To say presidents dominate our pop culture is an understatement. We often take for granted how ingrained they are in the American psyche and our comedic outlets, even when they epitomize the dull tepidness of Gerald Ford or George H.W. Bush. Presidential Saturday Night Live impersonations are a ritual fixed in American satire. Presidential appearances on The Simpsons are often the first recollections we have of a given president’s idiosyncrasies.1If we’re being honest, I constantly read about presidents, love American history, and it’s also my day job to watch and read basically everything the sitting president does, but if you were to bring up Gerald Ford to me, my mind will immediately jump to either his portrayal in The Simpsons or that time he showed up on Dynasty. Sorry, Gerry. Presidents find themselves the subject of stupid TV shows, some get reborn in out-of-touch jazzy introductions, some are figures of pop culture to begin with, and sometimes presidents even satire themselves!
As the concept of the pop culture president has escalated in the postwar era,2Millard Fillmore and Benjamin Harrison didn’t exactly get their own television shows… for so, so many reasons. reaching a nadir in the sensationalized Barack Obama and the omnipresence of Donald Trump, it may seem as if America was pushed too far. A minority of America voted for a pop culture figure, a reality television star for that matter, to become the President of the United States. Forget former actors-turned-governors Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger (can’t wait for Governor Clooney), or comedy-writer-turned-Senator Al Franken, or even child-star-turned-ambassador Shirley Temple. In 2016, a minority of Americans elected a president whose political acumen went as deep as a brief campaign for the Reform Party’s nomination in 2000.
But who cares, I’m not here to remind you of the days when your first thought every morning would be “what did he tweet?!” and every dinner conversation turned to “but did you see what he did now?” while at the back of your mind you remembered that thing he did a while ago that no one even talks about anymore. You can choose for yourself if Trump’s antics were an elaborate, intentional distractive scheme to get you to forget his anti-democratic behavior, the descent of his party into his cause, or the list of horrific things he did and lines he crossed that you forgot about. This article isn’t about him, and it’s not about how the backlash to him led America to retreat from the pop culture executive in the form of boring, monotonous Joe Biden.
It’s about a president who came to power before Saturday Night Live was on the air. The year Donald Trump got his bachelor’s degree (he really put the “BS” in “B.S. of Economics” at the University of Pennsylvania), a bitter, angry, jowly man would be elected the 37th President of the United States, and the way the president would be portrayed in pop culture would never be the same.
Richard Nixon despised the press, he was surrounded by aides and associates prone to indictment, and he was racist… like, really racist. But the similarities between Trump and Nixon are often misplaced. Richard Nixon grew up poor, with a chip on his shoulder against the elite establishment, and he was determined to succeed despite them. He was offered a tuition grant to attend Harvard University but was unable due to tragic circumstances within his family, eventually attending Whittier College in his hometown before being offered a scholarship to attend the brand new Duke University School of Law. His Quakerism could have allowed him to evade the draft, but he went on to serve in the Navy during World War II. At the onset of his entry into politics, his only decent set of clothes was his Navy uniform. He then unseated an undefeatable academic Yalie for a seat in Congress with the backing of the Republican Party.3The guy’s name was Jerry Voorhis — just look at him and tell me he doesn’t casually mention that he went to Yale whenever he’s talking to someone. In office he would ascend from anti-communist crusader to California Senator, distancing himself from the more Trumpian Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his tirades, before being selected as the 39-year-old running mate to Republican presidential nominee Dwight Eisenhower. After eight years as vice president, Nixon would run for president in 1960 and narrowly lose to John F. Kennedy, and then was nominated by the GOP for the California governor’s race two years later, a race he also lost. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he declared to the press, who had spent years publishing his faults.
Six years later, Nixon was renominated for the Republican ticket, and defeated Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. Back from the morgue of forgotten politicians, Richard Nixon would become president in his own right, having lost the same election only eight years prior.
When you’ve been in the public eye for over two decades, you’ve experienced one too many very public election losses, and your antipathy to the “liberal media” knows no bounds, it should be no surprise that you’d be made into a caricature. Nixon was also awkward, secretive, sweaty, and shy; it’s not hard to see why he was an easy mark. I reached out to Don Fulsom, a former White House correspondent and author of several books on Richard Nixon, about it and he reflected, “Nixon was a godsend for satirists, cartoonists and the press in general. His paranoia, secrecy, corruption and deception invited widespread and wholly justified criticism… and his thin skin made things even worse for him.”
In his own time, Nixon was cartoonishly depicted in the funny pages, got his own Gore Vidal play (An Evening with Richard Nixon), and had a song recorded about him by the Honey Drippers called “Impeach the President.”4This song has been sampled in over 800 other songs… I’m ashamed to admit that instead of noticing the Nas, 2Pac, or Biggie samples, I instead noticed only (immediately, by the way) the 1998 sampling by Shaggy for his song “Luv Me, Luv Me.” At the, time though, few were as famous as comedian David Frye would impersonate him on The Ed Sullivan Show and even released several comedy albums as Nixon including Richard Nixon: Superstar (1971) and Richard Nixon: A Fantasy (1973) where he spoke in Nixon’s voice and made fun of the president’s lack of knowledge about topics such as drugs. In one bit, Frye’s Nixon asks “What is a joint?” and his staff responds, “A joint is a marijuana cigarette, sir,” to which Nixon replied, “I always thought they were called roofers.” Frye’s Nixon would go on, “I am hip, I have a wonderful sense of humor, I tell hilarious jokes,” and then proceed to eat the joint instead of smoke it. Frye himself reflected on Nixon’s resignation, saying “frankly, I would prefer him to remain in office. There’s no one as funny as he is. It’s his gestures, his movements, his neurosis …Nixon is a neurotic. He’s as neurotic a president as we can imagine.” On Frye’s passing in 2011, The Washington Post’s David Schudel wrote, “His most memorable character by far was Nixon, whom Mr. Frye portrayed as a tortured soul with darting eyes, flaring brows, scowling lips and deep-seated insecurities. The longer the president stayed in office, the deeper Mr. Frye’s impressions drilled into Nixon’s psyche.”
Nixon even made a pop cultural appearance himself during his 1968 campaign for the presidency, appearing on the show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. In an attempt to reach out to hipper, younger voters, Nixon plays along by delivering one of the show’s catchphrases, “Sock it to me!” His delivery is terrible, timing poor, and it’s only funny because of how terribly awkward it is, but the experience marked a dramatic improvement from his stilted, nervous performance against Kennedy in the 1960 presidential debate. At least Nixon was pretending to be hip.
Even during Nixon’s time in office, the line between cultural phenomenon and the American executive became blurred. Though the nation’s ever-proliferating access to television and other kinds of media were partly responsible, and any president likely would have succumbed to similar jabs, Nixon’s awkward attributes empowered the universality of his own phenomenon.
And ever since, all presidents have received their own fair share of inherent structural satire while they’re in the limelight. But what makes Nixon particularly important is how everlasting his characterization has been.
“Perhaps no other modern president has been impersonated, parodied and portrayed so often, and why not? The brilliant and tragic Nixon was positively Shakespearean: jowly, with a swooping nose, guttural voice, unfortunate grin and overeager victory-sign pose, combined with the mind of a chess player and the eyes of an obsessive,” wrote CNN’s Todd Leopold. And it’s true – Nixon is easy and fun to impersonate and make light of. Everyone knows who he was and why he’s despicable enough to be an easy target. But ease of subject does not a pervasive pop cultural icon make.
Years after his presidency, Dan Aykroyd and Joe Piscopo would imitate Nixon on Saturday Night Live. In 1984, a cold open featured Nixon (played by Joe Piscopo) being interviewed on a 60 Minutes program where the host asks, “Mr. Nixon, ten years ago you were paid half a million dollars for some interviews which appeared on 60 Minutes, it’s now 1994 and we’ve paid you $5 million for the opportunity to talk to you again. Now if your grandchildren were to ask you today [what the 1984 interviews were all about], what would you tell them?” Piscopo, impersonating Nixon, responds, “Well I’d say they were a stupid mistake, not for me, I made a bundle off of them!” Asked how it feels to be the most “vilified man in the country,” Nixon responds, “Sensational, I love it! Let me tell ya, if you lie and cheat and betray a nation’s trust, people will hate you, and if they hate you, they want to know all about you. And if they want to know all about you, they gotta pay through the nose!” The sketch ridiculed the Frost-Nixon interviews from 1977, for which Nixon received around $1 million dollars but still did not apologize for Watergate and in which he famously said, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
Following the SNL bits in the 80s, Nixon would continue to crop up in pop culture. A few years ago, Jaime Fuller over at The Washington Post compiled a list of various pieces of film, music, literature, and television that parody Richard Nixon. The 1994 film Forrest Gump depicts the film’s protagonist, Forrest, and the U.S. ping-pong team having a meeting with President Nixon in the White House. President Nixon puts them up in a “much nicer hotel” which, you guessed it, ends up being the Watergate. Forrest, now staying in the Watergate, places a phone call in the middle of the night as he sees individuals with flashlights perusing a room across the way outside of his window (these individuals, known to the audience but not to Forrest, are of course the Watergate burglars). Forrest assumes that the lights are off and asks that a maintenance team be sent to help them out which leads to their discovery.
Here we see the satirization of Nixon’s undoing veer into escapism. The humor and entertainment of Forrest Gump is that it depicts Forrest in various situations over the course of American history, in this case, exposing the Watergate burglars in what would ultimately bring down the presidency of Richard Nixon in one of the greatest constitutional and national crises of the last century. The Watergate calamity is a modern political disaster in American history, but by placing Forrest at the center of it (and as the reason behind it being discovered no less), the film makes the scandal come off as humorous and silly, in a way desensitizing viewers to its seriousness.
Almost two decades later, in 2013’s The Butler, the portrayal of Nixon takes on a more serious tone, starting with a scene in which Black servants are preparing food in the White House kitchen and then-Vice President Nixon, portrayed by John Cusack (just… watch the clip…), walks in and gives the servants campaign pins and says, “I don’t want to say anything negative about that Kennedy boy, I’m sure he’s a real nice fellow, but do you really want that spoiled rich son-of-a-bitch fuck to be your next president?” Then, after a conversation between him and the servants, he pledges to give them a raise if he is elected president – something he, of course, would never end up doing. The somewhat over-the-top portrayal jabs at his lack of shame, persistent want to win, and platitudinal care for those who do not look like him. Years down the line in the film, after Nixon does become president, the bluntness with which the film puts forward Nixon’s scandal is almost hilariously obvious, as it depicts Nixon listening to audio tape recordings in the Oval Office. The Butler, though it may not be a comedy and probably doesn’t mean to explicitly satirize Nixon, comes off humorous, even as it attempts to portray him earnestly.
Slightly more jocular is the 2009 action comedy Black Dynamite, in which the film’s protagonist discovers that the evil mastermind happens to be none other than one — you guessed it — Richard Nixon. Turns out Nixon had been on a quest to emasculate Black men, and what ensues is a climactic kung-fu battle in the Oval Office between Black Dynamite and Richard Nixon. Following a protracted battle which includes James McManus’s Nixon’s jowly screams of “mother fucker!” and the ghost of President Lincoln saving the day, Black Dynamite threatens to expose Nixon as a crossdresser if Nixon fails to look out for African-Americans going forward and spares his life.
Nixon’s caricature is also a mainstay in fictional alternate universes, especially in comic books or superhero films. Richard Nixon is depicted in X-Men films as a key figure in authorizing the Sentinel Program, which authorizes the hunting down of the X-Men (he is eventually saved by the X-Men, perhaps learning the error of his prejudice). And a villain who is heavily implied to be Nixon is taken down by Captain America in a 1974 comic book as America and its Captain reconciled with its own internal evils. Captain America becomes disillusioned with the American government in the course of this story and abandons his title to become Nomad, the “man without a country”, fighting for what he felt were the abandoned American ideals while on the run from his own nation.
One superhero property involves a three-or-more-term Nixon presidency as an auxiliary plot device. In 2009’s Watchmen, an alternate history is depicted in which by 1985, superheroes have become major geopolitical actors in helping the United States win the Vietnam War and preventing a nuclear war as the Cold War is ongoing. Here, as a result of superheroes being used to win the Vietnam War, Nixon is able to be reelected to a third term and continues serving through the film (on his fifth term by the time 1985 rolls around). Though Nixon’s involvement is limited here, the film implies Nixon’s role in assassinating President Kennedy (by having a superhero do it for him) and Nixon also has Woodward and Bernstein murdered, thus meaning he’s never exposed for Watergate. Watchmen, in contrast to Forrest Gump or The Butler, focuses on the dystopian scenario that emerges as a result of Nixon remaining in office for so long. When Nixon’s reign is elongated, it’s a sign of decline, not of utopia.
Then of course, there’s Futurama.
Futurama, a show first airing in 1999 and created by Matt Groening (also the creator of The Simpsons), is set in the year 3000 A.D. In this future, most former politicians and celebrities have been preserved as heads in jars and Nixon, of course, is one of them. In the 1999 episode “A Head in the Polls,” Richard Nixon’s head (voiced by Billy West) runs to become president of Earth, and campaigns, “I am not a crook’s head!” (a callback to one of Nixon’s most famous speeches where he declared that he was “not a crook”). He calls out the “stupid hippies” to win the election but appeals to them by doing a live television appearance where he plays a Jefferson Airplane song on the guitar and panders, “I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies!” a parallel to his insincere Laugh-In appearance in 1968.
Over the course of the Earth presidential debate, Futurama’s Nixon launches into some laughable escapades; “Nixon’s pro-war and pro-family” he declares. And when asked by the monster narrator whether he’d steal candy from a baby, he begins to sweat and can’t answer, “The question is vague… you don’t say what kind of candy, or whether anyone is watching… I certainly wouldn’t harm the child.” When Nixon is harassed because he stole a robotic body (it is the future, after all) he retorts, “Now look here, you drugged-up communist, I paid for this body, and I’d no sooner return it than I would my little cocker-spaniel dog, Checkers,” a reference to the “Checkers scandal” in which the real life Nixon was accused of using campaign funds for personal use and had been given a dog as a bribe.
By the end of the episode, the show’s protagonists try to steal the robotic body back from Richard Nixon and discover he’s staying at the Watergate hotel, to which one of the characters remarks, “Why would Nixon stay at the Watergate?” and another responds, “They give you a discount if you’ve stayed here before.” When Nixon finds them breaking into his hotel room, he remarks, “That’s it, you’re all going to jail! And don’t expect me to grant a pardon like that sissy Ford,” and when asked how he’d expect to ever get elected president again, he responds, “Computers might be twice as fast as they were in 1973, but your average voter is as drunk and stupid as ever. The only one who’s changed is me – I’ve become bitter, and let’s face it, crazy, over the years, and once I’m swept into office, I’ll sell our children’s organs to zoos for meat, and I’ll go into people’s houses at night and wreck up the place!” Then Nixon proceeds to run to the phone to call the police and one character interrupts him, noting that he got all of that on tape (a not-so-subtle reference to the audiotapes at the White House under Nixon). This episode in particular spoofs the various incidents that occurred in Nixon’s three presidential campaigns (in 1960, 1968, and 1972) but is but one in a long series of Futurama episodes to deal with Nixon as, by the end of this episode, Nixon is elected (by a single vote) President of Earth as he triumphantly shouts “Nixon’s back!” and throws up his famous “V for victory” (now robot) hands.
In the Futurama episode “War Is the H-Word,” Earth President Nixon returns, accompanied by the head of Henry Kissinger, in an episode that focuses on Nixon declaring war on another planet and putting Earth’s troops into a Vietnam-like engagement. Nixon, realizing the war isn’t going as planned, remarks, “This war is in danger of going all quagmire on me,” reminiscent of Vietnam. In this same episode, Nixon remarks to his top general, “So we open up the panda crate and wouldn’t you know it – the damn thing’s dead – upchucked its bamboo!” in reference to the pandas given to the United States following Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. Though this episode mostly focuses on parodying Nixon’s foreign policy (the Vietnam War and the China trip) rather than his campaign or the Watergate scandal, it is important to get a sense of how modern media looks back on him – as a conniving, crass, and shameless leader.
The Nixon bits in Futurama go on and on, in episodes released decades after his actual presidency, and years after his death in 1994. In the show he’s eventually flanked by his vice president, the headless body of Spiro Agnew, who (with a head) had served as Nixon’s first vice president back in 1969 and would resign the vice presidency after facing a scandal of his own in 1973. Other recurring Nixon occurrences in Futurama include his frequent use of the phrase “with no expletives deleted,” a reference to the transcripts of Nixon’s White House tapes, in which the cursing was removed and supplemented with the phrase “expletive deleted,” lest the sensitive American public become offended by the private rantings of their commander-in-chief. Nixon’s head declares, “Oh, what a McGovern I’ve been,” referring to his massive victory over George McGovern in 1972. And his fervent and frequent jowl shaking as he speaks becomes something of a running gag in the show. In an interaction between Nixon and a robot, when discussing some illegal business for his reelection campaign, Nixon asks, “I’m not sure if it’s safe to talk, are you wearing a wire?” to which the robot responds, “I’m 40% wire!” and Nixon remarks, “Excellent! Now listen, we got to get some dirt… really McGovern him up!” In another episode, Nixon exclaims (trying to catch someone who has fled into an embassy for safe haven), “Let’s storm the place… without my prior knowledge,” a reference to either the Watergate burglary, the Brookings Institution scheme, or the raid of Ellsberg’s therapist’s office (Nixon was behind the raid of quite a few places).
These short quips from Nixon, who is a recurring supporting character in Futurama, help us get a contemporary understanding of the scars that Nixon left that still resonate in comedy today and how, even in a popular animated television show, Nixon remains a comedic and memorable figure over 40 years after his presidency. Futurama takes Nixon and simplifies him into a cartoonish, simplistic, and entertaining caricature. Billy West, who was the voice actor for Nixon, explained that his impersonation was derived from Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s 1995 film Nixon mixed with “a little bit of werewolf” as the Futurama Nixon would frequently emit “aroo” noises with his shaking jowls. But cartoonish noises and all, through and through Nixon is a corrupt, lying, and aggressive politician who makes blundering policy mistakes and behaves in an abrasive manner towards minorities, “hippies,” and those who are worse off.
Ultimately though, Futurama was a comedy show, meant to make people laugh, and it’s not trying to create a dramatic portrayal of Nixon even as it teases his failures. But it does give us a sense of how Nixon’s legacy has been portrayed and immortalized long after his presidency and his passing. The scars of Watergate, the White House tapes, the resignation, the pardon, and – most importantly – his character – still very much haunt Richard Nixon. Futurama and so many of these other modern satirical (and even non-satirical) takes on Nixon diminish him to a painfully obvious floundering crook.
This compilation of his character reflects how the world sees and views his legacy today. He’s seen as a dark, corrupt, lying, cheating, greedy, and manipulative figure, one who seeks power and will do anything and everything to get it and keep it. He has no sense of control, of restraint, or of right or wrong in getting and keeping power, and that is well reflected in his satirization. Most of the satire centered around Nixon is kept light, rarely getting emotional, dark, or heavy, but that may be because it is such an absurd situation and such a dangerous point in American history that it is difficult to address it from a purely critical point of view. The character that the satire has perpetuated is certainly not flattering to Nixon but it is also almost too nice to him. In some ways it makes him come off sympathetic in that it portrays him as almost too devilish to succeed and openly antagonistic to the point that it seems, much like Nixon thought, it’s him versus the world.
Does all of this humor trivialize a critical and dark moment in our nation’s history? Perhaps it eases the wounds of Nixon’s actions and criminality, or perhaps it prolongs a justified jabbing of one of America’s most notable personas. “Satire helps demonize rather than rehabilitate,” Fulsom told me in our exchange. Not one to paper over Nixon’s sins, Fulsom expressed optimism that satire is a tool rightly justified against a crook, not one that could lessen the severity of Nixon’s legacy. “Scoundrels never escape the dark humor that rightly follows them in perpetuity. That anti-Nixonism persists gives us a good glimpse of how history will ultimately judge one of the lamest of our leaders.”
Nixon may be so pervasive because the sheer circumstances in which he and the nation found themselves in were so bizarre and memorable that it has not escaped the national mindset. After all, the president actually resigned – which had never happened before and likely won’t happen again for some time. The president made a fool of himself on the national stage and left in disgrace. What kind of president stands up and tells the nation he’s not a crook, having won in a massive landslide in 1972, and with significant foreign and domestic policy successes over his years in office, and then goes down in history as the only president to ever resign?
With such an easily imitable voice and personality, in combination with the public personality of Nixon (you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s never heard of him), comedians, filmmakers, and everyday Americans can share a laugh at our thirty-seventh president’s expense. And the further removed we’ve become from Nixon, the more we’ve learned about his insidiousness, which has perpetuated the ridicule. In contrast to presidents like Ford or Johnson “perhaps the reason Nixon still fascinates the [public is] his secret unhinged life we are only now learning about,” noted Fulsom.
The particular pervasiveness of satire on Nixon was noted as early as 1972 by Peter Shane, who compared the satire of Nixon against the satire of other presidents. “The style of anti-Nixon satire in the 1970’s stems from less generous sentiments. Nixon’s public unease, his failure to display any emotion besides anger, his continued harping on the traditional virtues of America, his self-conscious piety, and above all his continual deceitfulness have turned him into a caricature of himself in the eyes of those liberals who constitute an audience for political humor. Lyndon Johnson was the victim of anti-Southern bigotry which subjected him to jokes more cruel than politically pointed [but] Nixon is the victim of his own past performances. Not only are his lies and errors etched upon the public record but his neuroses at least appear to be so obvious that he is often impossible to distinguish from a parody.” The justification of satire at Nixon’s expense argues it is warranted and commonplace due to his blunders and failures as president. It’s a summation of Nixon’s personality, policy failures, corruption, looks, voice, etc. that results in the expansive ridicule but it was exacerbated and continuously perpetuated into our time by the circumstances he created for himself by lying to the nation and betraying the American people.
Does the fact that this man, who betrayed the American democracy, who abused his power, and who went so far in doing so that he had to resign the presidency, remains in the national conscience mean something about how we’ve dealt with this painful chapter? It could be that the most tragic of events are moved on from with time and perhaps humor is one way of coping with the terrible damage they’ve inflicted on our society. Perhaps we can use humor to heal and, after tragedy, schism, war, or horror, as Jon Stewart said in his first show after the 9/11 attacks, “…drain whatever abscess is in our hearts, and move on to the business of making you laugh.” It is a matter of deciding at what point it becomes appropriate to have moved on, considerate of the sacrifices and the loss, and making sure that the suffering and mistakes are not lost from our memories. The fact Nixon is so pervasive serves as a warning: not to repeat the errors of his era and that there is something inherent about his villainy that can return to America, because it is so widely understood.
Almost 50 years after Nixon would resign the presidency, he may be inescapable because his legacy is so deeply American. His rise and downfall reflect some of the best and worst of the United States and what we can be. We remember Nixon not because we survived him or for what he did, but because he’s inherent to who we are and what can happen in this country again. If not as President of Earth in a thousand years — simply the next time a president believes they are so absolutely above the law.