In the one-step-removed setting of the original Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the president of the United States is the geriatric Richard Nixon in 1985, evidently president-for-life. In one respect, it’s not as fantastic as it seems: Ronald Reagan (born 1911) was actually older than Nixon (born 1913), thus “this geezer in the White House” as depicted in the comic – set in 1985, published in 1986 – was literally happening.
You may have received the impression that I’m not a fan of Watchmen, from my previous posts Whom were they watching?, A hero shall appear, A pretty butterfly, and Moooo! In those posts, I went to some pains to establish that villainy in the comic was either lacking (in a pointed and significant way) or, in the big reveal, quite standard for superhero comics. However, it’s finally time to write the conclusion. My reading is that Reagan is the villain of the comic, with Nixon as his stand-in, and that the stand-in as such is both logical and significant – a continuity in reality almost as direct as the fictional continuity of the president being the same person.
A little history if you didn’t know it: both arrived in political view through their involvement with the House Committee on Unamerican Activities (HUAC), also called the McCarthy hearings. Nixon was one of the committee members, at the time in his first elected position as a congressman of California, a.k.a. a fearmonger and abuser of the weak, and Reagan was – bluntly – a “friendly witness,” a.k.a. an informer, a fink. Compare Nixon’s subsequent career as vice-president to Dwight D. Eisenhower, in that he somehow carried no McCarthyite stench even as McCarthy himself was ruined when HUAC imploded; and Reagan’s subsequent career, after some more acting time, to go into governor politics a decade later, with somehow no stench on him in comparison with, for example, fellow friendly witness Elia Kazan, who was vilified or at least permanently tarnished.
[Incidentally: no, the VENONA files did not reveal that the red-hunters of the 1940s and 1950s were “right all along.”]
They’re also similar in their histories of California politician to U.S. president with an intervening dip, and in their identical strategies of vilifying dissenting politics as empty-headed cartoon-anarchy. Remember my discussion of 1970s and 80s criticism of Thatcherism in Scouse? Consider the corresponding view of Reagan, especially insofar that for about five years, signaled by Nixon’s resignation, it seemed as if the Cold War was officially over and that the U.S. might actually chart a completely different path relative to international relations and global ecology. Now, horrifyingly, Nixon’s defeat had unaccountably risen from the ashes. [Thanks to Jason C. for corrections; see comments – RE]
From this point of view, Reagan is Nixon’s successor in terms of corruption, stupidity, the power-interests served, gratuitous red-baiting, anti-dissent, anti-antiwar, race-baiting and jaw-dropping excess against black Americans, out of touch to the point of parody while grubby schemers turned U.S. policy into a chimpanzee food fight, military adventurism in defiance of Congress, trawling for votes at the expense of coherence, the extreme waste of U.S. military lives to say nothing of those foreigners being killed, and as it happens, a gross little criminality at the end of each White House occupancy, although the comic predates the second iteration a bit. Significantly, the rumbling under-current of Bircherism throughout Nixon’s career – which perhaps unfairly stuck to Barry Goldwater instead, relatively speaking – was now in bull goose loony display as Reagan’s base and a powerful wing of the new Republican identity.
Now that several readers’ mouth-breathing is audible all the way across the Atlantic, let’s demolish some mythology.
- Nixon didn’t “open China,” Carter did, or rather, Carter is the president who responded substantively to the Chinese government’s long-standing overtures
- Spare me the latter-day yap about Nixon’s “liberalism,” Earth Day, et cetera; that’s what happens when the president is a beleaguered drunk, the mid-level guys can do stuff they want
- Reagan didn’t tear down the Wall, Gorbachev did
- Insofar as you want to laud the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan (because something something Soviet Union), that was initiated and set as policy during the Carter administration
Still with me? OK, now let’s dampen the flames by stating that what you believe or whether you agree with any of the above are entirely irrelevant. The point is what this outlook I’m representing has to do with Watchmen – which is, basically, everything, if you were in the target college-age audience at the time of publication. This isn’t what we deciphered in reading it, it’s how we read it.
Here’s a good isolated example. To anyone, of any age, in 1986, the early-70s flashback scene isn’t subtext or implication. I do not mean to lecture a younger reader, “this is what it meannns, man,” in some patronizing and super-textual way, but merely to describe what we saw. The scene establishes that the Comedian killed John F. Kennedy a decade before, presumably in retaliation for Kennedy’s 1960 victory against Nixon,* and now he’s hanging out with Gordon Liddy of CREEP, having just killed Bob Woodward** and Carl Bernstein as well, thus preventing the Watergate scandal. Nor was it the slightest question during the 1980s – regardless of political position – that Nixon would have done these very things if he’d had access to someone like the Comedian as opposed to the feeble and compromised mooks of CREEP.
* I’m leaving out the popular but dumb notion that Kennedy would have avoided or curtailed American involvement in Vietnam, which is neither supported by history nor hinted in the comic. I’m mentioning it for purposes of pre-emptive whack-a-mole in the comments. ** Omitting here a discussion of Woodward’s long-time role as subtle apologist for the institutional CIA, as opposed to Bernstein’s genuine activism, which isn’t relevant to the comic.
[Hey, have you noticed that in casual references to the Watergate scandal, no one ever mentions what the CREEP guys were spying on? Answer: on Xaviera Hollander’s prostitution ring which serviced the Democratic Convention.]
Just a bit of historical in-joke, you ask? No. One of the last bits in the story concerns the tabloid guy deriding the notion that Robert Redford would seek the presidency, as no one would take seriously a “cowboy actor” in the White House. The point is that “Redford’s” impending presidency is imminent, and thus the Nixon-to-Reagan legacy will be arriving in this fictional setting as well. The tabloid article using Rorschach’s journal, about to be published, is going to be up against Reagan as president much as the Washington Post article went up against Nixon (the latter based more on cultural history than documentarian). How all of this relates to Veidt’s presumed “successful” scheme – i.e., whether it’s illusory, whether it’s doomed – is worth discussion.
And now would be the perfect moment to discuss that little detail of imminent annihilation which was a genuine actual risk in reality during the early 1980s, averted in more than one case simply because a missile operator decided not to obey standing orders. This is the part of the comic which is in no way fiction. But that may as well be another post – “four-color mushroom clouds” or some such, in which Watchmen would stand as the last great work.
There lies my frustration with the title as a comics topic: in all the hype about maturity and deconstruction, it was wholly neutered as a political text. Whereas I consider it completely coherent as such, and also that this is a good thing. It’s been a lifelong sadness for me to see how how any position piece, no matter how well-argued and historically grounded, has somehow become vulnerable to dismissal as a “polemic,” the code-word for too hot to touch. I ran into it a lot regarding Palestine.
Yet again I stress that Watchmen, like Swamp Thing, is a drowning/desperate and ultimately doomed grasp to recover the best of mid-1970s Marvel: psychologically brutal, intelligently topical, elbowing its way into what the medium can do, over-reaching its grasp. In doing so, it even, if you don’t mind a little truly frightening comics-fan heresy, falls into a precise and admirable overlap between Moore and Jim Shooter. And that’s why I love it.
Next column: A Marvel guy, a DC guy, and an Image guy walk into a comic book store … (June 11)
Posted on June 4, 2017, in Politics dammit, The 70s me, The 80s me and tagged Alan Moore, Comedian, CREEP, G. Gordon Liddy, HUAC, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power, Watchmen, Watergate. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.