Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie

What Did Mrs. Nixon Think of Mr. Nixon?

That’s the question. She did not want a public life, so, beyond a certain point, she didn’t want RN involved in politics at all. He reentered the race despite her desires. Consider this: She was an actress. I’m not suggesting that because she appeared as Daphne Martin in the play The Dark Tower, her character described as “a tall, sullen beauty of twenty,” Mrs. Nixon glided on stage at the Republican National Convention with equal ease, being – as I would describe her – “a woman of average height, light-haired, attractive but no beauty, in her forties.” But, because of training, she was accustomed to ignoring stage fright and simply proceeding. Also, the plays she had acted in or was aware of, such as The Glass Menagerie, had some things in common, and it seems reasonable to assume the play’s ideas affected her, as well. Our literature defines us, and, in those days, I think plays were generally considered more important than they are now.

Mrs. Nixon also had a role in the movie version of Becky Sharp (though she was cut from the final version.) Becky Sharp was published with the subtitle “A Novel Without a Hero” – a common concept now, but less usual when Thackeray published his novel. Becky’s rise in society has to do with climbing the social ladder, marrying well, traveling. She is primarily interested in being a well-off, notable person…a woman having to work within social constraints, but willing to do any number of things, go any number of places, to get ahead. Becky Sharp has entered the vocabulary to describe a particular kind of ambitious woman, the same way Kato Kaelin awakened people to the fact that there are people who are not exactly servants, who have vaguely defined roles in wealthy people’s lives while sponging off them.

The Dark Tower is set in the France of the Sun King, and Act I requires two props of Richelieu: “Richelieu hat and gloves under a glass dome” and “Picture of- Richelieu – on stairs.” World War II is the backdrop of The Glass Menagerie. All have in common families as the dominant social reality, subtexts of unhappiness or even despair, the theme of unrequited love, as well as the idea of the enterprising woman who takes charge of her own life – or its flip side: the woman or women (The Glass Menagerie) who literally or metaphorically collapse, done in by their frustration.

As people know, if their older relatives lived through the Depression, that generation learned to live frugally and never forgot doing without; therefore, they do not make long-distance phone calls (except sometimes to report a death) and have a very strange reaction when looking at restaurant menus. Thelma Ryan’s family was poor. Her father died of tuberculosis contracted in the mines. They barely had enough of anything. There was, however, a piano that had come with the farm Mrs. Nixon’s parents bought, and in mentioning her grandmother’s piano playing, Julie Nixon Eisenhower remembers the following song: “The music she most often chose was the plaintive song of the Indian maid Red Wing, who ‘…loved a warrior bold, this shy little maid of old. But brave and gay, he rode one day to battle far away.”

Lyrics like these get instilled in children’s minds: the nobility involved, but also the sadness and inevitability of the beloved going off to war. Every girl must identify with Red Wing (unless she is the one doing the leaving – and those song lyrics don’t leap to mind). Mrs. Nixon was left alone by people she loved (who left her by dying.) Mr. Nixon left, too, enlisting in World War II and going to the South Pacific. Our civilization carries countless variations on the theme: every woman a Penelope, every man Ulysses. Women are expected to be strong. Mrs. Nixon, like so many wives, wrote her husband daily and worked for the war effort. She was patriotic, recognizing our flag, rather than the man-in-the-moon face, in the moon, and she could not understand young people who didn’t share her version of patriotism, who marched against the war in Vietnam, who waved signs at the White House urging an end to the war, who wore crazy-looking clothes not because they were poor but because they had enough money to cut holes in their jeans when they didn’t have time to wear out the material, who had enough time to tie-dye T-shirts into smashed kaleidoscopes of color because they didn’t have to do the weekly wash, and to take over universities in their copious spare time.

Youth’s counterculture never made sense to a lot of people of Mrs. Nixon’s generation. Perhaps if she had reflected on her reading of, and performance in, plays, such rebellious youths would have been more accessible. Becky Sharp fights her way out of society’s expectations, and the women of The Glass Menagerie pay a terrible price for not questioning the prescribed roles of men and women. It might have helped Mrs. Nixon to see Mr. Nixon as a Williamsesque “gentleman caller”; not necessarily reliable, or who he claimed to be, and certainly not a knight in shining armor. When she resisted him initially, it was because she was interested in going against the script and and making a life for herself: to act; to travel; to do whatever seemed compelling. Socially, things were beginning to open up a bit –especially because women were needed to work during the war – so there was a little less emphasis on marriage and motherhood. Though she had to work, she must still have thought that she had quite a bit of autonomy. Didn’t Becky Sharp, and the other women she knew from plays?

It was to her workplace that Mr. Nixon sent the engagement ring. Instead of putting it on and dancing in circles, we have Julie Eisenhower’s report:" For a few seconds, she started at it blankly. All morning she had anticipated her future husband’s arrival, the unveiling of the ring, the romantic moment when he would put it on her finger. And now, here it was, in a May basket. Impulsively, she shoved the offering a few inches away from her.” Another teacher is described as entering the classroom: “Look, you are going to put on that ring and right now” How much did Mrs. Nixon intuit about her future husband by the gesture he made? Did she want more romance (his presence), or merely a conventional scenario (a personal presentation), or might she have wanted none of it and reacted spontaneously in a very significant way? The possibility is skipped over, as if anyone might have such a reaction.

What happened in those moments between Mrs. Nixon seeing the ring and the friend’s walking into the classroom, seeing the basket, seeing the ring, and putting it on Mrs. Nixon’s finger?

That’s where we may have our answer, but no one’s talking.

In a way we are always dressing up and dressing down political figures. The press takes note of anything out of the ordinary, whether it be a belt buckle or a slightly different haircut. As a public figure, Mrs. Nixon knew she was being scrutinized, and her response was to scale everything down to make sure her clothes were never worthy of comment: conservative; well pressed; well chosen. She hoped to hide behind her attire, to seem proper and invisible at the same time. This is how she proceeded generally as First Lady. She did things behind the scenes when possible. She did not search out the camera lens like Princess Di. She appeared proper- always proper. She let herself be defined by her acts, whether she was a representative of the United States or simply a housewife visiting schoolchildren. She wanted to be able to do what she did more or less unnoticed…She opted for protective coloration. She was the generic president’s wife, suited, modestly slipping into sensible shoes, conservatively coiffed. Yet her husband, when asked what he would like for his wife’s birthday, responded: “A walk on the beach, with a breeze in her hair.” He knew that she loved the breeze, representing freedom.

If the Nixons came to my house in Maine, they would be over-dressed. Thin people, they would be cold on the back porch and sweaters would have to be brought out, some quite ratty. Music they did not recognize would be playing in the boom box in the kitchen (Music I do not recognize, either.) There would be a lot of food, but they wouldn’t be able to figure out the majority of the ingredients. There would be mismatched plates, and wine would be served in the wrong glasses. The ice bucket would be holding a plant, rather than ice. The view would be of a lovely field that is zoned commercial, with only two restrictions on its use: no head shops; no auto dump. The Nixons would take off their shoes, as we do, and when it is time for dinner, they could sit at our square picnic table, with its so-bad-it’s-hip sixties tablecloth (more sedate than Edward Cox’s underwear, but still pretty deranged). I would of course know to pour superior French wine for Mr. Nixon, though the rest of us could drink plonk.

My mother used to rock me to sleep. One of the songs was about paper dolls: “I’m gonna but a paper doll that I can call my own, a doll that other fellows cannot steal.” She had quite a repertoire of old songs. A nice voice, too. Once, she got so enthusiastic we rocked over backward. That same rocker – the one she’d sat in while pregnant, the one she later rocked me in – is still rocking on my back porch, badly in need of repair.

That might be a conversation starter. At least, with Mrs. Nixon.

We have to wonder if Mrs. Nixon’s phone was also tapped. It’s difficult to believe it wasn’t, just as a precaution, just for the hell of it. Though she was ignored as much as possible by Halderman and Ehrlichman, nothing could be lost listening in on her calls. When she died, her tombstone bore the epitaph “Even when people can’t speak your language, they can tell if you have love in your heart.” Tapping her phone might have revealed just how much love.

If Mrs. Nixon could have put one word into her husband’s vocabulary, it might have been Rashomon. It had a quality she understood: it’s a complex situation, I don’t know everything, no one knows everything. The movie had established itself as part of the culture: the part the President didn’t trust, though he still might appreciate it in his own defense. For a man who thought he knew exactly what had happened, and exactly what right and wrong were, it was a timely concept – one that could excuse him, if he could use it to generate enough uncertainty and confusion. Rashomon hadn’t already permeated his consciousness as a radical reappraisal of how to look at reality, but it was worth a try. Rashomon was one of those fancy concepts, probably out of the academy. Out of the movies, worse still. Not to dismiss movies altogether; he watched Patton over and over (Now there was a man who would have had nothing to do with Rashomon.) And true, he hired his staff from the academy, Kissinger came from Harvard, others from Yale, where probably unknown to Nixon, the pointy-heads – French pointy-heads! – were deconstructing the very idea of agreed-on truth. Rashomon theory!

Mrs. Nixon; A Novelist Imagines a Life by Ann Beattie; Scribner, 2011

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