Heard on the Hill

Actor Playing Nixon and Wallace Hears Echoes in Trump

Cameron Folmar plays two ‘tragic‘ politicians in Arena Stage’s ‘The Great Society’

Richard Nixon’s presidential foibles are dramatized in “The Great Society” at the Arena Stage. (Courtesy the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum)

Actor Cameron Folmar is having a tough time studying to play both Richard Nixon and George Wallace onstage in the age of Trump.

“I can come home sometimes feeling pretty yucky in a way that surprises me. It’s kind of surprising that it affects me that way,” Folmar said.

He is three weeks into rehearsal for the Feb. 2 opening of Arena Stage’s “The Great Society,” about Lyndon B. Johnson’s struggles with the presidency while fighting political opponents, and Nixon’s time in the White House. It is the sequel to “All the Way,” which covers Johnson’s presidency from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to his winning election to a full term. Folmar played Wallace in that production as well.

“[‘All the Way’] ended on a very hopeful note,” Folmar said. “Now things have changed a bit ... something about the surrounding circumstances of our own political climate … it’s a little darker.”

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In the first half, Folmar plays Wallace, the former Alabama Democratic governor who ran as an independent against Nixon. He plays Nixon while he is in the White House.

His homework includes watching documentaries and speeches from both.

“What if they were all in a room together? Would they enjoy each other or would they eat each other alive? These are fiercely competitive people.”

He can’t help but notice the similarities among the three.

“[Nixon] didn’t just beat or debate his political opponents, he destroyed them. He called them communists. He scarred some of them,” Folmar said. “Some of them didn’t do much else in politics after Nixon got through with him. Character assassination is what it was — in a similar way that Trump does all the time and Trump even does it to his allies.”

Nixon’s bullying politics led Folmar to another conclusion.

“I know he had inferiority problems, and I suspect that Trump does, too,” he said.

There are also similarities in the tough-guy personas the three cultivated.

“Authoritarian impulses were really around for those people,” Folmar said. “They were always telling us that we need to be afraid, and they would be the ones that help us.”

The play depicts Rep. John Lewis and other civil rights activists as they march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, while Wallace was governor.

“One of the things Wallace used to say in defense of the police riots that took place in Alabama was that the protesters were provoking the police, he would just turn it around and say [the police were] only human,” Folmar said.

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He added, “I think to see people in protests giving Nazi salutes and protesters being hauled off in full riot gear … like what happened in Charlottesville is terrifying. And now you have a president who says there’s good people at both sides.”

Which of the three men would Folmar like to talk to? He can’t decide.

“I feel like Nixon was defensive to the end, and I’m not going anywhere near Trump. I don’t think I can take it. He doesn’t hold the interest for me that either [Wallace or Nixon] hold for me, because in a sense they were both tragic,” Folmar said.

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