added to his appeal. And I really liked seeing the speech where he had to take pot-shots at the Kennedy camp, once Bobby finally decided he should run (i.e., once LBJ was out of the race). Up to that point, McCarthy could just criticize the sitting president, but once RFK made his move, then it was time to point out that the great think-tank of JFK advisers in LBJ's administration got us into the Vietnam debacle that McCarthy was primarily running against. Then we get clips of Daley and the '68 Convention floor and if it wasn't already clear that bucking the system from within the system was hopeless, it is then. No footage of the Yippies outside, storming the gates, but their presence is implied and, looking at the conventioneers, their angry frustration justified.

The second film, Millhouse, showed highpoints of Nixon's career -- particularly painful, funny, awful, was seeing almost the entirety of the famous "Checkers" broadcast where Nixon doggedly reads out his entire assets and income and debts on the air. But even more humiliating than that was the footage of Nixon paling it up with a benign Ike (now that "his boy" has pulled himself out of the frying pan) on a fly-fishing trip. Nixon looks so gauche and uncomfortable in his outdoorsmany get-up you almost feel sorry for him. The interesting thing about pairing the two films is that the McCarthy film shows the Democrats splitting apart over "their" war and what to do about it; Nixon barely mentions the war in the footage shown -- he's all about returning order to the streets and upping the spending power of the Silent Majority. The thing which struck me most watching this quick precis of Nixon up to his successful 2nd bid for the presidency is that he was a political animal first and last, in some ways the epitome of the system as it existed at the time. Defeated in '60, he was just waiting for his chance to come back. '64 was a trial run to stay in the limelight while supporting the far Right Goldwater (Nixon was a centrist by comparison) who had no real chance against LBJ and the Kennedy legacy. But in '68 with LBJ refusing to run and the Democratic leadership shaky -- you know how VP's never really make it on their own, witness Nixon vs. JFK, witness HHH vs. Nixon, witness Mondale vs. Reagan, witness Gore vs. W. -- it was time for King Richard. And the rest is infamy.

No comments: