March 30, 2012
There is a scene in a PBS documentary about Jack Paar that illustrates as well as anything why William Shakespeare would have loved Richard Nixon.
The scene comes from a 1963 episode of Paar’s groundbreaking talk show. Nixon, since leaving the vice presidency, had lost elections for president and for governor of California, but for a two-time loser, he was in a good mood — one might say light-hearted, a term not often associated with RMN.
Paar reminds the audience of something that was widely known at the time, namely that Nixon was a piano player. Paar also explained, to Nixon’s obvious amusement, that Nixon had also written some music for the piano and that his wife had made recordings of him playing his own tunes.
Paar said that bandleader Jose Meles had used one of those recordings to write an arrangement to back up one of Nixon’s compositions, and Paar asked Nixon to take to the keyboard.
Before complying, Nixon noted that Paar had asked earlier about Nixon’s political ambition. ”If last November didn’t finish it, this will,” Nixon said, “because — believe me — the Republicans don’t want another piano player in the White House,” a reference to Harry S. Truman whose musical virtuosity was about on the same level as Nixon’s.
When I saw this incident on a PBS documentary about Paar, I thought about what a complex creature a human being is, and I thought about that again when I read Don Fulsom’s book, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets. Considering the depth and breadth of Nixon’s corruption and paranoia, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a writer to do a hatchet job on the old trickster, but Don Fulsom has managed it.
On paper, at least, Fulsom has some credentials to be writing about this subject. He covered the White House and was Washington bureau chief for United Press International, which once upon a time was a viable news agency. Having been a journalist myself for more than 40 years, I would have expected a writer with Fulsom’s resumé, producing a book this long after Nixon’s death, to provide some insight into the whole man. As deeply immersed in muck as he was, after all, Nixon didn’t spend his whole time drinking himself blotto, assaulting people who annoyed him, beating his wife, raking in dough through his bag men, or plotting to have people like Jack Anderson killed.
And while his administration was forever besmirched by his prolongation of the Vietnam war and his order for the secret and murderous bombing of Cambodia, it was productive in many ways, including creation of the Occupational and Health Safety Administration , the National Endowment on the Arts, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon approved the first significant step toward a federal affirmative action program. And Nixon — as probably only he could have — altered the course of modern history by changing the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union and China.
Although Fulsom has riffled through some of the more recently released documents about Nixon, he hasn’t contributed anything to our understanding by recounting in nauseating detail the depravities of the man’s life. We get it. He was a sleaze. But he was also this other guy. This guy with a remarkable grasp of foreign affairs. This guy who supported a lot of moderate initiatives. And this guy who played the piano. And from this distance, that’s what’s so fascinating about him.
Look for Fulsom’s book with the scandal rags at the checkout counter. Shakespeare would have told the whole story.
You can see Nixon playing the piano on Jack Paar’s show by clicking HERE.