Friday, April 25, 2014

Nixon in Star Wars

I have been reading J.W. Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars Return of the Jedi and came across a great quote about George Lucas' early conception of politics in Star Wars. In one the July 13-17, 1981, story conference with Richard Marquand, Lawrence Kasdan, and Howard Kazanjian, Lucas explained about Emperor Palpatine:
... he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy. He sucked Luke’s father into the dark side.
It is well known that Lucas based parts of the Original Trilogy on political events in the 1970s, with the concept of primitive natives defeating a technologically superior army taken directly from the Vietnam War (as discussed here). Nevertheless, I was taken with how directly Lucas equated Palpatine with Nixon. To what extent does Palpatine really reflect Nixon?

I have recently been reading Rick Perlstein's magisterial history of America's conservative movement. His latest two books, Nixonland and Invisible Bridge, cover Nixon's presidency and the Watergate scandal. Many people believe that Watergate was about Nixon's "cover-up" of the break-in at the Democratic Party's offices in the Watergate Hotel. However, as Perlstein explains, the Senate and House of Representatives committees investigating the scandal focused on the possibility that Nixon managed and supported a criminal conspiracy to undermine the Constitution. How so?

The committees were concerned that Nixon authorized and ordered illegal activities, especially in the run-up to his 1972 reelection campaign. In response to Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon told aides to break into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in order to find embarrassing material. His attorney-general, John Mitchell, was involved in a scheme to solicit contributions from the dairy industry in return to fix the price of dairy products. His campaign interfered in the 1972 Democratic primary, undermining potentially stronger candidates with "dirty tricks." During the investigation, Nixon was criticized for invoking "executive privilege" to justify his refusal to turn over documents. Congress also criticized Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam War, particularly his decision to bomb Cambodia without congressional approval.

Of course, the "cover-up" was disturbing, not because Nixon covered up the illegal activities of his aides but rather because he illegally misappropriated government power in order to do so. During the summer of 1972, soon after the Watergate break-in, Nixon asked aides to see if the CIA could pressure the FBI to stop investigating the break-in. Soon after that, on August 8, Nixon announced that he would resign the next day, in order to avoid formal impeachment charges.

After his resignation, Nixon's disregard for the law became even clearer. Insider accounts reported that Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, worried that Nixon would seek to remain in power through unconstitutional means, instructed the armed forces to disregard any orders from the president not channeled through the Secretary's office. Years later, when British journalist David Frost interviewed Nixon, the former president famously remarked, "When the President does it, that means it is not illegal."

Lucas clearly focused on the image of Nixon as a man obsessed with power who willfully flouted the law. However, some key differences stand out. Obviously, Nixon did not - and did not seek to - become dictator. He broke the law in order to gain an advantage in the 1972 election, but there is no evidence that he sought to remain in office after the end of his second term in 1976. Perhaps more importantly, Nixon's actions arose out of his personal insecurities. He knew he would never receive the popular adoration of a Kennedy and worried about his reelection prospects (it turns out he need not have worried as he won over 60% of the vote). Palpatine, by contrast, never exhibits any insecurity during the Prequel Trilogy. As Luke observes, one of Palpatine's defining characteristics is his overconfidence.

Unlike in the Nixon administration, in Star Wars we see relatively little of Palpatine's aides. Nixon relied heavily on his aides and his reelection campaign apparatus. Frequently, aides did not brief him about illegal activities so the president could preserve "plausible deniability." By contrast, in the Prequel Trilogy, one gets the impression that Palpatine acts largely alone. He is a Sith Lord and keeps that secret from most of the government. We see Palpatine confer with Mas Amedda, as well as various couriers in Return of the Jedi, but they play no role in the story. Palpatine is the puppet master and seems to arrange for most of his plotting on his own. Interestingly, the Expanded Universe does seem to fill this gap by introducing a coterie of aides, such as Sate Pestage, who do much of Palpatine's dirty work.

In the end, despite Lucas' quote, Palpatine is much more than a Richard Nixon clone. Palpatine also contains elements of Hitler and Augustus Caesar in his scheming to overthrow an elected government. Palpatine's name also evokes ancient Rome, particularly the Palatine Hills. Moreover, Palpatine in his Sith incarnation has elements of Satan, especially in Revenge of the Sith, where he plays the role of tempter to Anakin Skywalker. Lucas' equation of Palpatne with Nixon was partly a sign of the times and his formative experiences as a young man during the 1970s. Nevertheless, it provides a fascinating into Lucas' original conception of politics in Star Wars, especially as it suggests that he initially saw the Republic as similar to American democracy. Star Wars is not an explicit political allegory or treatise, but it clearly contains echoes of American history.


  1. Perhaps I'm parroting a party line when I say that the original trilogy and the prequels aren't related. The original trilogy is an expression of the hero's journey, while the prequels are an allegory for Bush Jr. and how he was as ignoarnt as a child when Dick Cheney molded him into a tool of hate. Twisted, and evil.