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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

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 from 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 face 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. 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 Nixon 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 Nixon’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 Hughes 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 private  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.


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