Kicking off the Vineyard’s 30th season is the world-premiere of CHECKERS, by Douglas McGrath, the acclaimed writer of such films as EMMA, INFAMOUS, and BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. In CHECKERS, he turns his attention to Richard Nixon, early in his career, and the scandal that threatened to derail his political rise. CHECKERS is a compelling portrait of this complex man and, at its heart, a very personal play about the relationship between Richard and Pat Nixon. It is also a richly illuminating look at a transitional moment in American politics, on the eve of our own presidential election. CHECKERS is directed by one of the Vineyard’s favorite collaborators, Terry Kinney (AFTER ASHLEY, BEAUTIFUL CHILD, REASONS TO BE PRETTY.) Terry recently interviewed Doug for The Grapevine.
Terry Kinney – Richard Nixon has been dramatized before, so my first question would be, what was the impetus for this play for you? Why Nixon, and Nixon in 1952?
Douglas McGrath – My parents were arch conservatives, very Republican, and we grew up with their politics. I remember when Nixon ran, my sister and I used to stand outside the supermarket in Midland, Texas, where I’m from, and pass out Nixon bumper stickers and buttons. In 1968 there was much talk of “The New Nixon,” which meant nothing to me since I was eight or ten at the time, he was the only Nixon I knew. I was always fascinated with him because he was the first president I really followed and, of course, his presidency came apart, and we just all watched it, day after day. I watched it from the vantage point of my parents’ political views — he’s fighting for his life, it’s a witch hunt, they’re mad at him because of his politics, all those things. In time more information came out, and I began to question, but I started from that position.
In the things that are written about him in drama, it’s mostly the Watergate stuff, understandably, that people look at. But he had a long and rich and deeply complex past. He’s someone that I had been researching and thinking about writing about for a long time. I had no intention of spending time in the early 1950s, but then I read his book Six Crises, and the crisis he talks the most about, and in certain ways the most animatedly and passionately about, is the “Checkers” crisis.
TK- For people who don’t remember this crisis or Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, can you give some quick background on it?
DM- Nixon was an incredibly successful campaigner and politician early on. He runs for Congress, he wins. He runs for Senate, he wins. He gets the Vice Presidential nod from Eisenhower, and it’s all a part of this rise. Then during the campaign, he was accused of having an illegal slush fund. The media fell on the story and it blew up very big, very fast. One of the great ironies of the play, and his life, is that for a guy who later engaged freely and heavily in illegal activity, this one was perfectly legal. But nobody knew that in the beginning. So the rise that had been so quick and so successful was threatened. So what does he do? He thinks, I have to do what it takes, I’m going to go out there and prove I’m completely clean. He goes on TV and he tells people every single thing he’d earned in his life, everything he owed, their mortgages, their bank loans…
TK- …the fact that he couldn’t afford life insurance for Pat…
DM- Exactly, or a mink coat. He liked to always mention not only what he had, but what he didn’t have. And he did it on live TV to the nation. He went on TV to defend himself, and in the middle of the speech he talked about his dog, Checkers, and talking about the dog won the day. Which of course tells you everything you need to know about American politics: it’s 2 percent of the country that cares anything about policy and the actual bills being passed, and every so often the thing that touches or reaches people is when a politician talks in these terms that everyone can understand. To be fair to him, I think he threw it in as a little bit of color, not as an attempt to avoid the issues. 98 percent of the speech is a boring litany of his finances, but suddenly the whole speech is about somebody trying to take away his girls’ dog.
TK- It’s shocking that he would reveal any of it, his and Pat’s personal and financial information.
DM- So shocking. I think in many ways the play is about the beginning of the end of privacy in politics. It’s about where that idea started. Because before this, certainly in presidential elections, which could be pretty rough and competitive, there were still lines that were drawn: you didn’t ask about candidates’ personal lives, you certainly didn’t ask about their romantic life, if they wore boxers or briefs. It was only if there were criminal, big events. Otherwise, you asked about policy — how would you vote for this and how do you feel about Europe and are you an interventionist or an isolationist. But when he saw that job potentially going away, he thought, I’m going to do what it takes. But he did it by essentially humiliating himself. He may not have thought of it that way, but that’s how Pat thought of it.
TK- He didn’t tell her that he was going to do this.
DM- She was in agony having these details revealed. She was hearing them for the first time, had no idea this was going to happen, and had this obligation to be a loving and supportive presence in that speech. She’s seated in a chair about six feet from the desk where he’s talking — it’s all a set on a TV soundstage — and she has to sit there for thirty minutes and, to the best of her ability, mask the agony she’s feeling.
For years after, on the anniversary of that speech, he always commemorated it, because of course it turned his career around. On the first anniversary he said, you know what today is? I thought we’d celebrate. And she basically said, don’t ever bring that up to me again. I don’t want to commemorate it, I don’t want to think about it, that was practically the worst thing I’ve ever gone through. Though later she would go through much worse.
TK- These were two people very much in love, who want just the opposite — he wants the spotlight, and she wants to avoid it at all costs. They had very different reactions to the crisis but also just to being in public life.
DM- In many ways it’s not a political play at all; it’s a personal play about the struggle that Pat and Dick Nixon went through when this crisis happens. If you’re married, sometimes your marriage is tested and sometimes it is strengthened when there’s an outside crisis. This did bring Dick and Pat Nixon together, because they were under an enormous amount of public attack. Interestingly, it wasn’t the Democrats — the Democrats of course attacked Nixon, because he was the opponent in the election so that’s their job – but in this case he was being attacked by people inside the Republican party. When he finds out that the same people that originally asked him to be on the ticket are doing everything they can to get rid of him, through leaks, editorials, everything but firing him because that would be too embarrassing, that is when he started to think, “oh my god, you can’t trust anyone.” The lesson he takes away is, “We have to keep the circle very tight.” It’s the beginning of the paranoia that later took him over.
TK- The closest member of his circle is Pat, and one thing I find so incredible and touching about the play, is the downright romantic nature of their marriage, which is un-Nixonian in our purview. Can you talk a little bit about how you sculpted that relationship?
DM- Sure. You know, once they were married they were married their whole lives until she died. And she was a real catch for him. She’d had small parts in some Hollywood movies, and she was very, very pretty and very elegant. And for Dick Nixon, who was…I’m not saying he was John Merrick, but he wasn’t George Clooney either. So for someone as beautiful as Pat to be an option for him, it tells you something. She wouldn’t give him the time of day really in the beginning. But the thing that fascinates me about Nixon and has always fascinated me is that when he wanted something, he would not give up until he got it. He was un-discourageable. I’m always fascinated by that kind of character; it’s the thing I’m often drawn to in my reading, in my writing, I love these people who have sometimes a demented or what seems like implausible dream, and they persist, until they get it. That happened many times in his career but, in his personal life, it first happened with Pat.
One of the most interesting and touching and — depending on how you read it — humiliating parts of their courtship is that she wouldn’t go out with him, but he liked her so much that he would drive her to and from dates with other boys. He didn’t care; she was worth the humiliation. Eventually she came to be touched by that kind of commitment, and I used that as a guide to their relationship – to her tenderness. But also as a guide to his.
A lot of public figures — and certainly politicians — know how to put a mask on, and whatever they’re feeling inside, you don’t see it. Reagan, Clinton, they were all good at it, but one of the things that’s kept me and I think the public so fascinated by Nixon is that he couldn’t keep the mask on. He could never keep his own humanity — and by the word humanity I mean heart, weakness, fury, grandeur, intelligence, all the things that made him up — he couldn’t keep those out.
TK- He’s a real Shakespearean character for our times.
DM- I think that’s true. But what makes a Shakespearean hero or villain what they are? What Shakespeare does — and this is true of Dickens too — is show you the promise that that person had. You see it in Macbeth certainly, in Hamlet, Lear: with each of these people you see that they’re capable of something great; partially the thing makes them great is also the thing that takes them in the wrong direction.
He had real promise, Nixon. Pat says of him at one point — which is so true – that he was a big thinker. A lot of his ideas were wrong, but he was big in his thoughts. The old Republicans before Nixon were all kind of do-nothing, meaning they were status quo people, very much about “maintain”, keep business going as it is, don’t create new programs. But Nixon didn’t think that way. And that’s what makes his career sort of a tragedy; he had big ideas about the world and how to change things and yet he was brought down by his smallness, the flip side, which is his paranoia, his insecurity.
You don’t always feel this about a politician, but even people who hate Nixon — and as you know there are a hardy group of them — you always saw how human he was. By no means does that mean he was always sympathetic or compassionate about other people, but you always felt how much he was feeling. I wrote a film about Truman Capote, whose life I researched at great length, and he has, oddly enough, a similar quality. Capote, for years when he was on TV, later years particularly, he could not disguise the many things inside that tortured him. He didn’t always have to discuss them, but you were quite conscious when you looked at him that, for as much as he liked going on talk shows, he was not a happy person, he was not at ease in his own skin. And that was very true of Nixon.
TK- I think there was a certain self-loathing too. He could not let go of his ambition to be part of the Ivy League club that didn’t want him, and there’s the idea that, they’re not letting me in to the club, there must be a reason.
DM- Nixon knew how hard he worked. He wasn’t insecure about his abilities. He was insecure about his class.
TK- Ultimately, by showing the beginnings of how Richard Nixon became Richard Nixon, the icon of wrongdoing in modern-day politics, the end of this play, to me, is like the beginning of modern politics, and the bloody battle that was only going to keep getting worse. And here we are today.
DM- It’s interesting to see, in the light of our current election, how much has changed and also how little. You see that it’s always been a tough, rough world where people will do whatever it takes to get the job they want. But you also see how much simpler things were in a certain way. There was no 24-hour news. Nixon waits for a phone call from Eisenhower for three days during the play. Also, you look at many of the players in Nixon’s life: Cheney worked for him, Rumsfeld, George Bush Sr., George Romney, all those people came through this guy — that’s where this group started – and you see how much of American politics is dynastic.
TK- And yet, interestingly, Bill Clinton had more of a relationship with Nixon than any other president who came after him.
DM- As soon as Nixon left office, he began his rehabilitation in the public eye. He wrote his memoirs, did the Frost/Nixon stuff, began writing books, and cultivated the Washington establishment and the media he’d always hated, because he thought, that’s the only way back. Republicans — and this seems to be a hallmark in some ways of his career –wanted nothing to do with him later. Reagan didn’t want him. I don’t think George H.B. Bush counted on him a lot. Certainly nobody talked about him in public, and he was never invited to the convention again. Clinton, who has many qualities in common with Nixon in many ways — a certain kind of, what’s the word I’m looking for?
DM- Well, that’s not incorrect. Clinton said at Nixon’s funeral, and you can imagine who he was speaking of when he said this, that we must not judge Nixon by one event but by “his entire life and career.” Clinton was interested in Nixon because he knew how smart Nixon was, and he called Nixon, a lot, to talk about foreign policy, domestic politics, whatever was on his mind. Because whatever you want to say about Nixon, he thought a lot about politics. He was not just reflexive, knee jerk; you may think he’s nuts, you may think he’s a genius, but he gave it a lot of thought. He wasn’t like Bush, who was kind of proud of not deliberating and of not being intellectual. Nixon was proud of being intellectual. He worked hard in school. He kept his mind active all his life, and Clinton was drawn to that. And they spoke a lot.
TK- Is there anything else you want to say to people who are coming to the show?
DM- The only thing I would say is that, whatever you expect, it’s not what you expect. I think it’s an honest portrayal of him, and that people will be genuinely surprised by what they see. I’ve never seen this part of Nixon, these sides of him and this story told in that way.
TK- And then there are the dance numbers.
DM- Yes, it’s “A New Nixon!”