Terrible presidents, tattooed on the backs of two generations

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Max Burbank’s grandfather, Irving Fagan, in his office at The
Philadelphia Record. Photo courtesy the Burbank family.

BY MAX BURBANK | Several years ago my bride, a woman of excellent judgment, exercised her marital veto and forbade me to get a tattoo of Richard Nixon. While I recognized and accepted her authority in the matter (all marriages have bargains), I fear she thought I was being impulsive. I was not. I’m not a Nixon fan, and I wouldn’t permanently mark myself to be ironic any more than I’d vape. “Ink” is forever and should be of the utmost personal significance. Anything less becomes a permanent label advertising crassness in 12-point Gothic Bold.

Who, though, is the most omnipresent figure of the time I was born into? Whose rise and fall gouged his signature into American history, vile tendrils scrabbling forward into the future long after death, growing thinner, grayer, harder to discern, but never, ever vanishing? Who, in short, is the most tattoo-worthy? Muhammad Ali? Elvis? Hah.

Richard. Milhous. Nixon.

I have no personal memory whatever of Lyndon B. Johnson, but remember walking across the schoolyard with the other boys, arms over shoulders, a Red Rover-style phalanx, chanting, “Humphrey is the one! Nixon is a bum!” I remember what seemed at the time like a landslide loss. Richard Nixon is the first president of my mental landscape.

I was 10. My parents hosted anti-war slide shows, real hippies crashed in our barn all summer, and George McGovern was my hero. The Senator from South Dakota, soft-spoken, rangy, a World War II Air Force veteran awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, now a soldier for peace. Forever confused and tangled in my memory with Jimmy Stewart, he was the sun that dwarfed, yet cast, Nixon’s twisted shadow. Though they campaigned for McGovern, my folks told me he didn’t stand a damn chance.

I never believed them. He was the good guy. Black hats lose, and Nixon was a very black hat. Then I found out what a landslide really was. My parents slapped a “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” sticker on the bumper of our Jeep, a perfect bookend for the brass Buddha my dad bolted to the hood the previous year. (Did I mention I’m from a family of freaks?) In 21 months, Nixon would resign in disgrace — but it’s not like I knew that. I cried a lot.

The summer of 1973, I was 11. My grandfather was working on dying in an upstairs bedroom. I think he’d have checked out a good deal sooner, but having spent his whole adult life as a reporter for the Philadelphia Record and the International Labor Press Association, he sure as hell wasn’t going to miss the Watergate hearings. The Grim Reaper could cool his boney heels in the hallway.

After sundown he’d get weird, scanning blankets held between his hands like Sunday papers, often entertaining the delusion he was a passenger on a riverboat full of gamblers, prostitutes, and thieves — but as long as the hearings were on, he was lucid as hell. He hardly spoke anymore, his skin was stretched across his bones like the doped paper on a model airplane, but his glittery eyeballs tracked every movement on the screen like a couple of sentient marbles. He hung in for a while after the final gavel, but never came downstairs again. I hope the Angel of Death came to him as Representative Barbara Jordan (D-TX), that rich butterscotch voice letting the old reporter know his story was told, walking with him down the gangplank of that seedy riverboat onto a peaceful shore.

Irving Fagan, directly to the left of President Harry Truman, posing with a bunch of old white guys in suits for God knows what all, probably some lefty labor thing. Photo courtesy the Burbank family.

So the Founding Fathers built well, right? The system worked, the black hat got his comeuppance, albeit with a pardon. The memory of a shadow is a potent thing, though. We’re Nixon’s kids, and this is his world. The emotion that typifies us most is anxiety. We’ve spent our lives climbing up and away from the time the President of the United Sates was such a bad guy he had to resign. We can never totally relax. You know in a slasher flick, how the monster is laying there dead at the end? He’s getting up again before the credits. And there’s always a sequel.

Nixon’s Southern strategy sucked the demagogues and white supremacists from the Democrats with red meat and dog whistles. Appeasing new red voters made it ever harder to run as a moderate Republican. Nixon’s culture wars and targeting of “elites” was successful enough to never go out of fashion. Republican intellectuals turned a blind eye at best, cynically exploiting racial tension and religious tribalism, eventually birthing the Tea Party. Nixon’s signature scorn for Washington “eggheads” blossomed into the denigration of education and science, until the Republican Party became a perfect tainted Petri dish, ideal for spawning a monstrosity like Trump.

My kids saw marriage equality become the law of the land. They watched an African-American person become president. It felt like we’d left Nixon in the past, but he was right there with us the whole time, just beneath the surface. You can’t bury a real monster deep enough. And in a sequel, the monster is stronger. Shoot this one in the head with proof of high crimes and misdemeanors, he’ll look at the smoking gun, yell “FAKE NEWS,” and keep on coming.

Bright side? I think it’s only a matter of time before Trump self-destructs. Should he avoid impeachment, he’s still seventy-one years of bloated, old crazy-guy with a less-than-healthy lifestyle. He’s not designed for the long haul.

But there are kids out there for whom Trump will be the first president they remember. When he blows up, it won’t be a shadow they live under, it will be a pureed spray of rotting carcass they’ll be cleaning up their entire lives. They’ll never stop worrying Trump wasn’t a mere sequel, forever doomed to think he was the second installment of an endless franchise.

It’s just as well my bride wouldn’t let me get that tattoo. You know who has an ink Nixon on their back? Roger Stone. Stone cut his nasty, pointed teeth working in the Nixon administration. He founded a political firm with Paul Manafort. He ran public relations for Bush during the Florida recount. He was an advisor on Trump’s campaign. Roger Stone is the fetid, vile tendril directly connecting Nixon to Trump. Anything that weaselly bag of crap has on its skin? I want nowhere near mine.