Narrated by Anderson Cooper, Tricky Dick is a four-part CNN documentary that presents the lesser-known story of Richard Nixon’s life and times. The rise, fall and almost unbelievable comeback and final self-sabotage of his political career are adroitly deconstructed. Through access to archival footage never before seen by the public, the backstory of Richard Nixon’s complex view of opportunity and ambition unfolds.
The story of Nixon’s aggressive strategy for political success, together with his resentment of the elite and his animus towards the press, minorities, and Jews is a dramatic portrayal of resurrection from defeat and self-destruction. But the usual reasons for his failures when he was considered unbeatable are laid to rest here. For example, the televised debate debacle with Kennedy is usually explained as due to Nixon’s sweat and dourness while Kennedy looked polished, patrician, and relaxed. Tricky Dick’s archival footage, however, reveals that the moderator (Howard K. Smith) thought Nixon was too “nice” in demurring to Kennedy, thus elevating the inexperienced senator. Smith believed Nixon should have “fought back”, and that was the reason for the subsequent rapid decline in the polls. After the closest presidential election up to that time, defeated but not a quitter, Nixon determinedly runs for the governor’s seat in California, a major step down from being Eisenhower’s vice president, only to be profoundly humiliated with an unexpected loss. Nixon retreats from politics for the first time in his life.
Four years after JFK had become president, with the US in crisis at home and abroad, raging from an increasingly virulent Vietnam War, Nixon senses an opportunity for a comeback. Confident he can shed his loser’s image, Nixon plans his campaign which wins the presidency that should have been his.
As the anti-war movement gains strength, Nixon suspects a conspiracy against him, one he will use any means necessary to defeat. He isolates himself with a handful of trusted advisors and prepares for a second term.
In a historic landslide, Nixon is re-elected but shortly into his second term, the cover-up of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex starts to unravel his presidency. As the President wages a battle in the press and in the courts, a desperate man becomes his own worst enemy, and movement to impeach begins.
It is the secret recordings in Nixon’s White House, often in the dark of night, along with a few brave whistleblowers and one Deep Throat, that truly are chilling. The perpetual subterfuge and self-loathing also reveal a deeply disturbed and aggrieved man, with flaws that Nixon never realizes he has. Tricky Dick is a portrait of a power gone unchecked, as we witness his unraveling from his own words on tape. Even if his self-aggrandizing mind has been wrong all along, he doesn’t know it and we are horrified by it. The parallels with today are frightening.