Nixon by Nixon: Director Peter Kunhardt and Researcher Ken Hughes on Their HBO Documentary [Exclusive Interview + Preview]
I wasn’t sure what someone like me (read: someone interested in the political process, but not overly involved in it) would get from a film like this. I knew that Richard Nixon was the first president in the history of our nation to resign. I knew about that Watergate scandal was what pushed him out of office. What I discover from watching this film was how different Nixon’s public persona was fromÂ the one he presented to his most trusted advisors and confidantes. I’m sure that’s true for every person, whether they’re living a life of relative anonymity or a life played out in front of camera. We’re all present a faceÂ to the world that might not be who we truly are. But we haven’t recorded 3,700 hours of ourselves revealing our innermost thoughts and desires.Â At the very least this documentary is a fascinating look into world history during the years leading up to Nixon’s resignation, but it’s also so much more than that.
Nixon by NixonÂ synopsis, from HBO:
Directed by Peter Kunhardt, the film explores the complex facets of Richard Nixon through thousands of hours of recently declassified audiotapes recorded in the White House. The tapes capture Nixonâ€™s blunt and candid observations on the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers leak and his Supreme Court appointments, as well as his thoughts on women, people of color, Jews and the media.
After I screened the film last week, I got the chance to talk exclusively to director Peter Kunhardt and researcher Ken HughesÂ about the film. I wondered why they wanted to make Nixon the subject of their “in their own words” documentary, just how many hours of the tapes they ended up listening to and how they thought Nixon would react to having these tapes released to the public.
TV GOODNESS: What made you decide on Nixon?
Ken Hughes: “That was Peter’s inspiration. I think it came out of an Emmy award-winning documentary that you had done, Peter, on Ted Kennedy.”
Peter Kunhardt: “We’ve been doing for years a series of documentaries on people that are told in their own words. While we were doing a ‘In His Own Words’ on Teddy Kennedy, we came across Nixon tapes talking about Teddy Kennedy. We realized that it was a huge resource of very interesting material that if we put together into a narrative of its own it would make a compelling program that really needed to be done because it had not been done. And that’s where Ken at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia came in and he began working with our production team to get us the material and make sure we were reading it and interpreting it properly.”
Ken: “Peter and Kunhardt McGee Productions are the ones who get all the credit for weaving the raw material of the tapes into this really brilliant documentary that shows, I think, many sides of Richard Nixon – the public, the private, in some cases the secret. And I really loved the way that they managed to put together the tapes, the vintage footage from news programs from the Nixon administration that enable us to see the big contrast between what Nixon was saying in public and in privateÂ and also Nixon’s reminiscences from after he lost the presidency. I think it’s eye-opening and illuminating and disturbing in a lot of ways, but ultimately it gives you a view of Nixon that is more complete.”
TV GOODNESS: I know there are 3,700 hours of tapes. How do you tackle that?
Ken: “It’s funny. First off, not all of those tapes have been released. The government has released 2,658 hours of tape and no, I have not listened to them all. [Laughs] The government has put out transcripts on all of these, that’s why I’m employed. It put out a finding aid, which is more than 30,000 pages long. [It] lets you find out what subjects Nixon was talking about, with whom, where and when. So when Peter wanted to know more about China or Nixon’s 1960 presidential debate with JFK or the Soviet Union I could use that finding aid to hone in some of the more illuminating parts of the Nixon tapes.”
Peter: “I should add that we both have listened to hundreds of hours of these tapes and, at least I’d say this for me, my wife is very glad the project’s over because she feels I became a slightly nastier person when I was listening to all these tapes.” [Laughs.]
Ken: “Peter, you are an absolute joy to work with, but I’ve only worked with you on the Nixon tapes so maybe this is dark Peter. [Laughs.] Turns out dark Peter is an extremely good guy.”
TV GOODNESS: Since there are so many hours of tape and so much happened during the Nixon administration, how did you decide what events you wanted to focus on?
Peter: “Nixon was our guide because in looking back, he said that the most important things he thinks he’ll be remembered for in addition to Watergate were the war in Vietnam, his trip to China, his trip is Moscow, the arms treaty, and then domestically his choice of supreme court justices. So we started there. We decided that if that’s what he felt were the important things to remember, let’s listen to how he made those things happen. They’re probably the principal turning points and led us organically towards other stories that spun off.
So at the end of the supreme court story when the whole country thinks he’s gonna pick a woman and he never has any intention of [doing that], but he maneuvers it to look like he’d done his best and someday a woman will become a supreme court [justice]. Well, less than a month later he names a woman as [the secretary of the treasury.] This was his way of taking the traditional route of a giving a woman a less significant role, but that woman then came under scrutiny for hiring illegal aliens at her food plant in California. It sent Nixon off on another ballistic course and, so it’s just an example of how one story segues into the next. We really built the chronology and followed the chronology and by juxtaposing what the reporters were saying on the evening news each night with what Nixon was saying either the day before the news was reported or the day after, these pieces of a giant puzzle began coming together.”
TV GOODNESS: What Nixon said publicly was so different from what he said privately. Did anything surprise you while you were making this film?
Peter: “I think the most surprising thing was the constant hypocrisy again and again and again at saying one thing behind closed doors and almost the exact opposite to the public. One small example of that is when he says behind closed doors, ‘We’ll bomb the dikes,’ and the next day he’s asked the question and Dan Rather says, ‘We hear there are reports of dikes being bombed,’ and he says, ‘We don’t bomb dikes. That’s against our policy.’
By going back and lining up in chronology what he’s saying on the secret tapes, what he’s saying to the press corps in public and what the press is reporting and then the next day saying, ‘That damn Rather. We’ve got to do some dirty tricks and pay him back for that.’ So once you begin listening it all comes together. It just fits.”
TV GOODNESS I like that Nixon’s former chief domestic advisor John Ehrlichman called him paradoxical. We all have these contradictions. Was it important to try and remain objective while making his film? Did you remain objective?
Ken: “You always have to be fair with any subject matter and the thing about Nixon is that objectively speaking there were just so many facets to him. He combined the light and the dark in lots of illuminating and disturbing ways and, I think, being able to take in as many of the sides of Nixon as you could fit into a single documentary is probably a really great experience. I think we’ll leave people with more answers about Nixon, but also some more interesting questions.”
Peter: “Objectivity is the golden thread that every documentary should be built around and so we make a point of keeping our objectivity and attempt to tell a fair and honest story. The reason we do these in their own words is that it allows there not to be a filter placed by a reporter or a correspondent in between the viewer and the person. So we let Nixon explain why he did this or let Nixon on the tapes do it. So I think we went out of our way to be objective.”
TV GOODNESS: It kept coming up how much Nixon hated the press for how they portrayed him. What do you think he’d think of this project?
Ken: “Nixon wanted absolute control over his image and I think the reason he hated the press was that what he feared most was exposure of his secrets. This person had many politically damaging secrets, some of which are revealed in this documentary. The press was the principal threat to Nixon being able to present himself to the American people as a heroic and visionary figure.
The documentary shows that despite what he was saying to the American people, he expected South Vietnam is fall following withdrawal of American troops. That was a key secret that he managed to keep that resulted in the deaths of many thousands of Americans. When we see him react to the leak of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon was afraid that that was the first step toward leaking his own secrets. So I’m really glad that the documentary highlights his antagonistic relationship with the press because I think it was central to his presidency.”
Peter: “I agree with Ken. Nixon would not have liked anything done on Nixon and when he fought to keep the tapes from being released when he was still President, he said they contained many ‘blunt and candid remarks.’ I think that’s an understatement. He continued to fight successfully in the courts to keep the tapes from being released until he died, so the tapes didn’t get started to be released until after Nixon’s death. He knew perfectly well what was on them and he did everything he could not to have them come out. So I think there’s nothing that could be done in regard to those tapes that I think he would have approved of.”
Edited for space and content.
Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words premieres Monday, August 4th at 9/8c on HBO.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.
Catching Up with Ted Lasso and Previewing Season 2
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.] The not so dirty little secret about how I approach a new series is that I sometimes make a call based on the headspace I’m in at the time. It’s been a minute since I’ve picked up a show after the first season and then binge…
Interview: Henri Esteve on Grown-ish Season 3
An interview with Henri Esteve, who plays Javi on Freeform’s Grown-ish. He talks about his season three experience.
For All Mankind Season 2: Talking with Wrenn Schmidt, Krys Marshall, Jodi Balfour, and Sonya Walger [Exclusive]
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.] One of the hooks of For All Mankind is that it’s very much a story about the women of NASA. In Season 2, we explore the journeys of the women in the program, either through their own service or through their family affiliations. Four of those…
Rosy McEwen Talks The Alienist: Angel of Darkness Season Finale [Exclusive]
[Warning: Spoilers for the season finale episodes.] How’s everyone after that finale? I will freely admit I got a little misty in episode eight as John told Sara why he loved her, and later that he wanted her despite what he might forfeit, and then at the end when he…
Rosy McEwen Talks The Alienist: Angel of Darkness [Exclusive]
Hands down, one of the best surprises of The Alienist: Angel of Darkness is that the serial killer this season has been front and center alongside the cast as a fully-formed character. We’ve watched Libby Hatch devolve from a prim, mild-mannered nurse to a woman in a rage hell-bent on…
The Alienist: Angel of Darkness Relationship Recap: John and Sara
[Warning: Spoilers for “Belly of the Beast” and “Memento Mori”] If you’ve read me for a while (thank you!), you know two things — I lean way, way in on the characters I adore and I loathe love geometry arcs. So, I’m torn about where we are and where we…
Louriza Tronco Talks The Order Season 2 [Exclusive]
[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Season 2.] The Order’s second season is dark yet delightful entertainment on many levels, and one of its biggest sources of joy and snark is the sassy Gabrielle Dupres. Last season, she was assertive and deadly and fairly annoyed with the world. This season, she’s been…
Previewing Netflix’s Virgin River
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.] Full disclosure: I have a Netflix account for my Mom, but I’m not a regular viewer. If I get a heads up on something, I’ll go look for it, but I don’t have a wander across its offerings, which, as I understand it, is how most…
Final Thoughts From the Killjoys Team [Exclusive]
This is the day of the week I’d normally hit you up with a Killjoys preview, but now that we’ve put the series to bed and released Team Awesome Force into the wild, I have one more treat for you–some final thoughts excerpted from my conversations with the Killjoys folks….
Michelle Lovretta Talks Wrapping Up Killjoys [Exclusive]
[Warning: Spoilers for the series finale.] To quote Miss Jackson, “That’s the end?” Yes, friends, it is. And like I promised you, everything would be, was, and is alright. I went to the Killjoys source, series creator Michelle Lovretta, who wrote the last episode, to break down that delicious finale….
What They Said: Three Revealing Conversations from Survivor’s Remorse “Closure”
WARNING: Spoilers for Survivor’s Remorse “Closure” The latest episode of Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse featured conversations that showed characters really digging deep into their thoughts, emotions and motivations.
Two Takes: The Catch “The Knock-Off”
Who can you trust? If this episode of The Catch was any indication, the answer is just about nobody. Betrayal was running rampant as Felicity (Shivani Ghai) arose from the dead to seduce-con Margot, Gretchen (Maria Thayer, Gotham, The Mindy Project) played gold-hearted Alice 2.0 before swindling Ethan, Tessa jumped…
What They Said: Top 3 Quotable Moments from Preacher “El Valero”
Both Quincannon and Jesse refuse to give up on what they each think is rightfully theirs. While Jesse is struggling to face the consequences of his actions, Quincannon has laid his past demons to rest and is hellbent on moving forward and putting Annville on the map again. Despite a…
What They Said: Favorite Quotes from Supergirl “Worlds Finest”
Oh, Supergirl. That ending was cold. But I can’t hate on you because the latest episode has quickly become one of my favorites.
What They Said: Top 4 Quotable Moments from Black Sails “XXIII”
The dialogue in “XXIII” is phenomenal. It’s always a fun ride when Black Sails carries its viewers along without giving them the chance to catch their breath. When an episode moves at this unforgiving pace, there is no chance for a breather nor is there a respite from the information…
What Lucifer Said: Favorite quotes from Supernatural “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Supernatural episodes are almost always funny but thanks to the dialogue and a certain man speaking said dialogue, I laughed a lot during “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” You know, when I wasn’t busy fearing for Sam’s life or wondering what in the world was going on with Dean and…
What They Said: The Flash, “Legends Of Today” and Arrow, “Legends Of Yesterday”
Two nights of Arrow +Â The Flash = what more could we ask for?! I don’t know what it is about blending these shows, but I canâ€™t help but feel that every time they come together, they somehow become greater than the sum of their parts. And thatâ€™s saying a lot…
What they Said: Top 4 Quotable Moments from Graceland “Little Bo Bleep”
Shoot outs. Fake outs. And long-awaited revelations. “Little Bo Bleep” was a jam-packed episode that wrapped up some loose ends and totally frayed others. Â It finally gave us one Sarkissian in jail and pulled back the curtain on Briggs’ master plan, but it also set up Jakes for a world…
What They Said: Favorite Quotes from Poldark “Part 4”
â€œWhat have I told you, I don’t require my wife to crochet and sip tea, but I do require her to remember she’s not a beast of burden.â€ No, Iâ€™m not talking about The Rolling Stones! I have to admit though, just for a second, the lyrics popped into my…
3 Moments of Goodness from Brooklyn Nine-Nine “Johnny and Dora”
The most satisfying part of this season’s finale has to the Jake and Amy kiss. Well, they kiss three times but the last one is the best one — and it means something. The Charles and Rosa dynamic was also great. I love how she’s convinced he doesn’t know anything…