'Nixon:' Good drama, even if it's not history Stone sticks closer to fact than in 'JFK,' but still spirals off

January 21, 1996|By Thomas Powers

IF AMERICANS have learned anything from the political traumas of the last 30 years -- the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon, the Iran-contra scandal that almost did the same for Ronald Reagan -- it is that their government has much to hide. The final words of Oliver Stone's controversial film, "Nixon," tell us that the former president spent the last 20 years of his life fighting for control of 4,000 hours of conversations secretly recorded during his years in the White House, and that all but 60 hours remain locked up. What secrets are hidden in that vast archive of Nixon's compulsive talk with the handful of men he trusted about his fears, his enemies, his plans, his past?

Mr. Stone's film proves he has given this question a lot of thought -- and he suspects the worst. He has imagined a Nixon whose life is a pyramid of secrets piled layer on layer, each bigger than the last as we work down. Some are political -- a suggestion, for example, that Mr. Nixon was a prime player in plans by the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate Fidel Castro during the first year of his rule in Cuba. Under that lies a secret world of American sociology -- the power of money wielded by "interests" to pull the strings of U.S. presidential politics. In the deepest layer, Mr. Stone finds the wounded child in Mr. Nixon's past, who begged his mother for the love she might give a pet dog. Can we take any of this seriously?

Mr. Stone's previous big film about U.S. political history, a retelling of the Kennedy assassination that was as finely nuanced as a steamroller, won the director a reputation for reckless indifference to facts. This time, he has backed up his film with an annotated screenplay citing a wide range of books and official documents as authority for his version of events. Among them is my book about Richard Helms, the director of the CIA at the time of the Watergate break-in.

Some of Mr. Stone's screenplay hews faithfully to the record -- like the scene in which the White House lawyer, John W. Dean III, tells Mr. Nixon that Watergate is eating away at the moral and political foundations of his presidency with the lethal tenacity of a cancer. Other scenes pass confusingly from the incontestable through a twilight world of the barely possible, on a beeline toward the improbable and the fantastic.

Not surprisingly, the CIA excites Mr. Stone's darkest imaginings. One enduring mystery of Watergate is just what Mr. Nixon meant when he told his hard-nosed assistant H. R. "Bob" Haldeman to warn Mr. Helms that investigation of the Watergate burglars would blow open "the whole Bay of Pigs thing."

The reaction of Mr. Helms in the screenplay is, as in fact it was, immediate and emphatic. "The Bay of Pigs had nothing to do with this!" he shouted. "I have no concern about the Bay of Pigs!"

The Bay of Pigs, of course, was the site of the failed invasion of Cuba mounted by the CIA in April 1961 -- only a few months after Kennedy became president. Many of the burglars arrested inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in June 1972 were Cuban exiles who had worked for the CIA. One of the men in charge of the operation was a longtime CIA officer on the covert side of the agency named E. Howard Hunt -- a friend, it turned out, of Mr. Helms. But Mr. Nixon never explained and Watergate investigators never learned precisely what he had in mind by the Bay of Pigs "thing."

Mr. Stone cut a number of scenes from his film dealing with this episode -- depriving us of a chance to see Sam Waterston playing Mr. Helms -- but they remain in the screenplay, which was recently published. Mr. Haldeman's meeting with Mr. Helms has been shifted from the White House to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., but the words uttered and the emotional tenor of the moment have been faithfully reproduced. It is the rest of the plot line that breaks contact with the mundane world of fact.

Mr. Stone's primary invention is a long encounter between Mr. Helms and Mr. Nixon at CIA headquarters. Mr. Nixon has come with some urgent presidential orders -- to find out who's providing funds for student protest groups; to find out who's leaking White House secrets to columnist Jack Anderson and the New York Times, and to demand "some old and forgotten papers. Things I signed as vice president. I want the originals in my office and I don't want copies anywhere else."

The historical record is clear that Mr. Nixon (through his aide John Ehrlichman) did ask for the CIA's "report" on the Bay of

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