I finished Daniel Frick’s Reinventing Richard Nixon: A Cultural History of an American Obsession. In this post, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Frick says on pages 222-223:
“…Dallas Boyd, who has developed a fascination with Buddhism, theosophy, astrology, and channeling, has come to believe in an authentic Richard Nixon who exists outside the man’s physical shell. Through his intense identification with the role he plays on stage, Boyd has been inviting this genuine Nixon into the actor’s body. Enticing this spirit to experience the play might permit the man’s tortured soul to slough off the ‘prejudices and stubborn self-images’ that imprisoned the historical Nixon throughout his life. The point of all Boyd’s efforts of these past fourteen months, he comes to realize, is to provide some form of expiation for the disgraced former president: ‘I’ve already forgiven myself. It’s all for Tricky Dick from here on out.’ As he prepares for his performance each night, Boyd meditates, channeling all of Nixon’s ‘anger and hatred,’ transforming it into ‘the most peaceful, wonderful feelings.’ Exploring Nixon’s guilt permits the actor to realize that Nixon’s chance to exorcise the demons of his past might redeem us all. As Boyd, transformed into Richard Nixon, makes his entrance on stage, the walls and ceiling of the theater evaporate. The stars of the Milky Way shine overhead while, below, the dead from Cambodia and Kent State join the audience, along with Pat Nixon and the actor’s dead lover. Together, all these imperfect people, ‘as flawed as Dallas, as flawed as Richard Nixon,’ desire simply ‘a glimpse of the truth.’ And that release, through Boyd’s spiritual performance, seems only moments away.”
Frick is talking here about the short story “Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree,” by Gerald Reilly. The story is about a forty-three year old homosexual actor named Dallas Boyd, who is going to play Richard Nixon in a one-man show. Boyd is getting rave reviews, but he is finding that he is too tired for the two-hour performance, since he is in the late stages of AIDS. Also, Boyd learns that Richard Nixon has recently died.
I don’t know if Boyd is literally channeling Nixon, in the sense that Nixon’s spirit is possessing him, or if “channeling” in this case simply means that Boyd is really identifying with his character. I am not a supporter of channeling, but the image of healing, redemption, and reconciliation in the midst of human imperfections is beautiful in the passage that I just quoted.
The passage reminded me of something that Frick said near the beginning of his book. Frick was discussing Richard Nixon’s funeral, and he noted that evangelist Billy Graham in his sermon at the event likened Richard Nixon to Saul. Frick describes Graham’s sermon as follows:
“Reading the noted Hebrew Bible scholar Ernest Wright’s characterization of the first king of the Israelites evokes an unsettling case of reverse [deja vu]: ‘Saul had some fine political successes, but he seems to have possessed a certain instability of character.’ By conjuring up this tragic figure of a man who could have been a great king had it not been for ‘an evil spirit from the Lord [that] tormented him,’ Graham reminded us of Richard Nixon’s presidential accomplishments while calling us to mourn that he had succumbed to his demons. At the same time, Graham insisted, the nation must cease to condemn Nixon, because ‘in the end the only thing that really counts is not how others see us here, but how God sees us’ (Services, 18). Pronouncing that he believed Nixon was now in heaven, Graham attempted to complete the process of spiritual healing by forever taking the power to judge the former president out of the secular realm and by aspiring to inter not just Nixon’s physical remains but also the uneasy spirit of his political legacy that had haunted recent American experience.”
I’ve long felt sorry for Saul because he had his inner demons, and he came to a bitter end. He’s a tragic figure. II Samuel 7:15 even goes so far as to say that God removed his mercy from Saul. Does this call into question God’s unconditional love for each and every human being?
I like the themes of healing and reconciliation. I would like to think that everyone, regardless of who he or she is, will experience that. But some might think otherwise. Alger Hiss, the man Nixon claimed was a Communist spy, said that Nixon went to his grave with sins un-atoned for. Does believing in some healing, reconciliation, or mercy in the afterlife entail assuming that sin and whom it hurts does not matter, that God is a God of cheap grace? I don’t think so. Even a number of universalists will say that there may be discipline and purgation of sin in the afterlife for those who are in “hell.” I believe, though, that it’s a positive thing to hope that people will arrive at a state of happiness, inner healing, and reconciliation with others. We were born into this world, and some had a harder road than others, which may have influenced how they turned out. All of us had made poor choices, for different reasons. We all need mercy and healing.
Very well written and fascinating intro.
I don’t care how an all-forgiving God may see us in a proposed afterlife, I think how everyone else sees us really matters — all those slaughtered by Nixon matter.
I like healing and reconciliation, but I hate evil too. I will not sacrifice one for the other. Hoping that a mass murder gets healed in heaven is fine in that it nurtures a healthy attitude in us, as long as it does not weaken in the least, our desire to fight this stuff and squash it as early as we can.
But I agree with many of your insights.
oooops, forgot to follow
I really appreciate your thoughts on this, Sabio. One challenge to humanizing Nixon—-or really any U.S. President—-is that his policies have resulted in the loss of innocent life abroad. I’d say that’s true of Nixon, Obama with his drones, Reagan with his support of the contras (who killed people), and the list goes on. I don’t recall if innocent people abroad lost their lives under Carter, though.
I’ll be following your blog, but I’ll be following it through my blogger blog.
Your pseudonym sounded familiar, so I did a search to see if we’ve crossed paths in the past. It looks like we’ve visited some of the same blogs—-James McGrath’s, and Ken Pulliam’s when he was still alive.
“Humanizing” is an interesting concept with lots of different meanings and uses. I think that many of who we consider our nicest friends, if put in positions of power, would (after time) do things unforgivably horrendous — intentionally or otherwise.
I have a buddy who is an ER doc. He has begged me for years to work with him — I refuse. I tell him, “If I worked with you, I would grow to hate you.” For though a fun friend, I would not admire him as an ER physician.
We are complex people. Any attempt to flatten us out leads to distortions whether demonizing, humanizing, beatifying or scandalizing. The good and the bad are intermingled. We are always dangerous animals, we can often do good. When “humanizing” there is always an agenda. Imagine “humanizing” Hitler during the war — this would have been consider traitorous and demoralizing in America — and rightly so. We must always wonder about purpose.
I like it 🙂