Live-Blogging Mad Men: The Nixon Men

According to the previews, tonight’s episode brings the Nixon account to the fore at Sterling Cooper – the account being the 1960 presidential campaign of Richard Milhous Nixon, the bright young Vice-President from California. Widely viewed as the first mass media election in U.S. history, the Kennedy-Nixon race was fought on television and on a national scale, filled with advertising and slogans and images.

Nixon’s crew had some Mad Men in it, most notably the driven advance man H.R. Haldeman, a World War II vet and Californian who worked for J. Walter Thompson for 20 years. He failed Dick Nixon in 1960 but was widely credited for pushing Nixon over the top eight years later – and he later did 18 months in Federal prison for his role in Watergate.

A model for our man Don Draper? Perhaps, but Haldeman had moregoing for him than the dour and strange Draper. He had ambition, he had plans, he had moxie – even if he was a famed Republican felon in the end. The stiffs in Mad Men have none of it. They’re old men before their time, slumping through their days on booze and pathetic jokes.

That’s what’s so wrong about the period piece perfection of Mad Men – the sets look okay, the clothes are great, but the vibe is way off. This was a go-go time of fear and ambition, technicolor brilliance and the space race. Instead, we have a rotting Weimer-like New York of sad, failed ambition (except for predator Pete) and defeated dreams – at exactly the moment when the American consumer movement and its fuel of high-test advertising was taking off for outer space. It’s just off.

Still, we watch and comment. I’m curious as to the Nixon plotline (though that may be overstating it) – perhaps we’ll get to see some actual work, some creative juice.

Back in a few, kids! [Meanwhile, thanks to the American Museum of the Moving Image, here are some Nixon ads from 1960.]

Oh, did I neglect to mention in the lead-in – this episode is also about sex and sexual roles. It just didn’t seem as interesting the “darkness of Nixonian America” theme. Judging by the first six episodes, the passion on Madison Avenue in 1960 was only modestly warm and clearly conventional.

Smoking as a weakness, oh, the irony. Still, Morse has the delivery goods to get away with it.

A pre-Bloomberg bar. I remember those.

This doesn’t ring true, folks – again with the poor suburban research. Sterling’s going to drive Draper to Ossining? Does he live nearby? After the bar? Nah, it doesn’t happen – unless, like Tate and Stevens, they live in the same nabe. Highly unlikely in the vast New York suburban jungle.

War stories – no fear in WWII, tons in Korea. You boys had all the glory.

Oh crap, Roger’s another predator – a monster. A sloppy move in the kitchen. And sloppy writing, notes Claire in comments – just imagine the worst of each character, and there it is.

From the official AMC blog (way more real fans over there) a theory about Draper’s “true identity”:

Dick Whitman aka Don Draper has clearly taken the identity of a deceased war-time acquaintance / buddy. The purple heart embossed with Don Drapers name is kept in the bottom drawer of his desk. He pulls it out to reinforce his identity. One of the most interesting things about when Adam showed up was the look on Don’s face. It’s as though he has so completely lost himself in his assumed identity, that it IS his reality. And the reminder of his real past took a minute to sink in. . . he almost looked confused. Dick Whitman died and Don Draper lives on. Don is separate from society by the secret he keeps. He is exiled from his real past. . . even if it is self-exile.

Jim Wolcott says it’s more simple than that – he’s Jewish.

Ah, politics. LBJ. Kennedy, Tricky Dick. “It’s going to be Nixon,” says Morse. Communism, taxes, health care – ah, the brilliance. In the end, Nixon’s ad agency had him standing at a studio desk and talking about his experience – see the clips linked above.

Nice fantasy life, Pete has. Like from one of those specialty mags that came out a few year, ahem, later. And this made Peggy, ah, hungry? Oh brother. Freshman year creative writing.

“That John Kennedy, I hate him!” Yeah, it’s all of a piece, honey. Divorce, wacked out kids, bird-dogging psychiatrists, cropping your blonde hair as a strange sexual totem for children, wine in the afternoon and that damned John Kennedy. What’s the world coming to. (And if you “love to be looked at that way,” well JFK was your man, eh?)

Whew, payback’s a bitch.

48 Replies to “Live-Blogging Mad Men: The Nixon Men

  1. Dan – thanks – they’re hilarious. Fave part:

    Roger: What up? Do we have a lunch date? God, I hope not, since I have some other plans that you totally don’t know about.

    Roger’s wife: I’m taking Margaret to get her hair cut.

    Roger: Oh, I like your ponytail, Squirt. It makes you look young.

    Margaret: I like your hair, Daddy. It makes you look old.

    Roger: Bitch.

  2. Once again, the Morse scene has more fun in it than the whole damn series. And an engaging little history lesson.

  3. The sorrows of gin, er, vodka?
    Uh-oh, there is way too much Cheever in this show; too much of the wrong kind of hindsight; too many researchers reading too many old New Yorker stories in order to figure out if human beings had internal lives in 1960. Meanwhile, Jon Robin Baitz on Huffington Post looks over from his perch on network TV (Brothers and Sisters) and sees, in this enervated, over-dressed pastiche, the show he really wished he’d “created.” He preposterously Frankensteins together Mailer and Cheever with a slash the way an enthralled writing major, little-learned and wistful for the lit’ry temps perdu of his adolescence, might do, as if those two had anything to do with one another (well, besides the fact that Cheever was into trade and Mailer was trade). Someday, they will teach in English classes that Cheever was not writing about the inner “rot” of the suburbs or of the gangrenous moral necrosis of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, but of the terrifying loss of the soul that one man was experiencing because he was a homosexual in a world where homosexuals did not exist. Cheever’s work, especially in retrospect, is not the appropriate template for a show about sexist admen and their particular, stylishly mordant worldview.

  4. The Grasshopper joke, as sexual put-down, was actually a pretty good one. Grasshoppers were old lady drinks. My grandmother, on the semi-annual occasion she would have a cocktail in a restaurant, always ordered a Grasshopper.

  5. “He doesn’t even wear a hat.” One of the most interesting sartorial changes of the last century. Imagine if Kennedy had worn a hat–you guys might all still be sportin’.

  6. This show is sure taking its time getting to where it wants to go, assuming it’s actually going somewhere. Don Draper seems to recede deeper into the woodwork with each episode.

  7. Maybe this is really a show about Peter, who is starting to get more interesting. Or about Draper’s secretary, whom I actually find the most interesting character of them all.

  8. Tristan:

    You are right on about the deadly Cheeverism of the show. I just happened to be reading a bunch of his stories when I watched the first few episodes and I made the same remark to my wife. The same fatigue with the morose self-pity willfully mistaken for worldly enlightenment that set in after 9 or 10 stories is reaching full flower for me as this show slips from appointment TV status to a kind of running joke. The writing is amateurish and cloth-eared. The focus-grouped retro-references are particularly annoying. How long did they study the complete deck of Trivial Pursuit Boomer edition to be able to name check Lenny Bruce, Marshall McLuhan, and Nixon’s Caracas fiasco?

  9. If you watch MM with the closed captioning turned on, it’s as if you’re watching two different shows at once. Here are the highlights (lowlights) of this week’s gaffes.

    heard / typed

    (identifying the psychiatrist on the telephone) / physiatrist
    jealousies, activities / jealousy’s, activity’s (lots of apostrophe-s’ing last night)
    Montclair / Mount Claire
    Last one to Chumley’s / Last one to Chung Lee’s

    Holloway, Rumsen, Lyndon Johnson / Halloway, Rumsin, Lynden Johnson
    Betty Draper’s nickname sounds like Birdie, though the captioner is torn, once using Berty and later Burty

    What’d I say? / What I say?
    Polka Dots looks like a lot of fun / Hope it does — it looks like a lot of fun
    simple, to the point, colloquial / simple, to the point
    no chute, no body / no shoot, no body
    Nights Inn off the Taconic / Knights Inn off the Deconic
    bridesmaid’s bridesmaid / bridesmaid bridesmaid
    The nomination, as expected, is a lock / The nomination is expected as a lock
    fan of the mollusk / fan of the mulusk
    the stench of Brylcreem / the stench of Brill Cream
    those long walks / those long locks
    In what way? / The only way
    eighth floor landing / eight floor landing

    And over the end credits, Rosemary Clooney’s memory is tarnished:
    Botch-a-me, I’ll botch-a-you / Bache me and bache you

    That’s well less than half of this week’s crop.

  10. I’m perfectly willing to be wrong, but I think Joan’s officially the smartest person at Sterling Cooper. She thinks strategically, always a pause before responding to anything, from the path she’s never wanted to take (female copywriter) to the path she’s glad to simulate being on, for future advancement (a contented mistress of the boss). I think she’s there at SC just for the education.

    She’s not marrying anyone, she’s fairly honest about her task of seducing the entire staff, male and female, to get what she wants, and as far as we know, she’s never shown one jot of weakness there — except when it comes to her roommate since college, Carol. Just like Lily Powers in BABY FACE, Joan refuses to ditch her wing-woman, even though she could get a mighty nice apartment out of the deal. Why?

    I’ll say the wrong thing, to get it out of the way: Carol and Joan are straight-acting bisexuals, determined not to give up their ambition for that din-lit, twilight butch/femme bar scene that was still criminal, in the 60s. Joan doesn’t mind trading her body for security, and she’s sure she can outwit or distract any man in the civilized haunts she frequents. Marriage is not on her mind: Gaining enough experience and contacts to one day move to a ad firm that accepts women as account execs, is.

    The best way a woman could step up in that world of networks is to work the rooms to death — to know every media buyer, every client, every designer, until she’s ready to use that mental Rolodex to her benefit. Joan’s in the perfect place to become a ground-breaking feminist, as most alpha females were. They could play both sides at once — mouthing cliches of female solidarity to keep the broads off her back, saying the soothing things in private meetings, to the guys, to keep them entranced.

    MAD MEN mentioned Joan Crawford for a reason, folks: We’re seeing the equivalent of the Crawford of MY DANCING DAUGHTERS, getting ready to step up her game. And, who is to begrudge our Joan a plain, but presentable, female friend, always there for restorative vacations, the quiet dinner at home, the bracing doubles game at the club? Sooner or later, if this show lasts more than two seasons, we’ll see Joan have her own office with its own tasteful bar, I tell you what.

  11. cgeye,
    You’ve just outlined a beautiful 2-season story arc. You and Kristin Ament should be the head writers on this show. I’ll tell Matt Weiner next time I run into him at the Drones Club.

  12. Type your comment here.
    So glad to discover that there are others out there who are obsessed by Mad Men. This show is hypnotically, mesmerizingly awful. You don’t watch it so much as you rubberneck. Its characters are eerily childlike and lifeless. Its depiction of the world of advertising is clueless. Actually, it has no interest at all in advertising at all. The setting is just a throwaway. No one is good at their work or enjoys their work. Its grasp of the domestic world of suburbia in 1960 is hopelessly off target and false. No one behaves like real people or even talks like real people The obsession with smoking and drinking is especially comical. Absolutely nothing happens every week. I was sooo desperate to pull the trigger on his .22 and actually shoot someone in the office. But no. And yet I keep watching. Why? I think because whether the producers know it or not — and I honestly don’t think they do — Mad Men isn’t a show about 1960 at all. It’s a show about America in 2007. The characters are smug and self-satisfied yet consumed by self-loathing, loss of identity and anxiety. Fear, bigotry and sexism bubble just under the surface. That’s not 1960. That’s today. And it’s that glimpse into who we are now that keeps bringing me back.

  13. “Mad Men” should have been titled “UnHappy Days,” because it’s the middlebrow 2007 equivalent of Garry Marshal’s 1970’s hit, which invented a phony 50’s to comfort a Carter-era America. If nostalgia is a massive, comforting blind spot in the historical gaze, this is a kind of inverted nostalgia, where the cartoon vision of the ‘bad old days’ comforts us, numbs us, renders, reconciles us to the inevitability of the ‘bad now days.’

    What pleasures “Mad Men” affords are not all that different from those we enjoyed watching Fonzie operate like a real man in a world before feminism, or even Hawkeye and Trapper John cutting up in a fantasyland Korean war playground before the Alan Aldanization of the American male.

    As I watch “Mad Men” fall on its face week after week, completely missing the zeitgeist, tone, attitudes, speech patterns, and body language of 1960 New York, I’m reminded of late “Happy Days” and M*A*S*H, when the barest pretense of accurately representing the earlier era were cast aside and Anson Williams and Loretta Swit sported mid-70’s blow-dried, feathered hairstyles. Don’s wife, especially, is as 2007 as any young female can possibly get without sporting a tribal tattoo and engaging in drunken lite lesbianism for YouTube. She’s not believable for one second as a young 1960 wife.

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