It was like travelling to the moon, to an alien place, said Barbara Walters about her trip to China with the president during the Nixon administration. If he were here right now, he was so awkward, he wanted so much to be liked, he would tell a dirty joke. Speaking from the stage at the Walter Reade Theater after a screening of Our Nixon, the documentary by Penny Lane and Brian Frye on closing night of the New Directors/ New Films series, she went on about that historic China trip: "Everyone was wearing Mao outfits. You could not tell the men from the women. I was there to buy gifts for Henry Kissinger's girlfriends," she quipped. That was Tricky Dick with Plastic Pat, who finally came into her own as an interesting First Lady, only for Nixon to resign. "We forget how good he was on foreign policy. He deserves to have a better reputation than he has."
You do see the young Barbara Walters in blond bouffant flip, in her glory, in "pride of place" near Nixon in the remarkable home movie Super 8 footage and newsreel interviews by H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, that comprise this compelling narrative about the Nixon presidency. She was the first to interview Kissinger on television.
Haldeman especially liked to document everything, from squirrels on the White House lawn to peace demonstrations to end the Vietnam War; his daily audio diaries kept a record of service to Nixon up to the moment. He was making history, even though much of Nixon's legacy is mired in his definitive role in the Watergate scandal. Footage of Daniel Ellsberg and John Kerry ground Our Nixon with the urgency of that time, and in a post-Watergate, post prison interview, Haldeman admits that his insistence that the incriminating tapes be preserved may have been foolish.
At the after party, when asked whether or not he thought these key figures knew they were doing something wrong, producer Brian L. Frye, who was assuredly a baby when these events unfolded said, that's a good question, as if to say, that may be in the eye of the beholder. Whose Nixon was he anyway?
Director Penny Lane said she was thinking of a cross between "Our Gang" and "Our Hitler," in titling this film. But Barbara Walters spun it differently, thanking the filmmakers for illustrating Nixon's finer instincts on foreign policy. Penny Lane, "in utero" during Watergate was more like the rest of the audience, seeing Nixon as the leader who most put Americans on their guard about government accountability. Those Nixon years felt like a huge betrayal of democracy, and they still rankle in our era of gerrymandering and other election shenanigans. For better or worse, Nixon was ours.
And the same can be said for Barbara Walters. ABC may be attempting to have her retired from The View, but as of this writing, Walters has no intention of leaving. And Penny Lane, for one, says she hopes she gets invited on the show.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.