After considerable hesitation, I went to see Nixon-Frost. My son warned
me against this flick, although he had not seen it himself. Supposedly
it featured the kind of Nixon-bashing that Hollywood and the media
engage in now and then.
This warning turned out to be partly valid. Nixon’s involvement
in the Watergate cover-up is presented as one of the greatest crimes
against the Constitution committed by a sitting president. By the end
of his last interview with British broadcaster David Frost in 1977,
Nixon is depicted as a broken man, as he realizes how criminally he
had behaved by trying to cover up the Watergate burglary. Nixon is
also shown to be a lonely man, driven by his sense of inferiority,
obsessive dislike for the media, and an addiction to alcohol. Nixon
was, of course, notorious for sweating inopportunely, for example,
during his presidential debates with John F. Kennedy in 1960; and the
viewer is left wondering whether this particular characteristic was
related to his passion for booze.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit to having known Richard
Nixon and to having visited his home and office on a number of occasions.
For those who wish to know more about my relation to the former president,
please see my autobiography, Encounters, which will be published by
the Intercollegiate Studies
Institute in May. As far as I know, Nixon
was at most a social drinker and he spent lots of time with his wife
and daughters. He also had a profusion of cronies and rarely wanted
Although a liberal Republican for his time — introducing affirmation
action for blacks in government construction contracts as early as
1969, and seeking détente with the major Communist powers —
Nixon ran afoul of the liberal media. He had risen to national prominence
as a fierce anticommunist after the Second World War. By then, to Nixon’s
misfortune, however, the press was becoming anti-anticommunist as well
as antifascist. Unlike Harry Truman’s mostly ignored attack in
1948 on his GOP opponent, Thomas Dewey, for being “soft on fascism” (by
then of course fascism was hardly a problem), Nixon offended the media
by denouncing Democrats who had expressed sympathy or, in one famous
case, were thought to be in league with the Soviet tyrant Stalin. He
then parlayed such activities into becoming Eisenhower’s vice
presidential running mate in 1952, and the rest, as they say, became
As for the break-in committed by the Committee to Reelect the President
that Nixon tried ineptly to cover up, I urge my readers to pick up
Victor Lasky’s revealing book, It Didn't
Start With Watergate (1977). There one learns that Lyndon Johnson had been privy in 1964
to his henchmen’s breaking into Barry Goldwater’s campaign
headquarters in New Hampshire; nonetheless, the press had turned a
blind eye to that incident. Most of the national media was then pulling
hard to make sure that Goldwater would be defeated, the way they strained
to get Barack Obama elected to the presidency last year. Lasky convincingly
shows that Nixon and his team did not resort to nastier tactics against
their opponents than his Democratic predecessor had used against Republicans
with total impunity.
Moreover, if one throws into the scales the lying and duplicity that
some of our activist presidents committed to push the United States
into foreign wars, Nixon’s obstruction of justice by a Special
Prosecutor seems comparatively trivial. By the way, an attack of boredom
came over me while Frost in the movie was going after the sweaty ex-president
for his complicity in the Watergate cover-up. Nixon’s stonewalling
only became a possible felony through his refusal to cooperate with
a prosecutor named by a Democratic Congress. His claim to Executive
Privilege in fact was vindicated by the Supreme Court later, which
nonetheless made an exception for the Watergate tapes.
There was, however, a positive side to this movie. Director Ron Howard,
for the sake of balance, portrayed the son of New
York Times columnist
James Reston as an unpalatable Nixon-hater. The elder Reston, who could
not contain his enthusiasm for Mao Tse Tung well into the 1970s, may
have exceeded his son in beating up on the onetime anticommunist president.
To his credit, Howard does not place Nixon’s adversaries in any
better light than he does Nixon’s assistants, one of whom is
played quite ably by actor Kevin Bacon. While Michael Sheen, who was
cast as Frost, is far less prepossessing and likeable than the man
who interviewed Nixon, the actor who impersonated the former president,
Frank Langella, was brilliant.
I had the impression while watching Langella that I was standing again
in Nixon’s presence. This veteran character actor had his tics
down to a tee, including his occasionally self-deprecating comments.
Langella may have played Nixon too well for the image that the movie
sought to convey of the former president. Despite the heavy-handed
hints from the other characters that Nixon sounded tiresome when he
talked about his international contacts, Langella depicted his character
as a generally engaging conversationalist. And that is exactly how
I remember him.
See this column at News
The Ornery Observer archives
The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2009
by by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All
rights reserved. A version of this column appeared in the Lancaster
(Pennsylvania) Newspapers in October 2008. All rights reserved.
Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities
at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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