I’ll admit, this is pretty random. I’m doing some deep-dive writing about the Godfather movies, and I’m watching the White House Plumbers show on HBO (hilarious) and reading Watergate: A New History (excellent). My media brain is steeping in these worlds, and of course it’s finding shit to compare and contrast. It’s what my brain does.
So. Let’s compare and contrast. Michael Corleone and Richard Nixon. Like a freshman English paper.
Richard Nixon had a seriously brilliant mind. He had real skills with people, despite his obvious discomfort with them. He had powerful political abilities, with an extraordinary ability to bounce back from defeat. He inspired great loyalty in people who worked for him. And he had something vaguely resembling a genuine interest in public service. The EPA, Title IX, detente with Russia, diplomatic relations with China — that all happened under Nixon.
And he was a total shitbag of a human being. He saw political opponents as enemies, and he saw enemies everywhere. He equated his own selfish interests with the interests of the country, treating threats against himself as threats against the nation. He rationalized his most heinous acts by convincing himself that his enemies were all doing it, too.* He pursued a vile and pointless war, a war he knew was unwinnable, because he didn’t want to be a loser.** And let’s not forget: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, bribery (giving and receiving), tax fraud, election tampering, innumerable violations of his oath of office. His ethics, his concerns about the law and the Constitution, varied from corrupt to nonexistent.
He’s a tragic figure. But it’s the tragedy of wasted potential. I don’t feel sorry for him, except to the degree that I feel sorry for anyone in pain. His tragedy is that he used his power to inflict massive damage, on the people near him and the world at large.
Now. Michael Corleone.
Do I need to spell it out?
Brilliant mind. Excellent with people, despite being a natural loner. Total shitbag, who saw enemies everywhere and went after his enemies with a flamethrower. Originally motivated (at least partly) by some impulse (albeit a fucked-up-one) towards loyalty and service — an impulse that disintegrated into pure self-preservation, unconcerned with ethics or consequences. Tragic — great human potential horribly misused — but not inspiring much sympathy. Not from me, anyway.
People who spent a lot of time listening to the Nixon tapes — prosecutors, Congresspeople, journalists — often said it was like listening to a Mob boss.
There are important differences, of course. (Wow, this really is a freshman English essay, isn’t it? Compare and contrast these two things pulled randomly out of a hat, because you happen to be thinking about them at the same time. Compare and contrast Elizabeth Bennet with Lady Macbeth; Malcolm X with Jason Mendoza; the poetry of William Blake with a small Russet potato.)
So. Differences. Well, as far as I know, Nixon never murdered anyone, or directly ordered anyone to be murdered. On the other hand, Michael Corleone’s wars didn’t kill tens of thousands of people and decimate a country. On the other hand, Nixon did accomplish a few things worth accomplishing. On the other hand, Michael Corleone didn’t poison the very foundations of democracy. (Not much, anyway.)
Also, one is a real historical figure, and the other is a fictional character.
That’s all. This isn’t going anywhere. Just thinking out loud.
* They sometimes were, but not on nearly the same scale or to nearly the same degree. When the full reality of Watergate began to break, even the toughest, most experienced political cynics were appalled.
** To be fair, he wasn’t the only one. Kennedy and Johnson were also guilty of this. However, see above. “Other people did it too” is not an excuse.