The 40th anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation comes just as politicians of both parties increasingly say the words “President Barack Obama” and “impeachment” in the same sentence. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which has filed a lawsuit against the president, has also been quick to draw comparisons between the Nixon administration’s abuses of executive power and Obama’s use of executive orders.
Yet the critiques of Obama, which The Economist and CNN have dubbed “political theater,” recall another aspect of Nixon’s lasting legacy: the rise of an entertainment-driven politics that now defines the modern media landscape and the U.S. presidency.
It was Nixon who embraced “showbiz politics” in his efforts to salvage his political career, expand the electorate and rebuild the Republican Party. By capitalizing on a political tradition rooted in California politics and the Hollywood studio system, Nixon’s electoral successes convinced politicians across the ideological spectrum to deploy entertainment strategies from the Nixon media playbook.
Nixon had linked his electoral failures – in particular, the 1960 presidential defeat to John F. Kennedy to his loss in the 1962 gubernatorial election in his home state of California — to the bias of the media, which he felt had favored his opponents in campaign coverage.
Over the next six years, Nixon set about resurrecting his career through a new style of politics, one that Kennedy had controversially applied in 1960 and that former actors George Murphy and Ronald Reagan used to assert their political authority on the national scene in 1964 and 1966, respectively.