My father is dying.
His hair is thinner than it was last month, his skin the color of light beer. Speech is difficult. He watches crime dramas in his hospital bed. They never end, and David Caruso seems to be in all of them.
Dad doesn't read or follow the news anymore. He's shutting down.
I want to get a rise out of him.
Dad, do you know what Twitter is?
I have an account.
People seem to like it.
It's Richard Nixon.
Dad forgave the Phillies' Mitch Williams for giving up the losing home run in the 1993 World Series, and accepted it when I shaved my head in eighth grade.
But he hated Richard Nixon.
I write in Nixon's voice. I respond to current events as though he's still alive.
I show him my phone and get the same look I got when I listened to the Sex Pistols as a kid.
I love you, but you're nuts.
I was maybe 10 years old when I first noticed the big-nosed, hunchbacked man on television. It was one of those long August evenings when it's too dark to play outside and too early for bed. There was a Watergate documentary on PBS.
Dad was tense.
I knew who Nixon was, of course — every classroom had a lineup of presidents — but I'd never seen him in action. He looked like a carnival barker with an ax under his cape. Dad explained that Nixon was a disgrace to the presidency. To America. He lived to screw his enemies and was drenched in the blood of Dad's friends who died in Vietnam. The brave reporters who uncovered his crimes showed us that no one is above the law.
Respect for the dead, he said. When you die, they sweep your sins under the carpet.
Nixon was forced to resign, Dad said. Imagine that. The president of the United States, run out of town like a thief. It's replayed on TV every year so America learns its lesson.
Three years later Nixon died, and his funeral was a mindfuck. All the living presidents came. There were flags, tears, an honor guard. In his eulogy, President Clinton — young, smart, dynamic, the first president whom I understood politically (one of us, I thought) — demanded that Nixon be judged on nothing "less than his entire life and career."
Dad flipped the channel. I asked what was going on.
Respect for the dead, he said. When you die, they sweep your sins under the carpet.
Not for nothing was Nixon's first memoir called Six Crises.
"I have a quality which is — I guess I must have inherited it from my Midwestern mother and father," he said. "The tougher it gets, the cooler I get."
Nixon found it hard to enjoy success. He was terrified of the complacency it brings, almost preferring chaos and failure to force him ahead.
On June 10, 1945, he watched from an office window as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower paraded down Broadway in New York City, celebrating victory in Europe. Two years later he was in the House of Representatives. After moving to the Senate in 1950, he was Ike's vice president in 1952. Then in 1960 John F. Kennedy defeated him for the presidency by 113,000 votes, largely due to fraud in Illinois and Texas. Following a halfhearted, humiliating California gubernatorial campaign in 1962, Nixon's career was in ruins.
You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.
When I was 22, I sent a play to a London theater. They responded by inviting me, along with several other playwrights from around the world, to come live, write, and work with actors at their expense. Then other London theaters took an interest. This led me to every playwright's dream: Yale School of Drama. While a student there I had productions off-Broadway and elsewhere. Things were looking up. Then a dispute with a YSD dean caused me to take a year off.
I took a job in Chicago. I failed. My relationships failed. I went broke. My hair fell out from stress. My writing turned timid and formless. I returned to school and graduated, but the industry yawned.
Nixon called New York "the fast track." He moved his family there in 1964 to make money and find redemption.
In late 2008, the closest I could get was South Jersey.
My room got little sunlight. I drank too much, watched baseball, and hung out with a neurotic cat. Where others would turn to God or therapy, I chose Twitter. It was new enough to be cool but cracking the mainstream, and I heard that Mad Men characters were tweeting their offscreen lives in real time. It seemed more fun than the want ads, so I logged on. The main Mad Men accounts were taken, so I decided to be Frank O'Hara, an icon of midcentury New York whose poetry is a touchstone of the show's second season.
He poses, provokes, retreats, justifies. As dialogue, it's the equivalent of a sprung floor.
Playing Frank taught me that online acting is like stage acting; the rhythm of speech is inseparable from character, timing is everything, and the audience teaches you how jokes work. But Twitter forces you to be ruthless with details. When an actor has to drink onstage he uses his voice, body, and scene partners to develop subtle and idiosyncratic ways of doing so. A Twitter actor, constrained by space and endless audience distractions, must be more precise, allusive, and surprising. You aren't locked in a dark room with 500 people. There is always another cat video.
Mad Men fans liked the act, as did people who knew more about O'Hara than me. Even the luckiest playwrights have infrequent audiences, and the effect was intoxicating. But I couldn't keep it up. O'Hara died in 1966, and he's impossible to imagine outside his world. I let Frank go and returned to looking for a day job.
But not before creating @dick_nixon.
I hadn't thought of Nixon much since his funeral. He stayed dead while I chased girls, befriended drag queens, and discovered socialism. But Mad Men spoke of a different guy than the one I knew as a kid. In season one, Don Draper competes for Nixon's 1960 campaign business. He calls him "Abe Lincoln from California." That interested me. I learned that Nixon, like Lincoln, was an autodidact who grew up poor and developed his political skills through repeated failure.
But I didn't consider him a character yet. I was going to tweet outrageous stuff from the tapes. No one did that. The tapes reveal Nixon's desire to execute repeat drug offenders, his relish in "crushing" and "destroying" his enemies. We hear him encourage Henry Kissinger to bomb North Vietnam's dikes, which would have drowned 200,000 people.
I figured it would help my writing. The theater, where I've worked all my adult life, is made to examine power and contradiction. One of my heroes, playwright and Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, was obsessed with language's power to deceive. For a playwright the tapes are almost too good to be true, and I hoped that copying Nixon's weird, muscular, twisted syntax would function like a musician playing scales. He poses, provokes, retreats, justifies. As dialogue, it's the equivalent of a sprung floor.
You know, it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana are Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists.
The tape excerpts slowly made my playwriting tighter and more aggressive. @dick_nixon gained a few hundred followers.
But even anti-Semitism and obstruction of justice get old after a while.
By 2012 my followers were bored of tape quotes. I was bored posting them. So the account went dormant while I worked in online advertising, a job that took half the sentience of a robot and 10 percent of its humor. I moved to New York. My boss "incentivized" me to "curate" new "verticals." Money was tight, and I counted words like Trollope on speed.
I hadn't written a play in two years. Getting them produced is a job in itself, and I couldn't bear that either. I tweeted every few months. Rent and health insurance came first. SEO invaded my dreams. I was exhausted and bitter, with a creeping paranoia that the boss would stick a knife in my back.
In the midst of fear and misery, @dick_nixon came back to life. When Jim Roberts, then of the New York Times, tweeted in early 2013 that the paper had been hacked by the Chinese government, I didn't stop to think. China? The Times? Of course Nixon would get it. So I had him call the incident "a third-rate burglary." Roberts retweeted it, and @dick_nixon gained several hundred followers that day.
I dug into books, transcripts, and interviews, looking for what drew America to him.
The joke was easy — perhaps too easy. But it made me wonder how Nixon would operate today.
At age 13, Richard Nixon’s grandmother encouraged him to leave his "footprints on the sands of time," and I imagined him making a final "big play" for respect. He’d fight for difficult, forward-thinking realism over the ideological purity that dominates our politics. As he did in the Checkers speech, following his defeat in 1962 and his pardon by President Ford, Nixon wouldn’t allow himself to be turned into a byword for criminality and disgrace. In his mind he was a great man, and they never backed down from a fight.
I understood that Nixon couldn't be frozen in the world of the tapes — he belonged "in the arena." And that made him a natural for Twitter.
Words, tics, and mannerisms are easy to imitate. Thinking isn't.
My goal was to get into Nixon's head, let him comment on the political world he created and plot the way forward. I had to bring him back. So I dug into books, transcripts, and interviews, looking for what drew America to him.
It certainly wasn't charm or skill at small talk. It wasn't even his proud-to-be-square manner. Nixon succeeded through obsessive preparation — his memory for names, dates, and relationships was astonishing — and a loner's sharp perspective. It meant he could always answer his favorite question:
What are the politics here?
This was Nixon's key to every situation. People often think it means he believed in nothing, and that's not true; Nixon was conservative. He wasn't kidding. But it was the conservatism of his father, the "little man" who, as Nixon reminded the country on August 9, 1974, was a streetcar motorman, a farmer, a lemon rancher, and a grocer. "The trouble with far-right conservatives like [William F.] Buckley," Nixon said, "is that they really don't give a damn about people, and the voters sense that. Yet any Republican presidential candidate can't stray too far from the right-wingers because they can dominate a primary and are even more important close in general elections. Remember ... the far-right kooks are just like the nuts on the left ... but they turn out to vote."
Nixon's presidency was the greatest attempt at needle threading in modern American politics. For every right turn, he hedged left: escalation in Vietnam versus détente with the Soviet Union, the Southern strategy versus desegregation and affirmative action. The "nuts" got "20 percent" of what they wanted, while most policy protected the middle ground — the truth of what was possible and what would win.
So @dick_nixon seeks the heart of the matter. I try to play him as the coldest man in the room, the one who thinks five steps ahead, an ambitious realist who's conscious of his demons and occasionally able to outrun them. His prejudices hold him back, of course, but they're sometimes gentler than 40 years ago.
When @dick_nixon is more liberal than you expect, it isn't revisionism or apology. It's strategy.
Consider Nixon's reaction in 1970 when he was told that Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage, would likely pave the way for same-sex marriage: "I can't go that far. That's the year 2000."
Twenty-two years later, after watching an HIV-positive woman speak to the Republican National Convention, he said:
We have too much bashing of everyone in this party. It's an embarrassment. So many people are gay — or go both ways. I don't care. And I don't want to hear about abortion. That's people's own business. Tolerance in this party is far too low. Fifty percent of families are single parent; sixty-five percent of all women work. We can't crap on them. We've got to reach out — and mean it.
Nixon's political skill was knowing what the public wanted before they asked. Even as an old man he was cool and prescient, scoping out the battlefield before the rest of us arrived.
I try to make @dick_nixon a close shadow of him: a catalyst and a sage, one who must be treated with skepticism but can't be ignored. A lesser goal would piss off the old man — and, one second-string football player to another, I'd bet on him.
I try to be funny, too.
John Dean — who blocks @dick_nixon, for some reason — told the Washington Post that this is false: Nixon couldn't write or tell a joke to save his life. But consider this from May 13, 1971:
NIXON: But it's not just the ratty part of town. The upper class in San Francisco is that way. The Bohemian Grove, which I attend from time to time — it is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine, with that San Francisco crowd. I can't shake hands with anybody from San Francisco.
Decorators. They got to do something. But we don't have to glorify it. You know one of the reasons fashions have made women look so terrible is because the goddamned designers hate women. Designers taking it out on the women. Now they're trying to get some more sexy things coming on again.
EHRLICHMAN: Hot pants.
NIXON: Jesus Christ.
The earnest, parochial anger, the twisted logic, the deadpan response — great comedies have been made of less. Nixon wasn't funny on purpose, but he could sound like the demon on your shoulder on the worst day of your life. Mostly we laugh in shock at how far he goes, and sometimes in secret, uncomfortable agreement.
@dick_nixon isn't parody; it's portrayal.
But I doubt there will ever be a definitive portrait of Nixon.
Better minds have tried since the '50s; some have probably come close, but he always slips away and sets up ahead of us, waiting for the next hunter. That's as it should be. If Nixon could be caught, I wouldn't do this. But as much as the account is about searching for him, it's also about the audience.
As actors say, you need sympathy for the devil. If I judged Nixon, I couldn't play him.
@dick_nixon's followers include politicians, teenagers, academics, veterans, journalists, diplomats, sports fans, and communists — for starters. There's even a plagiarist who uses my work to paint Nixon as a cranky, embarrassing Paleo hipster who watches SpongeBob SquarePants. Some enjoy my analysis, others thrill at their imagined proximity to the Dark Lord, and others seem to fear he'll run again.
The most surprising reaction, though, comes from people of all ages and political beliefs. It usually comes when a politician embarrasses himself or when questions of war and peace are raised. At least one person will say, in effect, "We're sorry. Come back."
There's a hunger for Nixon that my dad never imagined. He'd be sick.
I can't speak for their seriousness, but I think some people miss Nixon. To those who didn't live through his presidency — and even, occasionally, to some who did — he seems to appear no less a crook than others. Nixon was responsible for the worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War, but he liked to say he played by the rules of politics as he found them. Does that mitigate his crimes? Is an honest crook preferable to empty promises of hope and change? How do we condemn Nixon while wishing for the tactician, negotiator, and peacemaker?
I don't know. @dick_nixon is an attempt to wrestle with my own feelings, but they'll never be resolved. As actors say, you need sympathy for the devil. If I judged Nixon, I couldn't play him.
My father has been gone for three years. I'm trying to live up to him.
Dad never cheated anyone. He yelled at me once for almost taking more than one newspaper from a coin box. They were "honor boxes," he said. At his funeral, a colleague said Dad was the only person she knew whose handshake was as good as a contract.
Dad taught me that a clean loss is better than a dirty win. I can only imagine how much Nixon repulsed him. He marched against Nixon to change the world. Then Nixon fell, but the world didn't change. From then on, all politicians were liars, thieves, and warmongers to him. Nixon's funeral was also the beginning of his long, slow withdrawal from the news. In a world that rehabilitated Nixon, Dad preferred spy novels and baseball.
He was better than Nixon. He knew it. No one would dare question it.
But in researching and writing @dick_nixon I've found a man who was crueler and more humane than we know, tougher, more awkward, more cynical and sincere — much of what we admire and fear in ourselves. Nixon contemplated suicide in the darkest days of his presidency, yet willed himself to recover from near-fatal phlebitis the same year. The "Jew counter," the trickster, the architect of bombing Cambodia — this man wrote to the 13-year-old son of Sen. Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern's running mate, when Eagleton was forced from the race after the press revealed he'd been treated for mental illness.
"What matters is not that your father fought a terribly difficult battle and lost," Nixon told the boy. "What matters is that in fighting the battle he won the admiration of friends and foes alike because of the courage, poise, and just plain guts he showed against overwhelming odds."
We judge Nixon, yet we seek his counsel. On Russia and China, war and peace, how campaigns are fought and won. He's better than us and far, far worse. It's difficult to contain the contradiction, but we live in his world and ignore him at our peril. It would mean taking our eyes off the ball, and that, as Nixon knew, is when you get screwed.
Justin Sherin's plays have been developed or produced at the Royal Court Theatre, the Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company, 59 E59, Yale Cabaret, and elsewhere.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at email@example.com.