On Monday night I attended a screening of the upcoming film Frost/Nixon, a fictionalized, behind-the-scenes account of David Frost’s infamous 1977 series of interviews with Richard Nixon. The film itself is very well done and I may be writing about it soon, but what was noteworthy about the screening Monday night is what happened afterward: a heated exchange about George W. Bush between Fox News anchor Chris Wallace and historian Robert Dallek. There was a report in the Washington Times about it that made some waves, but let me add some perspective.
Following the screening, there was a panel discussion with the film’s director Ron Howard, screenwriter Peter Morgan, and James Reston Jr., one of David Frost’s researchers for the Nixon interviews who is the basis for one of the characters in the film, played by Sam Rockwell. The panel was moderated by Dallek.
From the beginning, all of the panelists alluded to their dislike of George W. Bush, and there were several comments — mostly from Reston — that referred to the film being relevant vis-a-vis Bush’s alleged abuses of power.
Now one of the interesting subtexts to the Frost/Nixon interviews is that they were a watershed moment in the history of checkbook journalism. Nixon was offered $600,000 do the interviews and — I haven’t been able to confirm this — but I believe Morgan mentioned on the panel that he was ultimately given a share of the profits from what ended up as a huge syndication success. So Nixon made out quite well financially even if the interviews did further damage to his reputation.
The film is quite up front about all this happening, but didn’t really tackle the ethical issues involved. So someone from the audience asked Reston, who worked on the interviews, about whether it was right to pay Nixon for the interviews. Reston gave a very self-serving answer. “More important than that is the abuse of power. The relationship of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal to the abuses of power today … The younger generation feels that Richard Nixon was railroaded out of office and what he did was really trivial compared to what George W. Bush did. So it’s important to go back to the source, to go back to the cauldron both for checkbook journalism and abuse of power.” In other words, Reston basically admitted what they were doing was unethical journalism but then said the end justifies the means because they were out to get Nixon who was the real criminal.
At which point, Chris Wallace seized the microphone in the audience, apparently fed up with the Nixon and Bush comparisons: “I respectfully would like to disagree with that and I think it trivializes Nixon’s crimes and completely misrepresents what George W. Bush did. Whatever George W. Bush did was after the savage attacks of 9/11 in which 3,000 Americans were killed and was done in service of trying to protect this country. I’m not saying you have to agree with everything he did, but it was all done in service of trying to protect this country and keep us safe and, the fact is, that we sit here tonight so comfortably and the country has not been attacked again since 9/11. Richard Nixon’s crimes were committed purely in the interest of his own political gain, and I think to compare what Nixon did for pure political self-preservation to George W. Bush, even if you disagree with rendition or waterboarding, is a gross misunderstanding of history then and now.” Somewhat surprisingly, given the political make up of the crowd, Wallace got a smattering of applause.
Now at this point Dallek pipes in and says, “Let me take issue with some of what you’re saying…” and then proceeds to go off on a petty and tangential riff about how Bush signed some executive order that makes it harder for the arbiters of history such as himself get access to Presidential records, and therefore we don’t know how bad Bush really is. Then Dallek concludes by saying, “I have my biases and they are distinctly negative in this case because I think he has abused power. I wouldn’t say necessarily the same against him as Richard Nixon, but sui generis. He may have abused power in his own special way.”
Wallace then correctly pounces on Dallek’s logical inconsistency in saying, well, we don’t know how bad Bush is yet but hey I’m biased anyway. He tells Dallek, “You’re simply making suppositions based on no facts whatsoever.”
At which point, Dallek begins somewhat heatedly talking over Wallace and says, “Oh, come on. You read The New York Times,” as if an anchor at Fox News is going to reverentially regard the paper as the unbiased authority on the Bush administration.
“…And the other panelists have been quite confident in their position. All I’m saying is that I see no personal political gain with what Bush did after 2001. I see a great deal of personal political gain in what Richard Nixon did,” Wallace continued.
Shortly thereafter, screenwriter Peter Morgan (who also authored the play the film was based on, as well writing the Oscar-winning films The Queen and The Last King of Scotland) piped up. While no fan of Bush, Morgan was eminently reasonable all evening and effectively ended the discussion of Bush as Nixon in no uncertain terms. “I somehow always wanted not for it [Frost/Nixon] to become a springboard for discussion about George W. Bush. I cannot think of anything – even arousing sympathy for Richard Nixon which is exquisitely painful to me – which is less painful than somehow making this a parable for George W. Bush,” said Morgan.
Wallace definitely seemed to get the better of the exchange. Though certainly it could be argued that a few things the Bush admin has done — particularly the firing of U.S. attorneys — was for personal political gain, Wallace was making an important distinction regarding most of the complaints about Bush’s presidency. It also struck me as odd that not once was the name Clinton mentioned in all this discussion of Presidential corruption. Without excusing Nixon’s reprehensible actions, it’s still quite amazing to see so many liberals invested in the idea that the Nixon and Watergate (and to some extent the Republican party) are the wellspring of all Presidential abuses of power when, in fact, this country has a long tradition of that which doesn’t fit any particular narrative other than political power is corrupting in and of itself.