Richard Nixon’s friends were devoted to him. They thought him a truly great man who would reform American politics and be remembered among the greatest of the presidents. “Our Nixon,” a new documentary, reveals a group of high-spirited young men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who believed in their Nixon and never saw their catastrophe coming. “Born Again,” the 1975 memoir by Chuck Colson, one of Nixon’s men, reveals much the same thing.
However, “Born Again” tries to make sense of those days, of Nixon’s first presidency and the disastrous beginning of his second term, and of the part Colson played in them. “Our Nixon” is merely a reflection of them through the lens of home movies made by some of Nixon’s closest friends. Colson is not one of them; indeed, he is not referenced in the documentary at all, despite being one of the five advisors to the president who were convicted over the Watergate scandal. The three main characters, other than Nixon himself, are the three who made most of the footage: Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff; John Ehrlichman, his domestic advisor; and Dwight Chapin, his special assistant.
The documentary is full of jumpy, grainy footage of life around the White House, from Nixon’s first inauguration in 1969, through the wedding of his daughter and his trip to China, all the way to the implosion of his administration. Everyone is high-spirited, laughing at the camera, making jokes, doing everything everyone does when someone’s taking home movies. All the people involved think they’re part of just about the greatest administration in history, working with a man who’s going to change the world, reform politics, make everything better.
The home footage—500 reels of Super 8 footage confiscated by the FBI during Watergate—is interspersed with contemporary media coverage and interviews with Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin taken in the decades afterward. Those tell a different story. The older men of the interviews are men who have had decades to contemplate what happened—how their administration, which was to go down in history as one of the greatest, instead went down in history as one of the worst.
Laid over the home video footage like narration are the illegal voice recordings made in the Oval Office during Nixon’s administration. Sometimes they’re a mere punctuation to the footage and sometimes an indictment of it. In one of his interviews, Ehrlichman expressed the opinion that Nixon could have turned everything around at the very beginning of the Watergate scandal, back when it was just about a break-in, by facing it head-on, but that Nixon had a need to control everything, as well as to compartmentalize everything. No one under him ever knew everything, leading to a dysfunctional staff. The more he tried to control, and the more he tried to hide what had been happening under his nose, whether or not he knew about it, the deeper a pit he and his aides dug for themselves.
Chuck Colson’s book about his conversion to Christianity, following his role in those events, does not depict Nixon and his advisors as men steeped in villainy who set out to destroy a presidency. Like “Our Nixon,” it depicts men who thought they were part of the greatest administration in history, who were going to do the greatest things for the country that any president and his men had done. End the Vietnam War. Bring stability to a time of seismic social upheaval. Clean up politics. They didn’t set out to be bad; they set out to be the best. Pride, Colson says, pride and hubris brought them down. They thought they could do no wrong . . . but with no personal checks and balances, they did great wrong.
The documentary shows Haldeman, in an interview done only a couple of years after Watergate, saying flatly that he doesn’t know what happened, as if he honestly didn’t know what he might have done to get from the White House to prison in so short a time. As if he weren’t part of a desperate struggle to sweep illegal deeds under the Oval Office carpet, to go to unethical lengths to discredit and sabotage Nixon’s presidential opponents. As if he hadn’t been part of an administration that seemed to think it could do whatever it wanted. There is no ring of truth to his voice, or in his eyes. There is only a shadow of a man who used to be one of the greatest and had a great fall, documented on his own video camera.
The video camera did not document the other side of the story, the tale of another proud man who learned humility. Haldeman, Erlichman, and Chapin, the principals of the documentary, salvaged something out of their lives and went back to what they knew, business and politics. But Watergate threw their “co-conspirator” Colson completely off the trajectory of his life. Prison was more than an inconvenient and embarrassing period of his life; it became his vocation. A worldwide ministry began there, in prison. The pride of Nixon and his men destroyed a whole administration; the humiliation of prison for Chuck Colson became the catalyst that has lifted many men out of their own destruction.
“Our Nixon” gives no hint of this upside-down turn of events. In the end, it’s about little more than confusion. Three laughing men with video cameras documented their own fall and didn’t know—or, perhaps, didn’t want to know?—how they got there.
Image copyright CNN Films.
Christy McDougall is a Web developer, writer, and aspiring missionary with bachelor's and master's degrees in Christian theology.