Nixon in Fiction: A Bizarre, Complex History

tags: literature, presidential history, Nixon, Trump

Alan Glynn's latest novel is Receptor (Picador, January 2019). Glynn is a graduate of Trinity College. His first novel, Limitless (originally published as The Dark Fields), was released as a film in March 2011 by Relativity Media and as a TV series in 2015 by CBS. He is also the author of Winterland; Bloodland, a Finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original; Graveland; and his novel, Paradime, is currently under option with ITV Studios America and One-Two Punch Productions. He lives in Ireland.

In terms of where politics and culture meet, there isn’t that much to get excited about these days. But something that might well deliver the goods a bit further down the road is how the current U.S. president will be portrayed in fictional form. There are already shelf-loads of memoirs and insider accounts of the administration, but the slow-percolating fictionalized renditions can often be more telling and instructive, not to mention longer-lasting. Trump has provided copious amounts of material for late-night comics—history’s alternative first draft, if you will—so it seems like a safe bet that over the coming years different versions of him will appear in novels, movies and TV series. Not all presidents get this treatment, however, and we’d probably have to go back nearly fifty years to find a match for Trump’s weird “appeal” in this regard.

Why there should be more fictionalized versions of Richard Milhous Nixon than of any other president in history is not hard to fathom. Nixon said he wasn’t a crook, but of course he was. Trump says he isn’t one either, and that remains to be seen (unless, that is, you’ve read Wayne Barrett, David Cay Johnson, Tim O’Brien, Julia Ioffe, Seth Hettena, Carole Cadwalladr, Luke Harding et al, and already believe he is one). So is it the villain thing—the larger-than-life, comic-book, bad-guy thing? Probably. That and getting to watch an outsized, extremely flawed personality act out his resentments and insecurities on a stage the size of the entire world.

Like Trump, Nixon made a habit of keeping his weaknesses and psychological wounds on open display, and did so long before he reached the Oval Office. Unlike Trump, however, Nixon was reflective, articulate, and actually a pretty good writer (pace Tony Schwartz)—so we have, in the first of the many books he wrote, his memoir Six Crises (1962), a prototype for the Nixonian iterations to come, most of which riffed freely off the frankly very compelling voice we hear in that book.

One more point to bear in mind before we dive in. The first three entries in this list are works by 20th century American literary heavyweights, and while their compulsion to write about Nixon is understandable, what’s most remarkable here is that each of their Nixons—extravagant, fully-formed, and appropriately insane—is pre-Watergate.

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