Let's deconstruct Nixon's "Resignation Lunch," shall we?

(Photo: Robert Knudsen/Nixon Library. All rights reserved.) (Photo: Robert Knudsen/Nixon Library. Public Domain.)

"I want to know exact details, hard information about everything!" J.G. Ballard told an interviewer, in the pre-Internet year of 1982.

Expressing his hope that "the computer and TV revolution will bring about...a scientific information channel where you can just press a button" and be deluged by the kind of obscure data that fed his imagination as a visionary novelist, Ballard rhapsodized, "I want to know everything about everything! I mean, I want to know the exact passenger list of that DC-10 that crashed outside Malaga two weeks ago, I want to know the latest automobile varnishes that are being used by the Pontiac division of General Motors, I want to know what Charles Manson has for breakfast—everything!" But, he lamented, "it's very difficult to get this information—access is the great problem."

Not anymore, of course, and it seems a fitting tribute to Ballard's interest in what he called "invisible literature" that lists of the Last Meals of Death-Row Inmates (if not daily updates on Manson's breakfasts) have become a clickbait staple. "The Sad, Stately Photo of Nixon's Resignation Lunch," posted by the NPR food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles, isn't exactly a snapshot of a last meal, but it's close kin to it, symbolically, though how much of that has to do with our historical awareness that this was a meal about to be eaten by a political pariah whose bags were packed for the purgatory of San Clemente ("This is the lunch that President Richard Nixon ate on August 8, 1974, just before going on national television to announce that he was resigning," writes Charles) and how much of it has to do with the dispiritingly geriatric, assisted-living-cafeteria aesthetics of the meal, who knows?

This is a lunch from a lost world, when grown men drank milk and fallout-shelter fare like a scoop of cottage cheese girdled by a pineapple ring (straight out of a can, no doubt) was still on lunch menus. The official White House emblem on the plate stirs unsettling memories of Hitler's dinner service, pilfered from Berchtesgaden by American G.I.'s. Did Nixon dine alone that day? (I imagine him eating alone in a pin-drop silence broken only by the clink of cutlery and the sound of swallowing, a Nixonian version of the aging astronaut eating his last supper in 2001.) Why the White House photographer, Robert Knudsen, captured this melancholy repast on film, we don't know, but in a better America the Resignation Lunch would, by an act of congress, be a fixture on the White House menu—a memento mori in cottage cheese and pineapple, designed to remind all who would be King of America that even presidential power must pass.

Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He has published widely on media, technology, gender, pop culture, “culture jamming” (a concept he popularized), and American mythologies. His latest is the essay collection, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. He is writing a biography of the artist and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey, due out from Little, Brown in 2018.

 

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