Richard M. Nixon, 37th President of the United States, painted by Norman Rockwell. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution.
Norman Rockwell painted conscious daydreams of life as it ought to be. There's a gentle irony at work in these daydreams, a touch of self-mocking humor. The joke, told kindly and with affection, is Come on, we know life isn’t really like this.
Except of course when it is.
Sometimes it's exactly like this.
I've had Kurt Vonnegut on the brain lately. So I'm reminded of how Vonnegut liked to tell how his uncle thought it was important to notice when life was exactly like that. At such moments his uncle liked to say, “If this isn’t nice I don’t know what nice is.” Rockwell painted---he'd have preferred "illustrated"---those moments. All his paintings---illustrations---might be subtitled If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what nice is.
And although the people and settings in his illustrations seem somehow old-fashioned, even the ones set in the times in which he was painting, he wasn’t portraying an idealized past. He was trying to capture a now that was already becoming a part of then. His paintings are nostalgic for the present moment. Rockwell's world is comic but that just means that the tragic is momentarily off stage. What makes these moments special, worth stopping to notice and remark upon, is that they’re rare and they go by in a blink. They are bracketed by other moments, many other moments that aren't nice, moments of moments of heartbreak, disillusion, sorrow, and grief. These nice moments lift us up out of the world that is really defined by those other moments. They are moments of escape from the sad past and the sure to be sad future. They are moments out of time.
That makes them in a way ahistorical.
Consequently, these moments won’t bear the weight of too much history. The Homecoming G.I. is effective because we know what the soldier is coming home from. But it collapses into banality if we dwell on what we know and what likely happened to him in the war.
There's almost nobody much more historically weighty than Richard Nixon.
Which may be why Rockwell's portrait of Nixon unnerves me.
To start with, it looks back at you, directly, almost impertinently, with a too interested, challenging, and amused gaze and the trace of a smile, as if he’s thinking, I've got you figured, kid. I know what you think you know about me, and let me tell you. What you think you know? That's not even the half of it.
Which is not like Nixon at all.
Nixon didn’t read people like that. What he looked for in them was himself. He didn't know what they were thinking. He was afraid of what they might be thinking about him, which was what he was thinking about himself---that he was a fraud and a fool.
That's what's disconcerting. This isn’t Nixon. It’s someone who looks almost exactly like him, but without the paranoia, without the self-doubt, and without the desperate need to please and the defensive anger used to mask it. This is a more physically and psychologically robust man, stronger, more virile, a guy you can imagine having started as quarterback in college, worshipped for his on the field heroics, instead of a benchwarming scrub tolerated and grudgingly admired for his pluck, tenacity, and willingness to take a hit during practice. This is someone's big brother, not a permanently grieving little brother searching for surrogates for the big brother he lost when he was a kid. This is a favorite son who grew up making his father proud and not bullied by him.
It's Nixon as he might have been, if he'd been able to let up on himself, if he could have relaxed inside his own skin, if he'd allowed himself to be proud if his accomplishments and left them to speak for themselves instead of always presenting them to the public as a bill people ought to pay by gushing over all the great things he'd done.
It's Nixon as he might have been on his best days, in his happiest moments. Nixon in a Rockwellian daydream. Which is to say Nixon with the history painted out of him.
In his novel Watergate, Thomas Mallon doesn’t repaint Rockwell’s portrait of Nixon but he has painted some of the history out of him and consequently out of the story of the crime and scandal that brought about Nixon’s downfall.
The result is a story of a collection of fairly ordinary people whose lives are upended by the moral failure of the husband-father-boss-friend they'd had or thought they had good reason to trust and depend upon. Happens all the time, in every city and town in America.
Mallon’s Watergate is a quintessentially American story, almost Rockwellian in its quintessence. He’s set his novel in the moments Rockwell implied in his paintings by never painting them. The moments of heartbreak, disillusion, grief, self-compromise, abandoned or thwarted hopes and dreams, pain, sorrow, anger, and grief that make the moments Rockwell did paint so wonderful and necessary.
To be continued.