- Richard Byrne
Becoming Nixon (and Tito)
Today on Vox, playwright Justin Sherin writes about the genesis of his @dick_nixon Twitter account.
Read Sherin about it first. Then come back.
OK, done? Good.
Even as the author of something as bold and engaging and difficult as @dick_nixon, there are a number of things that modesty prevents Sherin from saying himself.
For instance, I would argue that @dick_nixon is the most successful imaginative embodiment of an American political figure since The First Family Vol. 1 -- Vaughn Meader's triumphantly comic take on President John F. Kennedy.
Not an impression, mind you. Or even an impersonation. Meader didn't merely impersonate Kennedy. He dove into the sinews of JFK's language and syntax. It was a complete immersion, catching not only timbre and cadence, but poking and probing sharply at the public image projected by the entire Kennedy clan.
Meader's meteoric ascent as a political humorist was cut short by Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. (Indeed, a Christmas single of Meader -- as Kennedy -- reciting ''Twas the Night Before Christmas" had already shipped and was yanked from stores.)
There have been many presidential (or presidential candidate) impressionists since. Darrell Hammond's Bill Clinton and Tina Fey's Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live have come the closest to matching Meader's brilliance, yet as occasional sketches they lack the sort of sustaining vision that pushes The First Family into greatness. (Fey also quickly grasped the inanity -- and treacherous shallows -- of a prolonged stay in Palinland.)
I'd argue that what Sherin pulls off with @dick_nixon is even more astonishing. Sherin's Twitter account propels Nixon forward into time -- weaving the 37th president's syntax, idiosyncrasies and prejudices seamlessly into the present moment.
The most compelling moments of Sherin's Twitter feed come in his active visualization of how Nixon would guide the unmoored and unhinged Republican party of 2015 back into a winning electoral and governing policies -- and how foreign policy crises of the moment can be viewed in a Noxonian realpolitik that eschews both the neocon and the liberal interventionism that has dominated U.S. foreign policy since Ford and (early) Carter.
As Sherin puts it: "We judge Nixon, yet we seek his counsel. On Russia and China, war and peace, how campaigns are fought and won. He's better than us and far, far worse. It's difficult to contain the contradiction, but we live in his world and ignore him at our peril."
Sherin's devastating @dick_nixon brings to mind one of the greatest such embodiments in the former Yugoslavia in 1994 -- a film by director Želimir Žilnik called Tito drugi put među Srbima (Tito Among the Serbs for a Second Time).
Produced by independent television and radio outlet B92, Žilnik's film placed actor Dragoljub Ljubičić on the streets of Belgrade dressed as Josip Broz Tito (who had died in 1980) at the height of the first stages of the violent dismemberment of Yugoslavia.
The film surveys the reaction of ordinary Belgraders to this apparition who strolls about the streets asking provicative questions and inviting the candid comments of those over whom he ruled -- nostalgia, anger, complaints and disputation. Ljubičić is no Meaderesque dead ringer for Tito, but he perfectly captures -- as Sherin does with Nixon's voice and philosophy -- the imperiousness and absolute certainty of the public Tito.
Tito po drugi put među Srbima is a lo-fi high concept masterpiece. Just like Sherin's justly celebrated (and much followed) Twitter account.
Photos: (Top) President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon, greet Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito and First Lady Jovanka Broz at the White House in October 1971. (Middle) Cover of reissue of Vaughn Meader's The First Family. (Bottom) Still from Želimir Žilnik's Tito po drugi put među Srbima.