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John Quincy Adams wrote a book of poetry. So did Abe Lincoln. And now Jimmy Carter’s earnest if sometimes hokey volume of musings, Always a Reckoning, has made the best-seller lists. But these sensitive souls were not alone in their devotion to the muse—as we learned when we discovered a coffee-stained copy of The Poetry of Richard Milhous Nixon.
At first, the tastefully designed volume—published by L.A.’s now-defunct Cliff House Books in 1974—seems genuine, right down to its deadpan “about the author” bio. But there’s a catch. While the Trickster dictated these verses, he did so unwittingly.
Nixon’s words, recorded by the infamous Oval Office taping system, were culled verbatim, then set in stanzas and given cheeky titles by Nixon’s obscure Boswell, Jack S Margolis. In Margolis’ expert hands, Nixon’s duplicitous and authoritarian ramblings take on an almost existential quality, a vulnerability not typically associated with the ex-president. And should anyone take offense, a suitably paranoid footnote to each and every page explains that “[t]he material in this collection comes entirely from The Watergate Transcripts. No words or punctuation have been added, omitted or changed in any way.”
Nixon‘s free-verse interludes have relevance two decades later; imagine the Whitewater scandal or the Iran-contra hearings in terms of “I Can’t Recall”:
You can say I don’t remember
You can say I can’t recall.
I can’t give any answer
That I can recall.
Understandably, one of Nixon‘s recurring motifs is the ambiguous nature of truth, as in “The Position”:
The position is
And to cover up
You could say
And, though the volume contains no epiphany, Nixon tellingly concludes with “In the End,” a piece with a tone of—ahem—resignation:
In the end
We are going
To be bled
And in the end,
It is all going
To come out anyway.
Then you get the worst
Of both worlds.
Nixon once said, “Politics at its best is poetry, not prose.” He might have said the same of politics at its worst.