Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Sticking It To Nixon

As I’ve written about off-and-on here for the last several months, I have become increasingly interested in researching and learning more about America’s least beloved president, Richard Milhous Nixon. For example, here’s a post from a few months back in which I talked about both Nixon and my developing curiosity.

My interest in Nixon was initially piqued by all of the stories of his poker playing, with the teaching of my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class having inspired me to see what else I could find regarding that part of his biography. If you’ve heard those stories you know that Nixon had a reputation of being a great poker player, having won considerably from his fellow officers when serving in the Navy during WWII.

I’ve since read several Nixon bios as well as his own Six Crises (published in 1962), plus numerous articles and other sources of information. Nixon is such an endlessly complicated character about whom so much has been written it is easy to feel oneself slipping down the rabbit hole where such study seems as though it may never end. The amount of material about Watergate alone is overwhelming, and so much of it is filled with jaw-droppingly fascinating twists and turns that makes it hard not to want to keep digging.

That Nixon chose to call that early memoir Six Crises kind of indicates how he seems to have viewed his own existence as a series of conflicts with others, and as we well know he’d go on to experience many more crises after his failed presidential bid in 1960.

I also am a fan of old comedy LPs, and all of this reading about Nixon has led me to listen back to some of the records I’d collected over the years as well as to track down some new ones. It just so happens that Nixon’s political rise and fall coincided exactly with what one might describe as the “golden age” of comedy records, a category that really didn’t come into prominence until the late 1950s and early 1960s, then kind of died down by the 1980s and 1990s.

I’m talking about a period when popular comedy LPs would sell as much or more than most pop and rock records did, which is why if you ever visit used record stores you still see the comedy sections stuffed full. My favorite discs have always been by acts like the Firesign Theater, the Credibility Gap, National Lampoon, and solo artists like Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, Albert Brooks, George Carlin, and later on Bill Hicks. But I find pretty much all of it interesting and with older stuff especially enjoy hearing the comedians’ unique angle of entry into history and/or politics.

The Nixon binge got me listening to the Lenny Bruce discs again, as he has a few tracks where he talks about Nixon from his days as Eisenhower’s VP. He also mentions his contemporary, Mort Sahl, a few times (and is very complimentary). That got me finally to sit down and really listen to Sahl’s collection of what were really groundbreaking albums from the late ’50s and early ’60s, as well as his fantastic later LP from 1973 called Sing a Song of Watergate.

The first time through listening to an early Sahl disc I have to admit I found him kind of incomprehensible. And while I have a decent understanding of U.S. history and the political scene of Sahl’s day, I’ll admit to being a little lost with a few of his allusions here and there. But after a while I began to appreciate the logic behind his often idiosyncratic chains of association, and some of his insights are especially prescient. I’m not exactly busting a gut laughing when I listen, but I do find myself smiling and nodding a lot.

The Watergate LP from 1973 came after about a decade during which Sahl didn’t produce any new LPs, a career turn that most attribute to Sahl becoming so engrossed in the Kennedy assassination and seeking the truth of what happened while debunking the Warren Commission’s report that it negatively affected his success as a performer. As it happened Sahl had the unique experience of riding on Air Force One once with JFK and later with Nixon (as a member of the press), and among the gems on Sing a Song of Watergate is Sahl telling the stories of both trips to provide a fascinating contrast between the two.

But the whole reason I’m even bringing up this topic is to talk about another comic recording artist whom I’ve only recently had a chance to appreciate more fully, David Frye. By the time Nixon became president in 1969, Frye began essentially devoting his entire career to lampooning him. In fact Frye made four LPs altogether that targeted Nixon, each more devastating than the last: I Am the President (1969), Radio Free Nixon (1971), Richard Nixon Superstar (1971), and Richard Nixon: A Fantasy (1973).

Frye was an impressionist, and while he does a great Nixon the records also show he could do dozens of other famous figures of the day including Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert and Ted Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, Billy Graham, William F. Buckley, Truman Capote, Henry Fonda, George C. Scott, among many others. He was also a skewering satirist, and the records help spell out how much of the public tended to view the president they’d elected.

Here’s one clip from the first LP in which Frye’s Nixon tries marijuana in order to be better informed before considering drug-related legislation.

The 1973 LP called Richard Nixon: A Fantasy appeared after the Watergate scandal had broken wide open, and in it Frye casts Nixon as a gangster-like character (code name “Five O’Clock Shadow”) who in fact plotted the entire break-in, led the “plumbers” to the job, then was the only one of them to escape arrest. Early on he meets with Don Corleone to ask for help (with Frye doing Brando’s Godfather), and the Don asks him “You want justice?”

“Not necessarily,” answers Nixon.

The president is on the lam for much of the record, only eventually to be caught, tried, and imprisoned. Then he escapes and after shooting some guards faces the electric chair. The whole thing is as over-the-top as it sounds, and even though the whole “fantasy” is outrageous it adds up to a revealing critique of Nixon, not just for the Watergate cover-up but for other offenses, too.

Right near the end there is a sequence leading up to the execution. A big crowd has assembled, carnival music is playing, and someone is selling programs. A pre-execution eulogy begins to be delivered over the public address system.

“As Richard Nixon leaves us,” it begins, “we shall always remember this man.” When the voice describes him as a “great man,” there is much laughter amid the cacophony. A few more comments are added, then comes the conclusion:

“But I still say... years from now Richard Nixon will be remembered most of all for being a great poker player!”

There’s more laughter at that moment, the anticlimactic pronouncement of Nixon being a great poker player clearly intended as a double-edged jab meant both to belittle his accomplishments in politics and as president and to evoke negative connotations associated with poker, a game so seemingly suitable to “Tricky Dick.”

You can hear the whole Richard Nixon: A Fantasy LP over at the Internet Archive. Frye’s celebrity would soon after Nixon’s ouster, although he’d continue to record and perform thereafter. He died a couple of years ago in Las Vegas, and from what I can find online it sounds as though not a great deal is known of his last days. I’d be curious to hear if anyone in LV perhaps knows if he had been performing at all.

Will update further about this project as it develops, but for now I’m glad to have been more fully introduced to Mort Sahl and David Frye, and definitely recommend both to fans of comedy and/or political commentary from that earlier era.

(By the way, as I publish I am realizing this is my 1,999th post on Hard-Boiled Poker. That is a damn lot of scribbling. What to do for #2,000?)

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Blogger darrelplant said...

I had the honor a few years ago of meeting Nixon's primary adversary -- 1972 Democratic presidential candidate Senator George McGovern -- while I was doing research for a book proposal.

McGovern, as many people have pointed out over the years, was piloting bomber missions over Europe while Nixon was behind the lines playing poker in the Pacific, but while I can't remember running across any mention of McGovern playing poker in my research, I have a hard time imagining that despite his Methodist minister's training he didn't have some familiarity with the game, particularly since he came from South Dakota, a state that was probably more synonymous with poker than Nevada back in the 1930s and 1940s.

8/06/2013 8:20 PM  

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