Nixon on Art

It’s not every day that I link to the Weekly Standard, but this is just too surreal to pass up. In “Still the One,” Andrew Ferguson goes digging through the Nixon tapes and finds gold. Old Dick will always be a wonderful mystery to me. (That last sentence might get me some Google traffic.) I can’t imagine that I could possibly offer comments that would do this stuff justice. Kind of speaks for itself, eh?

The next meeting that morning concerned the arts.

Nixon’s presidency was the most generous ever enjoyed by the arts establishment in the United States. Representing that establishment in the administration were Nixon’s old law partner Leonard Garment and, preeminently, Nancy Hanks, a former director of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and thus, ex officio, a life member of the Eastern Establishment.

On the tape, Nixon says he wants to talk about the film industry.

“Now, Nancy, it turns out, 52 percent of the movies we see here in the United States were made abroad. What I want to do is find a way to keep these damn foreign movies out. Oh, I know they’re supposed to be so damn great and so forth. To tell you the truth, I don’t see many movies. Saw ‘Love Story.’ ‘Patton.’ But my point is, I will not have America slip to number two in the world when it comes to movies.”

Mrs. Hanks protests that the popularity of foreign movies is owing to their superior quality.

“Well, then, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to take it to the movie industry. You tell ’em, You’ve got to start producing good movies. Say: No more of this weird stuff! Shape up!

“The family movie is coming back, you know. People don’t like arty. They don’t like offbeat.

“But the film industry, they’re trying to reflect the intelligentsia”–the word drips with venom–“and that is their big mistake. Following the intelligentsia is where they always go wrong. Look at these film schools today. All they do is the weird stuff. They produce weird movies. They produce weird people.”

But Hanks and Garment have come to talk not about the movies but about the government’s grandest current project for the arts, the construction of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Museum on the National Mall.

“Is this going to be some of that–that modern art?” Nixon asks suspiciously.

“It is, Mr. President,” Mrs. Hanks replies, in her Rockefeller voice. “It’s one of the finest collections of modern sculpture in the world.” In the wuld.

quot;Oh yeah?” Silence. Then: “Don’t let it be one of those horrible modern buildings, all right? ‘Cause if it is, we’re not going to do it.”

Garment and Hanks try to explain that the plans have already been approved.

Nixon’s voice deepens. “I will not have the Mall desecrated with one of those horrible goddamn modern atrocities like they have in New York with that, what is it, that Whitney thing. Jesus H. Christ. If it looks like that, it–will–not–happen.”


“And I don’t want ‘controversial,’ either. All right? Now this list for the board or whatever. Am I stuck with these names?”

Garment assures him the list for the museum’s board of directors can still be changed.

“Good. I’m taking all the Easterners off of here. Got that? Every single one. And this name–what’s–some Harvard name. Know him. Part of the Eastern Establishment. Rich guy, but he’ll never lift a finger to help us. Well, the hell with him. Am I right?”

Nixon mentions names of California donors he would like placed on the Hirshhorn board.

“Just put ’em on the list,” he says. “I mean, why not? Think they’ll make the thing a disaster? They can’t make it a disaster because it’s a disaster already!”

“No, no, Mr. President,” Mrs. Hanks scolds. “It will not be a disaster!”

“Oh, come on, Nancy,” Nixon says quietly. “I’ve seen the plans.”

Another silence.

“Well,” he says at last, “I wash my hands of the damn thing. Just make sure I don’t have to see it when I look out this window.”

And there it is: an entire administration in miniature, the capitulation of the tough-talking Republican. The damn building got built, of course, and the Hirshhorn is indeed an atrocity, as Nixon knew it would be, rising up on the Mall without windows or warmth, poured from dun-colored concrete in the shape of a giant automotive air filter.

Why did they hate him so? “They” did get their building, after all, and so much else from him, too. A few hours in the tape room at Archives II, though, makes the answer plain: They hated him because he hated them. Deep as it was, the hatred wasn’t about politics. It cut much closer to the vitals–into culture, disposition, class, I’m not sure what to call it. One of Nixon’s legacies indeed is to demonstrate the puniness of politics, its relative insignificance in the larger scheme of what moves men to do what they do. His enemies knew he wasn’t one of them, and though he may have tried to buy their trust with every kind of political concession, Nixon knew it too. He hated them for it and vice versa. And the hatred, both his and theirs, is what did him in at the end, as he also knew.

Sorry that was so long, but I want to capture it all in case the Standard pulls it down.