The Shadow of Your Smile

I turned 50 in February. By the time he was 50, Richard Nixon had been Vice President of the United States, the Republican nominee for President in 1960, and a candidate for the Governor of California in 1962. He failed at that last endeavor too. I love Richard Nixon as will be apparent in this little fantasy. He made huge mistakes, but he was a real American success story. What went wrong? I think he told us all along. Perhaps one of the best biographies of Nixon or of anyone is by a journalist who covered him for years. The book is called, One of Us, and if you lived during the last half of the 20th century and paid attention, you’ll love it.

Anyway, all the asterisks are links to things Nixon actually said. Otherwise this is part of my own therapy; what if I made different choices when I was 50? What if he did? Enjoy!

Scene: It’s February 1963, and we’re in a therapist’s office, a psychiatrist in New York City. There are a lot of empty chairs and couple of people waiting, reading magazines. 

Over the speakers, the atmosphere music, is Jerry Butler’s Make it Easy on Yourself. 

The door of the waiting room opens and a man in a suit wearing sun glasses walks in. He looks around. He looks at his watch. He looks at lady reading a Good Housekeeping magazine. She looks at him. 

He turns back to the open door and another man in a dark suit and with sunglasses walks in. He searches the room with his eyes. 

They take positions in the room. One of them beckons to someone outside the door. 

Richard Nixon walks in. His hands are clasped behind his back. He looks around. The man in the waiting room gets wide eyed. 

Nixon leans over. 

“Hello,” says Nixon. “Richard Nixon. Just stopping by to say hello to my friend the doctor.” He shakes the man’s hand. 

“He’s an awfully good doctor,” Nixon says. “Not that I’d know,” Nixon says leaning back and crossing his arms. “I don’t need a psychiatrist,” he said. 

Then he leans forward, “No offense, no offense,” he says, putting his hands on the man’s shoulders. 

“Carry on, carry on!” he says. 

The woman stares up at him. 

“Well, hello miss,” he says. “Richard Nixon.”

She extends her hand, and they shake. 

“Well, don’t mind me,” Nixon says. “Carry on, Carry on.” 

Nixon stands in the room looking it over, his arms crossed. Butler’s song hits the lyric “and if the way I hold you..”

Nixon says, “You gotta love Jerry Butler!” 

Both the people in the waiting room are just staring at him now as he sways slightly listening to the music. 

“Make it easy on yourself…” Nixon sings along. 

A door opens and a woman appears. 

“Mr. Nixon,” she says, “Mr. Vice President, I should say. The doctor can see you now.”

“Thank you!” Nixon says, “Just a visit to a friend. That’s all. Carry on,” he says to the two befuddled people in the waiting room. 

The woman walks him into an office.

Doctor: Mr. Vice Preseident!

Nixon: Sit down, it’s fine. Hello. I mean, well here I am.

Doctor: Mr. Vice President, would you like to sit or lie down?

Nixon: (Perplexed, arms crossed) Lie down? Oh, yes. Ha, ha. Yes. Lie down.

Doctor: Whatever you’d like, sir.

Nixon: Well, when in Rome!

Nixon lies down and puts his wing tips up on a pillow.

Doctor: Sir, maybe the other way around?

Nixon: Oh, good lord. Sorry! God. Well, you know. I don’t do this. Well, here we go.

He lays with his head on the pillow and webs his fingers together on his chest.

Nixon: How’s this, Doc?

Doctor: That’s, fine. That’s ok, Mr. Vice President.

Nixon: Well, now if we’re going to do this, you’re going to have to call me Dick, OK.

Doctor: Ok, well, yes, Dick.

Nixon adjusts himself and sighs.

Nixon: Jesus Christ! What am I doing here?

Doctor: Well, (pause) Dick, what are you here for? I mean, what can I do to help you?

Nixon: Well, Jesus Christ, Doc, I just turned 50! I mean, and what have I done. Godammit, I ran for President and lost and then didn’t get elected Governor of California. Fuck, Doc!

Doctor: Ok, so you turned, 50.

Nixon: Oh hey, Doc, (looks over at the Doctor) sorry about the language. Is that ok, I mean, you know.

Doctor: Everything is OK, Dick. You just say whatever you want.

Nixon: Well, fuck, Doc, here I am, 50 years old, and for Christ’s sake I’ve gotten all this fucking way and if I’m just blocked at every fucking turn. Everyone hates me. I have this whole persona of being a motherfucker. Godammit, Doc, what’s next for me? I mean I have Pat and the girls, and I love them, but that’s not enough. I have to do more than just that.

Doctor: Well, what’s driving all this ambition, Dick, I mean, what, if I may ask, are you trying to prove?

Nixon: Fuck, Doc. Nobody will ever write a book probably about my mother. Well, I guess . . . you would say this about your mother. My mother was a saint. And I think of her—two boys dying of tuberculosis—nursing four others in order that she could take care of my older brother for three years in Arizona and seeing each of them die and when they died it was like one of her own.

Yes, she will have no books written about her. But she was a saint.*

Doctor: So this is all about your mother?

Nixon: Well, I remember my old man. I think that they would have called him sort of a—sort of a little man, common man. He didn’t consider himself that way. You know what he was?

He was streetcar motorman first and then he was a farmer and then he had a lemon ranch — it was the poorest lemon ranch in California, I can assure you—he sold it before they found oil on it. And then he was a grocer. But he was a great man because he did his job and every job counts up to the hilt regardless of what happens.*

Nixon starts to cry. The Doctor hands him a box of Kleenex. Nixon takes a few, and keeps crying, and blows his nose.

Nixon: Well, Jesus, Doc, I put away that little motherfucker Hiss. He was a criminal, a communist for God’s sake. A communist. And that horrible woman, Gahagen Douglas; fuck her! Jesus, she really was a pinko! And what thanks do I get? Nothing!

Nixon sits up now.

Doctor: Well, so you’re angry.

Nixon: Listen, Doc, I have fought for every damn thing I’ve got. I was born in 1913. Our family was one of modest circumstances, and most of my early life was spent in a store out in East Whittier. It was a grocery store, one of those family enterprises. The only reason we were able to make it go was because my mother and dad had five boys, and we all worked in the store. I worked my way through college, and, to a great extent, through law school.*

Doctor: So, you resent people because they don’t recognize that?

Nixon: Well, for fuck’s sake Doc, yes. Jesus Christ! I mean look at Kennedy. The guy, well, his whole family was a fucking criminal enterprise. Pretty boy motherfucker! The guy would fuck a pencil sharpener if it had lipstick on it.

Nixon throws the box of Kleenex.  He lets out a huge yell, a shout.

Doctor: Good, let that out. Let all that out. What bothers you the most?

Nixon: (Big sigh) Jesus, I’m better than them. I’ve worked harder than all those motherfuckers.

Nixon stands up and paces around the room with his hands clasped behind his back.

Doctor: Dick, tell me more about that.

Nixon: Fuck Jackie. Jackie fucking Kennedy. She’s a whore, for Christ’s sake. And Jack as a war hero? I went into the service. Let me say that my service record was not a particularly unusual one. I went to the South Pacific. I guess I’m entitled to a couple of battle stars. I got a couple of letters of commendation. But I was just there when the bombs were falling. And then I returned — returned to the United States, and in 1946, I ran for the Congress. When we came out of the war — Pat and I — Pat during the war had worked as a stenographer, and in a bank, and as an economist for a Government agency — and when we came out, the total of our savings, from both my law practice, her teaching and all the time that I was in the war, the total for that entire period was just a little less than 10,000 dollars. Every cent of that, incidentally, was in Government bonds. Well that’s where we start, when I go into politics.*

Doctor: So you resent all that and what will you do to resolve all that?

Nixon: Well, fuck, Doc, I have to show them. I have to make a comeback. I have to get elected President. Then I’ll fucking show them all, I’ll burn them all down, Doc.

Nixon is sweating and pacing around now.

Doctor: Cigarette?

Nixon: No. I don’t smoke.

Doctor: Scotch?

Nixon: Well, fuck, sure.

The doctor goes to a cupboard and pours two neat drinks. He offers one to Nixon.

Doctor: Here’s to the future, cheers.

They clink glasses.

Nixon: So what the fuck do I do? How do I settle all these scores? Or do I just let it go and take care of Pat and the kids?

Doctor: You have a choice Mr. Nixon. You can try to destroy your enemies, or they can destroy you.

Nixon: I think they have.

Doctor: Not yet. Not yet, Mr. Nixon.

Nixon: We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all has ended. We think, as Theodore Roosevelt said, that the light had left his forever. Not true. It’s only a beginning always.*

Doctor: So you are 50 now, you have a lot of life left to give. Do you want it to be about crushing those, as you say, motherfuckers, or something else?

Nixon takes a big drink. He looks at the doctor.

Nixon: Doc, that’s good stuff. I love Pat and I love the girls. But how do I get back at them, for what they’ve done to me. I’ve been right, but I always get screwed. The media hates me.

Doctor: I think you know the answer, Dick

Nixon: Always give your best. Never get discouraged. Never be petty. Always remember others may hate you but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.*

Doctor: You said it, Dick, I didn’t. Another one?

Nixon: Fuck. But that’s so hard. They are so petty! And they get at me, at my heart. They hurt my heart.

Doctor: I get it, Dick. I do. I just think you already know that if you hound these people down, they’ll win in the end.

Nixon: Sometime in the future, I don’t want to think that I made so many bad judgments. The worst one, mistakes of the heart, rather than the head, as I pointed out. But let me say, a man in that top job—he’s got to have a heart, but his head must always rule his heart.*

Doctor: Dick (puts his hand on his shoulder), you’ve got a heart, even though Governor Brown says you don’t.

Nixon laughs and reaches out to the Doctor and puts his on his arm.

Nixon: One more!

The Doctor pours another one.

Doctor: You said it yourself, only you can destroy you.

Nixon looks into his glass, and then downs the drink.

Nixon: Ok, doc, you’ve laid it out as good as anyone. Pat said the same fucking thing. Sometimes I hate that woman. I think it’s all about her wanting me to just stay home and be a family man.

Doctor: Hey, I won’t talk about this to anyone ever if you don’t tell anyone about my “medicine.”

They laugh.

Nixon: Deal!

Nixon stands up and shakes the Doctors hand. He opens the door. He stands in it.

Nixon: I talked to the I Ching today. It was Hexagram 46, Ascending. Look it up. I’m going to go home and apologize to Pat, hug my kids, and think about what we’ve talked about.

The door closes. The Doctor sits down and pours another drink. The scene ends with Lou Rawls the Shadow of Your Smile