A Blast from the Past

by Michael Potemra

It is sometimes a mistake to revisit favorite works — books, films, TV shows — from one’s youth. Too often, like the halls of an elementary school visited by a middle-aged graduate, they just appear . . . small. But I am delighted to report that the 1977 TV miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors, which I enjoyed immensely when it first aired, holds up extremely well. It could not possibly be as much fun now as it was for me back then, when I was a 13-year-old boy with a great interest in U.S. politics; but it is a solid nine hours of drama, as well as a fascinating time capsule of the look and feel of its mid-Seventies period.

The miniseries is a roman à clef about the Nixon White House, with all the key figures given fictional names and back stories. It was based on a novel by Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, but do not be misled by that into expecting a pro-Nixon perspective, or even a pretending-to-be-fair-to-Nixon perspective. You remember the right-wing cliché about the Nixon-hating biased-liberal media? Well, this movie is that. And it is absolutely delicious.

Jason Robards chews the scenery as villainous President Richard Monckton, an avatar of brutal thuggishness combined with self-pity; it looks like Robards had more fun with this role than he had with his portrayal of Nixon foe Ben Bradlee in the previous year’s film All the President’s Men. Robert Vaughn of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fame portrays Frank Flaherty, the H. R. Haldeman chief-of-staff character, with similar glee, as a cold, vicious reptile with no redeeming qualities. (In later years, I read Haldeman’s diaries and was thrilled to discover that the man actually had a likeable side, and a sense of humor.) 

After 35 years, this miniseries has finally made it to video. I started watching the DVDs a few days ago with some trepidation, for the reasons I mentioned above; but quickly got hooked by the narrative and the performances all over again. If you’re a fan of political melodrama, or want to know what the Seventies looked like — clothes, cars, hairstyles — check it out. And if you want to understand how Boomers look at the world, boy, is this the film for you: It is explicitly not the story of Nixon and Watergate as it really happened, but the story as an entire generation idealized it, the story they — we (I was born in 1964, the Boom’s last year) — wanted it to be and told themselves about it. The movie ends with a Watergate-style major turning point, and the final shot is of an American flag briskly waving: as if to assure the 1977 TV audience that America is a great country that will always prevail over its evil Nixons, and that everything’s going to be just fine now that a really decent guy like Jimmy Carter is president.

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