Playing With Dick
Exorcising Nixon's ghost online

Ishould've burned the tapes," Nixon declared after Watergate. But instead, he resigned the presidency, and -- well, this story ends with a bunch of bad Dan Aykroyd skits and the most powerful country in the free world being governed by Gerald Ford.

See also...
... by David Cassel
... in the Scope section
... from August 16, 1999

Pretentious 25th anniversary tributes last week only showed the need to remember what really prompted the House Impeachment Committee to act. Not Nixon's real and imagined enemies in the Washington press corps, but ordinary Americans who wouldn't trust Nixon to broker a used car, let alone tell the truth about hush-money to burglars. Nixon spent the rest of his life rehabilitating his image -- but the American public never bought it. Documents squirreled away over the decades have finally made it to the Web, offering a communal scrapbook of the way we really remember Nixon: ambitious, paranoid, flawed, and -- in glorious retrospect -- absolutely doomed. The great thing about these online remembrances? They remind us that we'll always have Richard Nixon to kick around.

By the end of the Watergate crisis, a "smoking gun" recording had surfaced of Nixon plotting to thwart an FBI investigation into the Watergate break-in. So it's especially ironic that Nixon himself applied for a position with the FBI when he was just 24 years old. And a Web site called "The Smoking Gun" has dug up his application.

Other sites offer eerie images from seemingly more innocent times. Fresh from his appearance at the McCarthy trials, Nixon visited Disneyland's opening day ceremonies with his wife and two young daughters. Scanned-in photos from a Disneyland souvenir brochure capture appearances by the day's celebrities -- '50s luminaries Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra. But of course, Nixon rivals Ted and Robert Kennedy were also there competing for photo-ops, along with Ronald Reagan. Fast-forwarding to 1968, Web surfers can hear a recording of a military brass band playing the venal campaign song that accompanied tricky Dick's 1968 quest for the Presidency. Copies of "Nixon's the One" can even be purchased -- autographed by the composer -- on commemorative red, white and blue CDs -- for a mere $40.

But this site's most significant highlight is the composer's fascinating recollection of the president's visit to Vic Caesar's supper club in Phoenix, Arizona, recounting his 1968 conversation with the crafty politician as he resurrected his political ambitions. "When you become president," the composer urged, "please do for the young men in Vietnam what you and the General did for me in Korea, end it!"

You'll never guess how Nixon answered. "He looked me straight in the eyes," Caesar remembers, "and without as much as one blink said in a flash, 'I will do the very best I can to end it Vic, I believe it to be an unjust war.'" Unfortunately, that didn't happen any time soon after that -- and history records that public opposition soon spread far beyond Arizona bandleaders. Another page on The Smoking Gun site remembers that in 1970 when J. Edgar Hoover awarded the Young American medal to a "hippie type" from Madison, Wisconsin, she confronted him with criticism over Nixon's sincerity in stopping the war. The president was furious, and in addition, Hoover complains in a two-page memo, she "gave me a dead fish look."

Soon the growing counterculture even threatened Vegas superstar Elvis Presley. In 1970 the King turned up outside the White House of the imperial presidency for his famous meeting to request federal credentials for a personal war on drugs. Elvis lost that war seven years later -- but you can read the five-page letter he wrote Nixon on that historic day at the National Archives' Web site -- or gawk shamelessly at a foreign stamp commemorating the optimistic summit.

The growing clamor from critics and counterculture ultimately drove Nixon's White House to a siege mentality. Now surfers can relive the trouble-plagued break-in at Democratic National Headquarters that started it all -- by visiting their National Archives' digitized image of the original -- and very badly-written -- log entry made by the security guard at the Watergate hotel.

Morbid Americans watched Nixon's long downfall in the nation's daily pre-Internet newspapers, and as a special 25th anniversary tribute the Washington Post has placed their original stories online, along with a handy timeline for generations to come. But elsewhere on the Web, you can hear the crackle of urgency in John Chancellor's newscast anticipating the nation's first-ever presidential resignation. "President Nixon is scheduled to go on national television tonight," Chancellor begins, cutting to White House correspondent Tom Brokaw reporting that the president has called Vice President Ford and Henry Kissinger to the White House. It's humbly nestled among's "Great TV Goodbyes" -- which also feature Jack Paar's famous kiss-off, and the last -- and only -- words of Clarabelle Cow.

The media drums the countdown to Nixon's historic resignation speech -- but the cameras are rolling several minutes before he hits the air. Call it "The Final Feed" -- the recovered, pre-broadcast footage just minutes before Nixon tells the nation he is relinquishing his hard-sought office. In a remarkable bit of found Americana, shows Web surfers those painful, awkward moments when Nixon tries to lighten the mood of assorted burned-out staff members. ("Hey, you're better lookin' than I am, why don't you stay here, heh...") Tension takes its toll, though, and by the end, Nixon is capriciously snapping at the press.

Looking back, Nixon's career had many pugnacious highlights: the 1952 Checkers Speech, the "kitchen debate" with Khrushchev in the American kitchen exhibit at the Moscow world's fair, and the 1962 press conference where he warns the media, pre-maturely, "You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore." You can see them all on WebCorps' site, where it all builds up to their recording of that historic speech of resignation.

Then move your mouse over the icons, and watch Nixon wave goodbye from Air Force One!

David Cassel is Interactive Media Editor at GettingIt. He remembers the impeachment hearings.