Earlier this month, former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein published an op-ed in The Daily Beast stating that the documentary film Our Nixon is “false.” We directed and produced Our Nixon, and we are grateful for the opportunity to respond to Stein’s statements. We would also like to correct some misstatements of fact in Stein’s op-ed.
Stein states: “On Thursday August 1, 2013, CNN will air in primetime a film it helped to produce about Richard Nixon’s presidency.”
In fact, CNN did not help to produce Our Nixon. We produced the film independently and licensed it to CNN.
Stein states: “The novelty of the film Our Nixon was that it was supposedly made from several hundred hours of Super 8mm home movies by three Richard Nixon aides: Dwight Chapin, appointments secretary; H.R. ‘Bob’ Haldeman, chief of staff; and John Ehrlichman, head of the domestic council.” And he states: “The movie is only in small part made from the Super 8 films taken by these three men (the latter two long deceased). Most of it is from newsreels, TV news tapes and from Nixon’s own Oval Office recording system.”
In fact, Our Nixon was made from about 26 hours of Super 8 home movies filmed by Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin, or about 450 individual rolls of film. While it is a collage of home movies, news broadcasts, interviews, and other materials, about 60 percent of the images in the film come from the Super 8 home movies.
Stein states: “Supposedly, these films had been seized by the FBI during the investigation into the series of allegations collectively known as ‘Watergate,’ had been kept under lock and key, and were only recently, after roughly 40 years, viewable.” And he states: “The Super 8 films were not kept under lock and key. They were developed by the Navy, and kept there, available generally.”
In fact, the Super 8 films were seized during the Watergate investigation. According to the Nixon Library:
“The Nixon White House Staff Super 8 Motion Picture Film Collection contains FBI-confiscated films recorded between 1969 and 1973. The film was found in the office files of John Ehrlichman after he resigned his post as Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs on April 30, 1973 ... The office files were confiscated by the FBI during the investigations into the Watergate scandal and became the property of the United States Government with the passage of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974 (PRMPA).”
The Super 8 films are not available from the Navy, which does not have copies of them. While the Naval Photographic Center developed the Super 8 films and made copies for Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin, we have found no evidence that the Navy retained copies of the films or has ever made them available to the public. According to the public affairs officer of the Naval History and Heritage Command, the Naval Photographic Center was closed some time ago, and archival materials more than 10 years old were sent to the National Archives and Records Administration, which maintains the official still photographic collections of the Armed Forces, prior to 1982. Notably, the Naval Photographic Center gave its films relating to the Nixon administration to the Nixon Library, which is part of the National Archives. As far as we can determine, neither the Nixon Library nor any other branch of the National Archives received copies of the Super 8 films from the Naval Photographic Center.
The Super 8 films confiscated from Ehrlichman’s office were copies, not originals. In about 2001, the Nixon Library preserved those films, at great expense, by making 16mm copies. However, the films were not “available generally,” because the library lacked funding to make video transfers. We should know, as we paid about $18,000 for the library to make those transfers in 2009. Later, Haldeman’s family donated his original Super 8 films to the Nixon Library, and we paid about $30,000 to make a new set of higher-quality transfers. Because we paid for video transfers, the films are now generally available to the public for the first time.
We have never claimed that the Super 8 films were “under lock and key.” In fact, the Our Nixon website explicitly states that the films were “seized by the FBI during the Watergate investigation, then filed away at the National Archives, and forgotten for almost 40 years.” Of course, like all of the Nixon materials confiscated during the Watergate investigation, the films had to be reviewed before they were released to the public, which took quite some time. In theory, the films were available to public after the 2001 preservation was complete. But in practice, they were not available to the public until we paid to make video transfers.
Stein states: “Some portions of the audiotapes of R.N. supposedly talking with his aides after various events were simply fabricated, i.e., later tapes were spliced in to seem to refer to events to which in real life they had no reference.” Presumably, he refers to the fact that Our Nixon includes an excerpt from Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech of November 3, 1969, followed by a conversation between Nixon and Haldeman, in which they discuss the reaction to Nixon’s “Address to the Nation on Vietnam” of April 7, 1971.
Our Nixon is a collage film. The entire film consists of archival materials edited together into an impressionistic portrait of Nixon and his closest aides. Those materials are organized both chronologically and thematically, which should be obvious to anyone who watches the film. We listened to hundreds of hours of Nixon’s secret White House tapes and observed that Nixon called Haldeman after almost every speech. In this case, we paired an excerpt from one of Nixon’s best speeches on Vietnam with a conversation between Nixon and Haldeman in which they discuss the reaction to one of his speeches on Vietnam. The purpose of the juxtaposition is to reflect on Nixon’s relationship to Haldeman, not to comment on Nixon’s Vietnam policy. Given the choice between a strong speech and a relatively weak one, we chose the former, as better representative of Nixon’s ability to communicate with the American public.
The remainder of Stein’s op-ed complains that Our Nixon is an “extremely unbalanced negative portrait” of Nixon because it over-emphasizes Watergate and under-emphasizes Nixon’s achievements. Perhaps. While the film does address Nixon’s domestic reforms, as well as his historic trip to China and resolution of the Vietnam War, it does not include all of his accomplishments. Unfortunately, we omitted the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, as well as the SALT treaty and revenue sharing. An 85-minute documentary can only cover a limited number of subjects. While the end of the film does focus on Watergate, we respectfully believe that it is an important part of Nixon’s legacy. We tried to create a fair, respectful, and honest portrait of Nixon and his staff. Honesty requires addressing their crimes as well as their successes.