“White House Madness”: Mark L. Lester’s offensive mid-70s satire parodied President Nixon’s paranoia

By on April 4, 2017

Steve Friedman stars as President Richard M. Nixon in White House Madness, a post-Watergate political satire produced and directed by Mark L. Lester, now available to watch on our Night Flight Plus channel.

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Lester — who after this film directed two of Night Flight’s favorites, Class of 1984 and Roller Boogie (which was the last film released in the 1970s) — had already made one Nixon-era comedy, an X-rated soft core spoof from 1972 called Tricia’s Wedding, about Nixon’s daughter’s wedding, starring the notorious San Francisco drag troupe The Cockettes.

Here, in a kind of zany nearly hour-long sequel to that film, he portrays the darker, more paranoid side of Nixon in this mid-70s stoner take on what was really happening behind the doors of the White House.

The often-erratic screenplay was aimed at the same audience that appreciated the zany Kentucky Fried Movie, another Night Flight fave. (In fact, AV Club called it “the Kentucky Fried Movie of alt-history Nixon comedies.”

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Plotwise, we’re looking at what may have taken place during Tricky Dick’s feverish last days in office, in a kind of alternate reality that depicts him going mad (that’s where the title comes from).

We’re presented with the idea that Nixon actually had the secret White House tapes hidden inside the stuffed cadaver of his dog Checkers, who he continues to talk with, post mortem, and even asks repeatedly whether Checkers can confirm that the American people are loyal to his presidency.

When the poor dead dog’s taken away from Nixon, he freaks out, demanding that it be brought back to the White House, all of which leads to series of mishaps and shenanigans which threaten not only his mental stability but the safety and security of the country.

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Nixon becomes super-paranoid (again, stoners loved this kind of on-screen depiction of paranoia in the 70s), and when he suspends the Constitution and forces his followers to offer up a Nazi salute while they shout “Heil Nixon!,” all hell breaks loose in Washington D.C., especially after Nixon declares martial law and arbitrarily changes the year from 1975 to 1984, a clearly Orwellian trope that causes some of his allies to turn against him.

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Meanwhile, the federal courts continue harassing him, all of which leads to a last-ditch desperate bid to rid himself of the demons inside him. Televangelist Billy Graham (another right-wing figure ripe for parody in the 70s) is brought into the White House to perform an exorcism (a parody of The Exorcist, of course, with Tricky Dick screaming out “Harry Truman sucks cocks in hell!“), but the procedure causes the president to have a psychedelic freak-out where he ends up standing naked (except for an American flag pin on his chest, of course), facing a tribunal who accuse him of crimes against the people of the United States.

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This was Friedman’s only major starring role and it’s likely that unless you know his name from his theatrical background you may not know that in 1974, when the film roles were being cast for White House Madness, he was one of the key people with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, where he had been a writer and performer since 1968.

Like Friedman, the supporting cast is pretty much unknown too (their performances all seem cannabis-enhanced), save for Al Lewis (who played Grandpa Munster on TV’s “The Munsters” before becoming a late-night TV party line parody of his most famous character, offering up kids the chance to join his exclusive clubs and become “junior vampires of America“).

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Here Lewis plays Judge Cirrhosis, a sleepy-eyed parody of Judge Sirica, the U.S. district judge who ordered that Nixon’s secretly-taped White House recordings about the Watergate break-in had to be made available to prosecutors, which ultimately ended up causing Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974.

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Incidentally, White House Madness (also released on VHS as The Way He Was) generated more controversy  some years later when it was discovered that one of the investors in the film was Texas Senator Phil Gramm, who had originally invested $7,500 to help make a soft-core X-rated porn comedy about beauty pageants persuading contest judges with sexual favors, called Beauty Queens, only to learn later that when that semi-sordid project fell apart, those funds were applied directly to making this naughty Nixon satire instead.

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When the truth was revealed in an article written by John B. Judis for The New Republic (“The Porn Broker?”), Gramm said that he’d given his former brother-in-law the money as a favor, and certainly would not have given any money if he knew it would be used to make a film that “ridicules the office of the presidency, religion, the legal system and the military.”

Gramm’s former brother-in-law, George Caton, revealed the source of the money partly out of spite since Gramm hadn’t stayed in touch with him after his divorce, severing family ties (Caton had been married the sister of Gramm’s wife, Wendy).

Caton claims Gramm (who he gave $3000 to avoid a family fall-out) was first “titillated with the idea of investing in his movies after seeing some of the bare-chested promotional materials for Caton’s R-rated Truck Stop Women.”

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“[White House Madness] deliberately offends conservative sexual mores,” Gramm complained when it was revealed what happened, “[and] shows marriage and parenthood to be hollow jokes and is filled with scenes of transvestitism and bestiality.”

Gramm would later face a Senate Ethics Committee when it was revealed that his colleague Bob Packwood had for years been trying to stick his tongue into the mouths of women who wandered unescorted into his office.

As a senator and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee from 1995 through 2000, Gramm played a leading role in writing and pushing through Congress the 1999 repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banks from Wall Street, and doing so became one of the key people involved in the devastating financial crisis that followed.

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He would also make his disastrous attempt to run for president in 1996 but dropped out of the race when he began to lose in the primaries early on.

Mark L. Lester would have had a field day making a movie about Gramm’s presidency, you betcha.

You can tune into White House Madness any time you like, it’s over on our Night Flight Plus channel.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.