Duke law students give musical nod to Nixon

His name is not on any campus buildings. His only portrait is stored in a locked closet. And after his scandal-driven downfall, Richard M. Nixon was so stigmatized here at Duke University — where he earned a law degree — that the faculty rejected a proposal to house his presidential library.

But last week, the Duke community took a small, uncharacteristic step toward embracing its most infamous graduate — by performing a play about him. "Tricky Dick," a musical written by Duke Law School students and starring a 50-person ensemble of professors, administrators and students, was performed Friday at a sold-out arts center in downtown Durham.

And now organizers want to make the zany, cabaret-style show an annual tradition.

"In the past, you couldn't touch Nixon with a 10-foot pole at Duke," said Slavik Gabinsky, a recent Duke law graduate who helped create the play. "But this is as much about poking fun at Nixon as celebrating him."

The play — in which Mr. Nixon is imagined as a young, ethically challenged Duke law student running for student body president — was first performed last year, but with a smaller cast, different script and little acknowledgment from the Duke administration. After rave reviews from attendees, the organizers won a campus award for best student group.

This year, the play received a $5,000 donation from the Allen & Overy law firm, where Mr. Gabinsky works. And the cast now includes a prominent legal ethics professor and a law school dean.

Duke students these days seem less embarrassed by the disgraced former president than amused by him. While historians and Nixon contemporaries may debate the lingering toll of the Watergate scandal, current Duke students seem simply proud to have had an alumnus elected president — even one who was forced to resign.

"Being born after Nixon's presidency, we don't have any hard feelings toward him," said Justin Becker, the president of the Duke Law School student body.

"Maybe, secretly, we're all proud he went here," said Mr. Becker, who directed the play and stars as Nixon.

That was not always the case. On political, ethical and general grounds, Duke refused to grant Mr. Nixon an honorary degree for speaking at graduation in 1954, though most speakers get one. Then in 1981, faculty members vocally opposed a proposal to house his presidential library and papers, fearing it would tarnish the school's reputation. And for years, Duke has not displayed its only painting of Nixon, out of concern it would be vandalized or stolen.

But on Friday, in anticipation of the play, Duke officials moved the painting into the law library, where students posed with it and flashed Nixon's trademark V sign. The law school is even considering creating a permanent display about Nixon to accompany the portrait, with a plaque emphasizing the successes of his career, like opening relations with China.

"He looks good," said Mr. Gabinsky, staring at the painting. "They should let him out more often."

(Published by NY Times - April 3, 2011)

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