Why is it that even after half a century, the standard American president is still Richard Nixon?
We’ve had a lot of presidents since then, and even more prior to that. We’ve had thin ones and fat ones, tall ones and, um, less tall ones, and our current president is nothing if not unusual by the physical standards of previous ones. They’ve had any number of different accents, spoke in pitches that range from Gregory Peck basso profundo to scratchy little tenor voices you’d expect to hear in a prep school, and ranged from captivating speakers to people you wouldn’t hire to read to the deaf. There’s been a lot of them, is what I’m saying.
Yet whenever anyone wants a character that clearly and unequivocally says, “American president,” what do we get? A jowly, slick-haired, gravel-voiced, shifty-eyed Nixon clone, or at least someone built off that model.
We were watching Doctor Who tonight, an activity that has become our favorite family pastime of late, and we’re nearing the end of Season 3 of the new Doctors. In this episode, the American president comes flying in to Britain to take over a situation. He gets off Air Force one, strides over to the British Prime Minister, and there he was – Tricky Dick in all his glory, though with a bit of New York City Mafia in the hair.
Not that it went well for him, as you could see coming from pretty much the moment he showed up. Suddenly, we don’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.
But he’ll be back. He always comes back, just like he did in real life.
Last year I was listening to the radio around Presidents’ Day (for those of you not in the US, this is the holiday that you get when you lump together George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays and then bleach it entirely of meaning). President’s Day is essentially the consolation prize for Valentine’s Day, when – especially if you were hoping for sheets and towels – you can buy for yourself whatever your significant other neglected to provide.
Cue the opening strains of “Hail to the Chief,” because that’s something nobody else has ever thought to use in a commercial.
And then comes the announcer, describing in those characteristically breathy and stilted Nixonian tones the glories of the various towels for sale.
I have no idea what makes Nixon so compelling in popular culture that way.
I suppose I can see why you don’t see Reagan (forgetful, old, scary) or Clinton (hound-dog, slippery) or George W Bush (“morons use our product”) in these commercials and shows. But wasn’t Nixon the guy who got hounded from office one step ahead of the law? Didn’t he perpetrate the greatest Constitutional crisis of the 20th century? Oh yes he did. It’s not like he’s a great moral exemplar that you’d want to pin your product or show to.
But somehow he sticks in the popular mind the world over as the prototypical American president.
I’m not sure what this says about the United States, but I have a feeling it isn’t complimentary.