Monday, December 20, 2010

sympathy for the devil

When I was just a kid the United States went through its biggest political scandal, Watergate. As Sam Rockwell's James Reston, Jr. reminds the audience at the end of the film Frost/Nixon, the -gate suffix has been added to every scandal since.

My dad, who at the time was the political reporter/Trenton correspondent for the south Jersey newspaper The Daily Observer, was glued to the television throughout the Watergate Hearings, taking copious notes. It was summertime, when my brother and I and even my mom would spend most of our waking hours running around outside, but I remember each of us coming in periodically to check on him, to see if anything had "happened" on T.V. His obsession, the country's obsession, became the whole family's.


As I watched Frost/Nixon the other night I was amazed by Frank Langella's performance. The play and the players are so great that it is hard to judge it critically as a film. I'm usually not a huge fan of Ron Howard's work, but I was riveted. Rockwell seemed at first a bit too cardboard in his one-note outrage. A lot of his early dialogue was expository. But someone had to be the one to provide context, to express the anger and despair at the time of the tarnishing of the Oval Office. We take politics and dirty tricks to be such par for the course these days that it's hard to imagine what it must have felt like at the time to be shocked that a presidential campaign would resort to payoffs and crooked measures to secure an election.

But in the 1970s everyone was shocked. Or, if not completely surprised, at least extremely upset at the illegal lengths an incumbent president might go to win the Presidency. While my dad took notes from the television, my mom, an artist, sketched the trial participants. Her doodles became political cartoons. My dad, although absorbed in the hearings, was not completely oblivious to what was happening around him. When he saw my mother's cartoons he showed them to his boss at the Observer, which led to her doing a few cartoons for the paper, and also doing a caricature portrait of my dad, which would run from that point on with his column.

I didn't understand everything that was going on at the time. I didn't even realize at first that Watergate was a place. But the message was clear. The President of the United States was involved in a crime. With burglars. It was like some distortion of the villains found in the cartoons my brother and I would watch on Saturday mornings. Also clear was that Nixon probably wouldn't be the President much longer. That was really hard for a kid to understand, to accept. Although I expect the grown-ups were having trouble with it, too. Neither my mom nor my dad were Republicans, but they had voted for Nixon in 1972. Maybe the fact that they had crossed party lines made the betrayal a bit more intense for them.

In Frost/Nixon Frank Langella was beyond convincing as Nixon. If I looked away from the screen or closed my eyes, I heard the former president's voice. It was uncanny, and brought me right back to our living room—with a big box-shaped television, gold pile wall-to-wall carpet, and all the windows and doors open on a hot August day while a single oscillating fan tried and failed to cool the room. Langella also lived through that time, which may have aided his effortlessly capturing Nixon and the era. The timbre of his voice was even a bit like my dad's. Did men enunciate more clearly in the seventies and have gravely, baritone voices? Maybe it was all the cigarettes. Most of all, Langella made me feel sympathetic for a man that was a distant figurehead, an unreal wax figure, and made him real. I can't condone what Nixon did, but I can pity Langella's portrayal of Nixon's desperation that led him to make his fatal choices. I don't feel that way for people like Rumsfeld or Cheney. Somehow the crimes of the "father" seem much less today than those of his disciples.

What happened in the Watergate on June 17, 1972 changed the country. Would such a crime have even been noticed today, with all of the other competing worldwide scandals? Would the public have cared as much? Everywhere you look on the internet you see coverage of Wikileaks, which is sort of today's anti-Watergate. But is anyone really reading all the stories? Or about the scandals attached to Julian Assange? The world has changed so much since 1972.

One of my all-time favorite movies is All the President's Men. It's impossible not to get caught up in its dramatic force and its mystery, sometimes forgetting that what you are watching unfold is based on real events. It is a great film—a history, a thriller, an in-depth depiction of the hard work that went into tracking down a newspaper story. In this case, the biggest scoop of all time. Possibly the last one. Watching Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein is nostalgic and a little bit tragic. The two reporters are relentless and rigorous in their pursuit of the facts. They understand the impossibility of what they are up against, a powerful administration that is willing to go far—but they aren't sure how far—to preserve its power base. There may still be journalists who put the facts above everything else, who risk their lives to get a story, but the state of journalism and print is ... well there really is not much of a state. Print is practically dead, and fact-checking, hell, spell-checking seems to be a thing of the past. My father would be appalled at what passes for political journalism today. I would never want to go backwards, but it is a simple fact that if there was another Watergate tomorrow, there is simply not another Woodward and Bernstein around to track it down, much less a Redford and Hoffman to play them in the movie.

All the President's Men has the outrage, the moral indignation of Rockwell's introductory rant in Frost/Nixon. The president is just a shadow figure in the 70s conspiracy drama. We are only shown him briefly, in television news bits. Howard's film and the years have mellowed how I think about Richard Nixon. It's hard to picture him as Tricky Dick, after seeing him envy David Frost for his ease of talking to people at parties. Langella shows us Nixon's fragile side. He makes me have sympathy for the devil.
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