Why I'm not going to see "Frost/Nixon"

T.A. Barnhart

To use an old, tired cliché: Been there, done that.

I remember Watergate, Nixon's resignation, the pardon. Good times. I was just barely beginning to pay attention to the world, but I was aware of a number of things. And I was a Democrat. So not only was I aware of what was going on in Washington, DC, regarding Watergate, I understood the President had done wrong.

Being a Democrat: that was my mom's doing. She didn't actively recruit me — I don't recall that she ever volunteered with the party — but I do know she was a Democrat. During the 1972 campaign, she took me to the Billings, Montana, airport to see Democratic nominee George McGovern. We waited two hours in a stifling concourse with thousands of other excited supporters (and many who were just curious to see a "someone" — this was Billings, after all, and until Obama made his visits last year, not a place known for attracting big names). I got to shake the Senator's hand, get an autograph and a bit of teasing about the pen; in the midst of a campaign when he knew he was going to lose big, he was still able to be friendly to a young non-voter.

I don't even want to think what Nixon would have done to me.

It's now Common Wisdom that Dubya is the Worst President Ever. Hard to argue, given all he's done, but don't ever forget this: He was been aided and abetted at every step by Congressional Republicans happy to rubber-stamp the Rove-Cheney plan to eradicate Democrats and liberals, and by Congressional Democrats so terrified of being accused of being Democratic or liberal that they should have switched parties years before just to make their surrender official. Almost as bad, the mainstream media did done nothing — worse than nothing — to shed light on the dark pit that is the Bush White House. So when we say Bush is the worst president ever, let's not forget his worstestness was enabled by a coalition of the willing.

Nixon's horrendous record was, for the most part, a solo act. Strangely, for how terrible he ultimately proved to be, he was a good president in many regards. Nixon and the Congress accomplished important goals, such as passing and implementing the Clean Air, Clean Water and Environmental Policy Acts. When Nixon "opened up" China and Russia, he was able to overwhelm any opposition with his own proven touch-on-commies history. The press, as they were known then (newspapers were still viable concerns in those days, and both print and broadcast media hired many people known as "journalists" who did research and then reported the results), had not yet gone to war with Nixon, but they were his buddies in the way the 2000 media lapdogs sold their souls, not to mention their professionalism, for a nickname and friendly pat on the head.

But when it came to his efforts to eliminate the rule of law in his vain attempt to eradicate political enemies, Nixon worked without aid from Congress or the media, just a staff of like-minded criminals. Of course, he was also a paranoid, drunken nutjob (not that I like believing anything Henry Kissinger says, but we have other sources as well). He trusted no one, and certainly not the Congress or the press; his enemies list contained many from both groups. He did not need their capitulations to function on the dark side; he was far more intelligent and independent than Dubya. He was his own Cheney, his own Rove.

And he nearly destroyed the Constitution.

Bush has made a mockery of our laws and the Constitution on which they are based, but the good news is that Barack Obama will be able to undo much of that damage by simply holding fast to his oath of office. The Executive Orders Bush has used to undermine democratic governance will be replaced by new ones from Obama that re-establish and enforce the rule of law. It will take time, but at 12:00 Eastern time, January 20th, the United States will return to a constitutional form of government.

Which we almost lost under Nixon.

Nixon's White House tapes, which documented so clearly how extensive were the crimes of Nixon and his henchmen, were the fulcrum, the turning point of history. Had Nixon chosen not to obey the Supreme Court's ruling and turn the tapes over to Congress, the nation would have faced a constitutional crisis of a magnitude never before, or as yet, experienced. Would Congress have dared sent armed deputies to enforce the Court's orders? What if Nixon had had the Secret Service bar entrance to the White House? What if he had taken the tapes to basement and burned them?

What if Congress had been forced to place the President under arrest?

Of course Nixon, being intelligent as well as insane, knew his cause was lost. He was, without doubt, a patriot, albeit one of vicious and maniacal bent, but he did love his country enough to understand that he had to stand down and surrender — the tapes and his office. But as he made his decision to resign in the face of certain impeachment and conviction, Nixon also took this into consideration: Once out of office, he would be able to work on rewriting history.

Enter David Frost.

I have no idea how accurate Ron Howard's depiction of the events are. Given his past "docu-dramas," it's probably a mixed bag. But here is what I know as a citizen: Nixon played Frost like a cheap fiddle. Even a dumb kid from Billings, Montana, could tell who was the chump and who played the tune. This was before the Internets and interwebs, which is a dark and lost world beyond the ken of so many today. Back then, we relied on the papers and on Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Billings' own Chet Huntley. Those were our trusted sources of information, and, regarding Watergate, we actually were able to trust them. We were able to trust Congress as well, with Republicans and Democrats working together to find out "what the President knew, and when he knew it." It was, for those who loathed all that Nixon had done — above all, his dragging-out of the Vietnam War to use as an election prop in 1972, but also including the "Southern strategy" and so many other divisive acts of anti-American "leadership" — a heady time. The President, long suspected of being a criminal, was proven by his own records to have been the most vile person to ever occupy the White House.

So when, only a few years later, he sat down for a series of "conversations" with David Frost, few had hopes that the disgraced but apparently unabashed ex-President would actually come clean on his crimes. He had full liberty to do so, of course, having been pardoned by the cowardly Gerald Ford; but, as we know so well now from the many reminiscences from Nixon partners-in-crimes (including the war criminal Kissinger), there was no way Nixon would ever be open, honest or forth-right. The Frost interviews were not about setting the record straight: they were about rewriting the record entirely. They were Nixon's grand opportunity to airbrush history and begin the only task that would matter for his post-presidential life: leaving a legacy that did not make him the worst president ever.

How could he have imagined the way in which Bush so handily stole that title (moving Reagan into third place from his previous runner-up position)? Well, he probably did. No one has ever argued that Nixon wasn't an intelligent and perceptive man. His mistakes were not the result of being a dolt: he failed because his hubris and mental instability led him to behave in ways that countered what, as a healthy and rational man, he would have known would lead to his downfall. But as he schemed on how to rework his history, he had to know that the trail he blazed in constitutional abuse would be followed by others who would do even greater harm. All he had to do was rejigger the public's memory in his own lifetime just enough that, over the course of a few decades and a few more presidents, his own failures would dim.

He surely giggled himself to sleep many times during Carter's tough times. I have no doubt he celebrated the Iraq/Contragate hearings, seeing his crimes in Cambodia and elsewhere taken to the next level — and with impunity. By the time Ronald Reagan and his criminal cohort began using the Constitution for a floor mat, the press had been golly-geed into submission and the Congress had mistaken the enthusiasm of a small minority of voters for a mandate. (Given the 50% turnout in 1980 and the fact that possibly half the votes for Reagan were votes against Carter, the math gives us around 12-14% of the voters who actually wanted Reagan for positive reasons — not exactly a mandate, but you'd never know that by the way the press and Congress rolled over.) Nixon could see, in his own lifetime, the vindication of his post-presidential strategy.

I watched the original Frost/Nixon interviews, but, like millions of others (perhaps most of those who watched), I was under no illusion that Nixon would confess to his crimes. David Frost was a strange choice for these interviews, but he was the guy Nixon thought he could best job. (He was also the guy who gave Nixon a ton of money.) Ultimately, the initial fascination at watching the disgraced ex-president sit and talk about great matters of history faded into a dreariness as his refusal to do anything but work over history for his own benefit removed the substance from the interviews. I was certainly politically naive and uninformed back then — by the time of the interviews, I was in the Air Force and living in England — but even I could see that for every admission that he had let down his friends and family, there were a dozen self-serving rationalizations and excuses. In the end, the time spent watching the interviews simply took me back to where I began: Nixon was a dishonest man and the world was better with him gone from the White House.

So I have no desire whatsoever to sit through it all again. Had our country learned any real lessons from that period, I might have a bit of heart for the cinematic experience, but the sad truth is that once Nixon was pardoned — the final act of contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law — the fire went out of Congress' and the media's attempt to get to the bottom of the whole affair. The economic problems that began under Ford and worsened under Carter — malaise — not to mention the taking of the hostages in Iran simply wore down the nation's will to be vigilant and courageous on behalf of law and the Constitution. Ford's inexcusable pardon of Nixon not only undermined the effort by Congress to mete out some measure of justice but, in time, gave permission to Washington to return to business-as-usual, setting the stage for the crimes of Reagan and Bush. The take-over of Congress by neocons and the devolution of the media into corporate toadies were set in motion by the failure of Gerald Ford to let the constitutional process play out and the refusal of the press to remember why they achieved, for a short time, true greatness.

In sixteen days, a president will be sworn in who believes in the Constitution as it is written and the laws of the land as they are passed by Congress. I would love to see a "truth" commission or similar body installed, but I doubt the political support exists to allow Obama to pursue that; after all, the only matter of real concern to most Americans now, and, therefore, to most members of Congress, is the economy. Getting to the bottom of the crimes of the Bush Crime Syndicate is a hugely important task in order to ensure the future sanctity of the rule of law, but, as ever, money rules. The need to rebuild the economy, and the nation, will likely make any effort into the full scope of Bush's crimes simply not feasible.

People don't want the truth when their jobs, homes and prosperity are at stake. They just want the money. I can dig it. It's wrong and it's bad for the future of the nation, but I believe the majority of Americans simply want Bush to go away and Obama to make the future better. Rehash the past? Most people just don't want it.

I know there are many areas of the past of which I've had my fill. I will learn nothing of merit from "Frost/Nixon": it's Hollywood turning history into Oscar-worthy fiction. I know what I need to about those times, and I know the future means far more to me. If we're not going to spend a couple of years exposing the Bush crimes to the light of day (and some Bush cronies to the darkness of prison cells), then let's get on with the business of repairing our democracy. "Frost/Nixon" has nothing for me in that regard. For me, it's box office poison.

I'll tell you what you can sell me a ticket for, however: "Mr Obama Goes to Washington."

  • Anitra Kitts (unverified)

    I just watched Frost/Nixon last night. I had no idea how angry I was with Nixon till I saw the movie. The movie pretty much agrees with your btw.

    I too was on the young side when all this was going down - born in 1958.

    There are lines in the movie that are deliberately engaging in conversation with Bush and Iraq - and the fear that once again someone(s) are going to get away "with it."

    oth - Frost/Nixon does make it clear that Nixon did pay a certain price - of isolation, loneliness and exile from the game.

    Its worth going to see. Like I said, it helped me to understand just what happened to my own idealism.

  • (Show?)

    To me, any interest in seeing Frost/Nixon carries with it more of a lackluster than blockbuster pathos because the film's motif is hindsight. That theme (despite reviews that the performances are phenomenal) is hardly one toward which we avant-garde progressives are currently inclined.

    After reading several weeks' worth of critics' reporting on the film, it has all the trappings of a film intended to offer some filling-in of the backstory for interested historical buffs or rehashing the past for partisans that lived through the times.

    In either case there's one theme that could easily relate to the current events mow unfolding: Come the next couple of years, will W. grant an interview in which he too will show a momentary breakdown in retrospection of Nixonian proportions?

    Someone in Hollywood is likely betting so and keeping Oliver Stone on speed-dial just in case it happens.

    Well written, T.A.

  • nothstine (unverified)

    I find it sort of odd that this and Stone's "W" both came out in the trailing months of the Bush regime. I imagine the studios focus grouped both within an inch of their lives, calibrating the results against the zeitgeist and pinpointing the optimum release time more closely than a Mars launch.

    I'll eventually watch "Frost/Nixon," after it's spiraled its way down from theatrical release to DVD release to pay-per-view release to basic cable release--when it gets to TBS's "Dinner and a Movie," I'll probably watch.

    But "W"? I'm looking for ways to get less of him, not more.


  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    I always regretted wasting the time watching that interview when it was on. Was never a Frost fan. Never watched him again until last year, for about five minutes, when he interviewed Alex Ferguson. It was a mistake.

    It's interesting that so much has happened under the table that there's almost two versions of American history anymore, one that only uses what was on the boob toob and one that uses lot's of connect-the-dots material. Since this is clearly in the latter, I won't pollute the waters, except to mention that a simplistic take on the latter would be "Cheney and Rumsfeld were the executors of Watergate; Cheney and Rumsfeld were the executors of baby Bush's worst".

  • dwick (unverified)

    Mr Barnhart professes to pretty much know it all here... although I'm always reminded it's what we learn after we know it all that counts.

  • (Show?)

    dwick, i plead half-guilty. i was aware what certain things i was writing sounded like: that i could not perhaps learn something new. well, given that it's a Hollywood movie made by Ron Howard — and i've seen just about everything Ron has made, including the great Obama commercials he did with Andy Griffith and the Fonz, and i happen to enjoy most of his movies — i'm not too worried about skipping F/N as a learning experience.

    and as i said, it was bad enough living it in real time. doing a Tivo on Nixon? ugh. i'll keep learning in more relevant and dependable ways. like Stewart & Colbert.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Bush has made a mockery of our laws and the Constitution on which they are based, but the good news is that Barack Obama will be able to undo much of that damage by simply holding fast to his oath of office.

    Obama didn't do that great of a job holding fast to his oath to uphold the Constitution or his earlier pledge in opposition when he voted for the FISA bill and helped give the telecom companies retroactive immunity for spying on the American people.

    Try a Google for "obama fisa bill fourth 4th amendment constitution"

  • Frank (unverified)

    The crimes of the Bush/Cheney Administration made Nixon and the Nixon Administration look like a crew of annoying teenage taggers in comparison.

    -As bad as War in Vietnam was, the standing recognized government of South Vietnam wanted US military presence there in South Vietnam. The presence of the US military in South Vietnam was legal.

    The presence of US troops in Iraq was never legal from day one. Not once. Not ever. The moment US troops stepped on Iraqi soil, the Bush/Cheney Administration were war criminals. Lancet, one of the most respected peer-reviewed general medical journals in the world, estimated 650,000 deaths in Iraq caused by a pure act of aggression.

    -Nixon never ordered torture, and never made torture of prisoners standing operating procedure of US facilities holding South Asian prisoners.

    -Nixon turned over the Watergate Tapes to Congress. The Bush/Cheney White House destroyed every e-mail the Bush/Cheney Administration sent, and dared Congress to do anything about it.

    -Nixon never ordered his personnel to refuse to testify to Congress. The Senate Watergate Comm. testimony of Nixon staffers John Dean and Alexander Butterfield were the key moments that led to the eventual fall of Nixon.

    Not only are Bush/Cheney staffers refusing to testify before Congress, the Bush/Cheney Admin Justice Dept. has refused to even enforce Congressional subpoenas.

    Nixon was criminal amateur compared to the Bush/Cheney White House.

  • (Show?)

    my point, Frank, is that without Nixon we're not likely to have had Reagan, who begat Bush. that's why it is so important that we get to the bottom of all their crimes. why it was so heinous for Ford to pardon Nixon.

    Nixon was personally responsible for the deaths of 2-3 million people in SE Asia. tens of thousands of Americans died because he extended the war for personal gain. the blood on his (and Kissinger's) hands ranks among the worst in history. just because Bush has taken Nixon's practices to an unprecendented level does not minimize the horror that was so much a part of Nixon's legacy. in terms of killing people for political ends, it's Bush who is the piker next to Nixon.

  • edison (unverified)

    I agree, TA, no reason to see it. I was amused (gag!) that VP Cheney echoed Nixon recently with the "if the President does it, it's legal" meme.

  • Frank (unverified)

    T.A. - The facts don't support your position.

    Nixon was still trying in his own twisted way to win in Vietnam after the 1972 elections were over and done. Operation Linebacker II was the most intense conventional weapons bombing campaign in human history. Operation Linebacker II happened the December AFTER the 1972 Presidential election.

    If Nixon only extended the Vietnam War through 1972 for political gain, why Linebacker II a month after the 1972 Presidential elections.

    Nixon was a brutal son of a bitch, but in honestly, how much much more brutal was Nixon in Vietnam then Truman was to Japan at the end of WW2?

    The difference Truman and Nixon is slight. The presence of the US military in South Vietnam was legal.

    The difference between Nixon and Bush/Cheney is night and day.

    -The presence of US troops in Iraq was never legal from day one. Not once. Not ever.

    -Nixon never ordered torture, and never made torture of prisoners standing operating procedure of US facilities holding South Asian prisoners.

    -Nixon turned over the Watergate Tapes to Congress.

    -Nixon never ordered his personnel to refuse to testify to Congress.

    -The Bush/Cheney Admin Justice Dept. has refused to even enforce Congressional subpoenas.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    Posted by: edison | Jan 5, 2009 1:23:21 AM

    I agree, TA, no reason to see it. I was amused (gag!) that VP Cheney echoed Nixon recently with the "if the President does it, it's legal" meme.

    Hello... As stated, it was the same; same people, same method. I guess it's more fun to skip that detail to have a "who's more evil" contest. Nixon didn't think up the imperial Presidency. Cheney isn't saying what Bush thinks. Cheney is the one that invented the imperial Presidency; he sold it to Nixon. Now, he's selling it with baby Bush. Cheney and Rumsfeld started the technique of writing a policy paper that lays out in lame logic why they can do something totally contrary to US law. The only difference between Nixon and Bush is that Nixon thought a bit of restraint was in order, which Bush does not. Cheney and Rumsfeld asked Nixon to do everything Bush has done. But, if you want to have the pissing contest, Bill B. is spot on, imo.

    I don't know how you do a calculus of death. Every American administration since TR has excercised imperial power and killed widely, more for political motives than anything else. That's what empires do.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    As with TA, I've been there and done that. I was 19 years old when Nixon resigned and had been watching the drama daily for months, as had my parents, dyed-in-the-wool working-class Democrats. And yes, Zarathustra is spot on in his description of Cheney's role 30+ years ago.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Bush has made a mockery of our laws and the Constitution on which they are based, but the good news is that Barack Obama will be able to undo much of that damage by simply holding fast to his oath of office.

    This month Obama and Biden and almost 535 senators and representatives will take an oath to uphold the Constitution. During the Bush/Cheney regime almost all of them proved when it was politically expedient to do so their previous oaths were meaningless, and a healthy dose of skepticism suggests these new oaths will prove to be more blatant acts of hypocrisy.

    Skepticism is an essential antidote to excessive optimism that can be a sign of naivete.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Nixon is rightly castigated for his moral, ethical and legal lapses, but he didn't commit his sins in a vacuum. He enjoyed, until he went too far and became a political liability, the complicity of an equally morally and ethically bankrupt Congress. This symbiotic relationship has almost always been the same with participants in the White House and Congress before and since Nixon. Nothing makes the absence of moral integrity more clear today than the positions taken by the incumbents in the White House, their replacements led by Obama, and Congress than their current complicity in the war crimes and crime against humanity being committed in Gaza.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Apropos Bodden's comments and the more general commentary about hearings to examine Bush Administration misdeeds and crimes, I wonder how much those sort of hearings accomplish except perhaps in the very short term. I'm thinking right now of South Africa and its post-apartheid Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It seemed like useful cleansing of the national psyche at the time, but what do we have now in South Africa? A president and cabinet ministers who deny the overwhelming body of scientific evidence linking the HIV virus to AIDS, and who then put this denial into policy, effectively depriving millions of people of proper medical care...a crime against humanity wrapped up in some sort of anti-imperialist rhetoric.

  • (Show?)
    As bad as War in Vietnam was, the standing recognized government of South Vietnam wanted US military presence there in South Vietnam. The presence of the US military in South Vietnam was legal.

    Well, not entirely. The Congress never actually declared war against North Vietnam. And there was the matter of the completely illegal bombing and invasion of Cambodia which killed hundreds of thousands of more people. And Laos. But Nixon wasn't about to be prosecuted for those actual crimes because the Vietnam War had more or less bipartisan support in Congress, having started under a Democratic administration and operated throughout its many years in a Democratically-controlled Congress.

    That's probably why Father Robert Drinan's resolution to impeach Nixon on the grounds of conducting illegal operations in Cambodia was never approved by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974.

    Almost exactly a year after its introduction, however, when the wheel had turned to such an extent that Nixon had in fact been impeached by the Judiciary Committee, a version of Drinan's resolution was finally considered in the committee's closing discussion on articles of how to act against Nixon. With support from the Congressional Black Caucus, Drinan pressed the committee to move his article of impeachment against Nixon for ordering the bombing of Cambodia without the permission of Congress. Key Democrats in Congress opposed the article, arguing that, while America people were prepared to impeach the president for the petty crimes of Watergate, they were not ready to remove him for violating the Constitutional constraint on presidential warmaking. Drinan was having none of it. To the suggestion that an article of impeachment sanctioning the president for the ordering the bombings would not "play in Peoria," the congressman from Massachusetts asked: "How can we impeach the President for concealing a burglary but not for concealing a massive bombing?" Drinan's argument drew enthusiastic support from a number of the Judiciary Committee's younger members, including the Michigan representative who would eventually become its chair, John Conyers. But the committee's majority rejected the sanction by a vote of 26-12. The committee's failure to send a clear signal about the limits on presidential warmaking haunt the United States to this day.
  • Joba (unverified)


    You're boring. Stop. Please.

  • (Show?)

    Joba, stop reading. much easier for you. more patriotic, too.

connect with blueoregon