Philip Baker Hall as Richard M. Nixon, disgraced former U.S. President
New Jersey, early 1980s
Film: Secret Honor
Release Date: July 6, 1984
Director: Robert Altman
This week, we learned that the great Philip Baker Hall died at the age of 90. Familiar as a recurring face in Paul Thomas Anderson movies and as the anachronistic, straight-talking “library cop” Bookman on an early Seinfeld episode, Hall’s breakthrough screen performance was reprising his stage role as a disgraced Richard Nixon in Secret Honor.
“You have read in the press the reasons for the Watergate affair. Today, my client is going to reveal to you the reasons behind the reasons,” Hall narrates into a tape recorder as the now-former President Nixon. It was fifty years ago today when five burglars were caught breaking into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate hotel, igniting a political scandal that resulted in the fall of a president and a widespread cynical distrust of American government.
Subtitled “A Political Myth”, Secret Honor was originally a one-man play written by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, who adapted their work for Robert Altman’s film of the same name. Avoiding caricature of an easily caricatured man, Hall portrayed Nixon—the only human who ever appears on screen—who spends the film’s hour-and-a-half runtime ranting to the contents of his study, specifically a tape recorder, an increasingly empty bottle of Scotch, a loaded revolver, his mother’s grand piano, and portraits of presidents and significant figures in his life from Henry Kissinger to his own mother.
Hall’s Hollywood Reporter obituary cites the actor’s own direction for portraying Nixon, as he explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1988: “the character’s got like six ideas going on all the time, and he can’t sort them out. He’s trying to say a number of things at the same time — many, if not all, that are contradictory. That was the hook.”
Posited as “an attempt to understand,” Secret Honor dramatized a night at Nixon’s New Jersey estate, into which the family moved in 1981. Considerable time has passed since his memoirs and what he now considers to be a shameful presidential pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford. Restless in the mansion’s stately, wood-paneled study, Nixon is as profane, power-mad, and paranoid as would be expected of his reputation, but Secret Honor also presents him as a more pitiful figure that we’d seen, remorseful to a degree, albeit less for ethical reasons and more for his perceived scapegoating after the Faustian deal he made for power early in his political career.
“You know what they wrote about me? They said, at the end, that I was running around the White House crazy-drunk, talking to the pictures on the walls,” Nixon drunkenly informs, well, a portrait of Woodrow Wilson hanging behind his desk.
Descending into paranoid absent-mindedness and increasingly unburdened by his whisky, Nixon unravels the “reasons behind the reasons”, which ultimately appear to be treasons behind the reasons, as he rants to yet another of his infamous tape recorders about topics ranging from Henry Kissinger’s philandering to instructions for the portable radio—no, make it a fruit basket—that his unseen aide Roberto should buy for his gardener’s hospitalized wife.
“Having been driven almost mad because he had to carry the most terrible secrets of all, locked up inside his, uh, breaking heart, and his, uh, beating mind,” Nixon seeks to absolve himself by presenting the audience with the facts of his life, from his overbearing mother and brothers to countering his insecurities with cutthroat ambition as the unscrupulous hatchet man serving the shadowy “Committee of 100” before they ultimately left him out to dry:
I was just an un-indicted co-conspirator just like everybody else in the United States of America!
What’d He Wear?
My wife does not wear a mink coat! My wife wears a good Republican cloth coat!
Secret Honor begins with Richard Nixon entering the study in a dark taupe-brown pinstriped suit, though he soon changes out of the jacket and into a velvet smoking jacket. This gently anachronistic touch quickly communicates Nixon’s own sense of self-importance through his deluded image of himself as the sort of dignified, old-fashioned statesman who would change into a smoking jacket for late evenings.
Made from a burgundy velvet with scarlet silk lining, the thigh-length jacket functions more like a robe than a classic tailored smoking jacket, with a shawl collar and belted sash made from the same cloth unlike some smoking jackets that featured quilted or smooth silk contrasting the lapel facings and pocket detail. The garment has a set-in breast pocket, slanted set-in hip pockets, and the neo-Edwardian detail of gauntlet (turnback) cuffs.
Nixon continues wearing the flat front trousers of his dark taupe-brown pinstripe wool suit, styled with side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms. He holds them up with a wide dark brown leather belt with a polished gold-toned single-prong buckle.
Though he could have changed into velvet slippers to match the spirit—and fabric—of his smoking jacket, Nixon continues wearing the black leather cap-toe derby shoes and black silk socks that he wore with his suit.
Nixon’s white shirt reflects a pale icy-blue cast, detailed with tonal self-stripes. The shirt has a semi-spread collar, front placket, breast pocket, and squared double (French) cuffs that Nixon fastens with a set of flat gold-finished sterling silver cuff links with recessed edges.
As opposed to the staid, conservative ties associated with presidential style, this post-presidency Nixon wears a lilac tie printed with a balanced series of brown zig-zagging “squiggles”—for lack of a better word—that snake upward from right hip-to-left shoulder like a stepped maze. These waves are broken up by brown polka dots that appear to be randomly placed along the maze like Pac-Man’s dinner but are actually neatly organized.
Secret Honor depicts Nixon wearing a steel-cased watch on a smooth dark brown leather strap with the round silver dial on the inside of his left wrist.
The real Nixon has often been associated with two wristwatches: a gold-finished Vulcain Cricket that he received from National Association of Watch and Clockmakers while serving as Vice President in the 1950s and an engraved all-gold Omega Speedmaster chronograph he was gifted (and refused, citing it was too valuable) following the 1969 moon landing. Known as the “Nixon” Omega, this ref. BA 145.022 was the first gold Speedmaster that Omega ever made.
Of these two, the plainer Secret Honor watch shares more in common with the Vulcain, though it clearly lacks the additional alarm pusher that defines the Cricket’s silhouette.
For reading from his memoir and the family bible, Nixon dons a pair of narrow rectangular-framed tortoise reading glasses.
What to Imbibe
In vino veritas, and—while we can’t be sure of ever hearing the exact truth from Richard Milhaus Nixon—Hall at least presents our increasingly drunk former president as describing what he himself believes to be true. (Though, in a second Seinfeld reference, he may just be operating under George Costanza’s maxim of “it’s not a lie if you believe it.”)
Nixon begins the evening by pouring himself a snifter of something brown from a glass decanter, probably cognac, before the next shot shows him pulling a bottle of Chivas Regal 12-Yr. Scotch whisky from his bookshelf and pouring some over ice. This bottle of Chivas would fuel the rest of Nixon’s night and its myriad rationalizations, confessions, and profanity.
Supposedly, Nixon was indeed a lightweight when it came to handling his booze in real life… not that it’s something I typically judge, but Nixon feels like safe fodder for judgement. Among the dry martinis chronicled in my volumes of presidential drinking habits (Mark Will-Weber’s Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt and Brian Abrams’ Party Like a President), it’s been reported that Nixon did drink Scotch, occasionally mixing Johnnie Walker Blue Label with ginger ale and a twist of lime.
His inability to handle his liquor well is lampshaded as Hall’s Nixon recalls when he was first urged to run for Congress after returning from war and was dazzled by the powerful “Committee of 100” who “showed him a vision of the riches and power of this world, and he drank their words and visions… he had a little sip of their whiskey too! This poor boy who didn’t drink—didn’t know how to drink—because of his strict Quaker background.”
Nixon had entered the scene carrying a smooth varnished wooden box, which he opens to reveal a stainless steel Smith & Wesson revolver, with a service-length 4″ heavy barrel, walnut grips, and six hollow-point rounds of .38 Special in the cylinder. Based on its profile and the fact that it appears to be built on Smith & Wesson’s medium-sized K-frame platform, the revolver is either a Smith & Wesson Model 64 or a Smith & Wesson Model 65.
Smith & Wesson introduced both the Model 64 and 65 in the early 1970s, beginning with the Model 64 as the stainless variant of the venerated Model 10 Military & Police revolver, which had essentially introduced the .38 Special cartridge and revolutionized police sidearms at the turn of the 20th century. Two years later, the Model 65 was developed as a nearly identical cousin that—like the Model 13—could fire both .38 Special and the similarly sized but more powerful .357 Magnum.
Like the Model 10, the Model 64 and Model 65 could be fitted with a “heavy barrel”, a configuration which caught on as a particular favorite of law enforcement, particularly the Model 64 revolver authorized for NYPD usage. Other than discerning whether the barrel is etched on the right side with “S&W .38 Special” (Model 64) or “S&W .357 Magnum” (Model 65), it’s extremely difficult to tell the two firearms apart, though I imagine some experts could tell based on the length of the cylinder.
After Nixon checks the load, he balances it on the desk in front of him, where it remains for a significant portion of Secret Honor until he senses something in the house. Revolver in hand, Nixon scans his security camera feeds before holding it—hammer dangerously cocked—on the microphone attached to his tape recorder as he rants about liberals and the press.
How to Get the Look
Although smoking jackets had largely fallen out of vogue by the ’70s and ’80s, Secret Honor depicts the disgraced Richard Nixon as someone hoping to portray himself as a dignified statesman, the sort of gentleman who would retire to his wood-paneled study in a velvet smoking jacket with a snifter of brandy and letters to write… or a quickly dwindling bottle of Scotch and a tape recorder on the receiving end of his barked rants.
- Burgundy velvet shawl-collar smoking jacket with set-in breast pocket, slanted set-in hip pockets, gauntlet cuffs, and sash belt
- Icy-white tonal-striped shirt with semi-spread collar, front placket, breast pocket, and double/French cuffs
- Flat gold-finished silver recessed-edge cuff links
- Lilac and brown zig-zagged print tie
- Dark taupe-brown pinstripe wool flat-front suit trousers with belt loops, side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark brown wide leather belt
- Black leather cap-toe derby shoes
- Black silk dress socks
- Tortoise narrow rectangular-framed reading glasses
- Stainless steel wristwatch with round silver dial on dark brown leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. With due respect to F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus, it does feel beyond all logic that Philip Baker Hall wasn’t nominated for an Oscar—or any significant awards—for what I consider one of the most impressive screen acting performances.
The word “pardon” has two definitions, first: there is the legal aspect, which is to excuse a convicted man from punishment, then there is the general definition of the word “pardon”… which is to forgive. Forgive! I’ll forgive them before they ever forgive me. Bastards! Fuck ’em. Son-of-a-bitches.