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A Revealing New Look Inside the Nixon Bubble

Before there was Tammy Haddad prowling This Town with the camcorder, there was H.R. Haldeman roaming the White House with the Super 8. Little did I know that Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s buzz-cutted chief of staff, had documented his time in the White House as eagerly as a suburban dad capturing Christmastime for the home-video annals. And not just Haldeman—domestic affairs czar John Ehrlichman and presidential aide Dwight Chapin also wielded a mean Super 8 (all three men served prison time in connection with the Watergate conspiracy). In toto, more than 500 reels shot by the three men have recently resurfaced. Luckily for us, we don’t need to sit in a basement somewhere while the only surviving member of the trio, Chapin, winds them into the projector. Instead, we can sit back and enjoy Our Nixon, a new documentary airing on CNN at 9 p.m. Thursday night that incorporates the films into a revealing new look at life inside the Nixon bubble.

And what a bubble it was. We’ve heard so much in the last decade about the ways in which both the Bush and Obama White Houses have become cloistered and disconnected that one might assume that this a contemporary condition, the result of our Drudge-ified, post-Sally Quinn era. But Our Nixon, co-produced by Brian Frye and Penny Lane, makes a convincing case that the Nixon White House took the cake for its sheer clueless self-absorption. There are moments of appealing humanity, as when press secretary Ron Ziegler is so excited to be in China on Nixon’s momentous 1972 trip that he bites into a tangerine whole, peel and all.

But it is unsettling to say the least to see the aides basking and frolicking in the cosseted realm of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue while war and protests rage beyond and their boss’s paranoia builds. “I never laughed as much as when I went to the Nixon White House,” Chapin says in an archived interview. He waxes about the pranks his colleagues perpetrated and the friendships they made: “It was the sense of humor … that made it all nice,” he says. Well, that’s… nice. As for those nettlesome protests, here’s what Chapin has to say: “I didn’t have much compassion for the people in the streets … I was of the opinion that the demonstrators belonged in the war. They didn’t help us get out, they just made it worse. That’s just how I viewed it.” This last line is punctuated with a chuckle.

There are glimmers of self-awareness in the clips of Ehrlichman, who talks about the headiness of arriving at the White House and about the way in which his grand plans for being a change agent very quickly morphed into feeling like he was part of the establishment, just someone who “moved this pile of firewood from over here to over there.” Haldeman, meanwhile, comes across as an extreme version of that classic Washington type who builds up the presidency to imperial heights, thereby buttressing his own overweening self-importance. We hear him flattering Nixon after an Oval Office address, as the president declares with transparent self-satisfaction, “You know, it was done with style.” We see him resisting the flirtatious prodding of a fetching Barbara Walters, and quoting Navy discipline to explain his role as chief of staff: “You have to operate as close to zero defects as you possibly can.”

Well, as we know, Haldeman ended up presiding over slightly more than zero defects. The documentary deftly shows the slowly gathering paranoia and dysfunction that would explode into a presidency-ending scandal, with audio clips of Nixon and Haldeman as they are first installing the secret White House taping system (“mum’s the word,” Nixon says) and of Nixon, as the reelection nears, telling his aides, “I’d like to get everyone here thinking, from now on, politically.” Has a more understated and over-executed presidential order ever been given?

Above all, though, Our Nixon is fascinating simply as another window into a time that ranks as one of the more acute hinge moments in our history—the shift from postwar prosperity into middle-class stagnation, from Walter Lippman to Woodward and Bernstein, from the Cleavers to the Bunkers. The film includes Nixon and Haldeman’s notorious exchange on the latter, a dialogue that stands as startling evidence of how far we’ve traveled in just 40 years. Nixon tells Haldeman that the previous night he found himself watching a movie on TV that included a “hardhat” character and two younger men who were “glorying homosexuality.” Haldeman tells Nixon that it was not a movie but a weekly “panel show.” Nixon expands on his homophobic riff, telling Haldeman that homosexuality is of course a marker of civilizational decline: “Aristotle was a homo, we all know that, but so was Socrates.” Haldeman breaks in, hilariously: “But he never had the influence television has.” Nixon continues: “The last six Roman emperors were fags … Homosexuality and immorality in general are the enemies of strong societies … that’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing it, they’re trying to destroy us.” Haldeman sums up in deferential concurrence: “Fatal liberality.” This charming exchange is played out over wistful Super 8 images of cherry trees in bloom on the White House grounds.

Even more jarring in hindsight, though, is the January 1972 clip of Nixon introducing the Ray Coniff singers, a sugar-sweet ensemble, at a White House event to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the founders of Reader’s Digest. “If the music is square, it’s because I like it square,” Nixon quips. The ensemble files out, women first in poofy gowns, and then things take a turn for the not-so-square. One of the singers, a striking, long-haired brunette, unfurls a banner with black lettering: “STOP THE KILLING.” “President Nixon," she says in a clear, calm voice, “stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation. You go to church on Sundays and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb. Bless the Berrigans, and bless Daniel Ellsberg.”

And with that, she folds the banner away, and joins the group as it starts into bubble-gum harmonies from an era she had just effectively consigned to the dust heap. No wonder Nixon was so paranoid: He was standing on the middle of a fault line.

“Our Nixon” airs Thursday on CNN at 9 p.m. Eastern and again at 12 a.m. and 3 a.m. Friday morning. It will encore Sunday and Saturday, Aug. 10 at the same times. It will also have a theatrical release through Cinedigm on Aug. 30 in New York, with a national roll-out to follow.