This Week: Nixonland and the Unmaking of a Presidency

Illustration by Susan Coyne

We revisit the saga with Pat Buchanan, John Farrell, Glenn Greenwald and Beverly Gage. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Our guests this week tackled the many lessons learned from Nixonland and the many relevant parallels to our present-day POTUS. John Farrell, the all-star biographer( his terrific new book is called Richard Nixon: The Life) looked back at America’s past dalliance with a paranoid president. Beverly Gage, critical historian of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, reviewed the last major clash between an entrenched FBI director and a schizoid executive branch. And Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept, told us about the vanishing journalistic safety-net for government leakers—a 40 year story linking Daniel Ellsberg to Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

But for many of our listeners, it was our leadoff guest who demanded the most attention. Lots of protests were registered, in our online comments section as well as over email, about the polemical Pat Buchanan. We totally get the visceral abomination he can summon, but this time we thought he was useful as a guy who was in the room with Nixon himself. Yes, his politics are hideous, but asking him to review history is not to normalize him or his views. Here’s what Chris had to say about our controversial guest:

Pat Buchanan won my respect the hard way: by renouncing the imperial pretensions and continuous military misadventures that have wasted the spirit, character and reputation of our country in our lifetimes, not to mention its manpower and treasure. In our politics and public commentary this is a rare and remarkable recovery — as moving to me as the record of our jazz giants who quit heroin cold-turkey.

I did not let Buchanan get away with anything except speaking his piece. For myself I held Nixon accountable for “four years of completely immoral and bootless, murderous war in Vietnam, and the Christmas bombing after the war was over.” Like you I gasped at Pat Buchanan’s absurd euphemism that Nixon was a little slow getting out of Vietnam

This is from a good Norman Mailer profile on PB in his last run for glory:

“So why does Pat Buchanan bear the mark of the beast? Because he is the only major American political figure to wake from the long Cold War nightmare and demand that his countrymen renounce empire. Buchanan is that rara avis in american public life: a politician who has sat back, examined the evidence and changed his mind. He served as an adviser to two of the most internationalist presidents, Nixon and Reagan, and while he remains personally loyal to this dubious duo, his platform is a flat repudiation of their legacies.”.

Still, for lots of others Buchanan remains a troubling figure, particularly given his record on race, religion, and authoritarianism (see Jeet Heer’s recent piece on this topic in The New Republic).

Some of the best rebuttals came from the faithful commenters on our own site. Here’s a stinging response from longtime OS listener and correspondent, Pete Crangle:

As for Pat Buchanan, I have to chuckle. He sounds exactly like my father, two of three of my siblings, and even my mother. Imagine being reared in that sort of environment. It’s the sort of codependent dysfunctionality that is not easily shed. The moment I was taught by a crisis counselor the means to impose and maintain “healthy boundaries” was the beginning of my recovery. That victim narrative bullshit requires someone seeking it out to stoke it up. Trump has mastered it. And victim narratives require constant adjustment to the physical, cultural, and historical reality they find themselves in. It is the pathway to emotional and psychological derangement. Such as, older conservative voters voting for a pack of wolves that are ALEC friendly neoliberals who want to burn the social safety net down to a small pile of cinders, and send their children or grandchildren off to war or prison.

Pat Buchanan: drunk uncle pundit, premillenial snowflake. That said, I’d rather have him than Seb Gorka, Stephen Bannon, Stephen Miller, and the rest of the team of fascists that wander around The People’s White House. Chris points out a point-of-view I too share with Pat Buchanan on The American Imperial Project … if I am understanding it correctly. Our reasons may differ, but if it means sparing lives, I’m willing to be cynically pragmatic

Feel free to leave your own responses in the comments section here:

For a bonus this week, producer Frank Horton dug into Nixon’s obsession with film and interviewed Mark Feeney, author of Nixon at the Movies. You can watch the video version of his interview here:

Frank also watched the recent Netflix doc Get Me Roger Stone.

Frank Horton: Get Me Roger Stone, presents the life and times of the infamous Republican strategist and firebrand, Roger Stone. The result is a kind of greatest hits of Stone’s political machinations played out over the last four decades. Hits include: creating the model for all subsequent Super PACs, lobbying with Paul Manafort on behalf on warlords in Africa in the 80s, taking out the knees of Pat Buchanan’s Reform party run in 2000, extinguishing broadcasting career of Dan Rather, helping to ignite the Birther movement, and finally masterminding the Trump phenomenon. A star-studded cast of pundits and political players (Jeffrey Toobin, Jane Mayer, Paul Manafort, and Donald Trump himself) all capably narrate these splashy escapades with a you-won’t-believe-what-he-did zeal. Though swiftly paced, and at times entertaining and illuminating — Get Me Roger is not a great movie. And perhaps, that’s just as well. Greatness, more often than not, affords perpetuity; and perpetuity, lasting attention. And that’s what Roger Stone wants more than anything else in this world. It’s his raison d’être. ‘Love me, hate me, what’s the difference? Just give me your attention — I matter.’

Our illustrator Susan Coyne has also been moonlighting at the Berkman Center, sketching some of the famous faces who stopped by for the recent MIT Media Lab Humor Series.

Susan Coyne: Jonny Sun, a PhD candidate at MIT, came out a year ago as having secretly been behind one of Twitter’s biggest comedic accounts (and one of my favorites) for years. He’d crafted a lovable alien personality known for his misspellings and funny existential commentary that became one of the biggest hits in the backchannels of “Weird Twitter.” The account amassed half a million Twitter followers and Sun developed a book — Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too — with Harper Perennial. This spring, he worked with the MIT Media Lab to develop a six-panel series exploring online humor. I went to three of them to do live illustrations.

As a longtime fan I would’ve been happy just seeing Jonny himself in person, but he lured in an impressive series of guests. At the first lecture I learned that Matt Nelson, the mind behind We Rate Dogs, an account that grew to 1.5 million followers in a little over a year, is an apple-cheeked college sophomore living in the backwoods of Georgia. Sarah Kay, an actual full-time successful poet, was also in attendance, and we talked about Maira Kalman. The talk was moderated by Susan Benesch, a professor at American University who studies language in political movements.

I also caught panels with Heben Nigatu, co-creator of the “Another Round” podcast, in conversation with friend of Open Source Kishonna Gray and NU professor Meryl Lipton. Heben, who created the hashtag #carefreeblackkids2k16, talked about how important it is to show conspicuous joy in times of national trauma. They also talked about how Black teens are the driving force behind most online media trends but are almost never credited for it. Last week, I was overjoyed to see Maura Quint (The Onion, The New Yorker) in person at the last lecture, talking about humor in resistance movements with Frank Lesser (The Colbert Report) and Berkman Klein fellow Katie Coyer. Quint was a national organizer of the Tax Day protest and talked about how important the big gold inflatable Donald Trump chicken was in getting news coverage of the protests. It was personally thrilling to see so many of my favorite humorists in the same room over the past month. Here’s hoping the lecture series will continue in the fall!

Chris shared some JFK photos with with our new pal Frederick Logevall, who’s writing a biography of JFK. Catch him on two shows with us very recently. Chris calls these “three of those favorite pictures that locates the holy man in the scene, even without a halo.”

Next week we interview Noam Chomsky. Send us your thoughts and questions!

Til next week,

Mary, Frank, Susan and the OS crew

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.