December 26, 2008
I had a troubling thought while watching Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, the film based on the play based on the infamous interviews between British TV host David Frost and former U.S. President Richard Milhouse Nixon. Though I haven't seen Peter Morgan's play (the original Broadway version of which, like the movie, also starred Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as Frost and Nixon, respectively), the medium of film doesn't appear to add much to the story behind "the trial Nixon never had". Nevertheless, I found myself riveted during the back-and-forth between the desperately ambitious interviewer and the desperately anxious president. Taken on its own, Frost/Nixon is thus a thoroughly engaging look into Nixon's most public attempt at redemption.
Which brings me back to that troubling thought: I realized an active imagination wasn't necessary to picture other U.S. presidents sitting in Nixon's chair, mumbling their veiled apologies like a little boy scolded after pushing his sister into the mud.
It must be a strange experience to be a head of state. The public (and/or the media) strips you of most human characteristics, like feelings and emotions, which of course makes you extremely vulnerable to personal attacks on your feelings and emotions. Some presidents were much better than others at hiding their wounds, but Nixon didn't appear to be one of them with his sweaty upper lip, his scowls disguised as smiles, and his disparaging remarks about his critics (often behind closed doors, which accelerated his downfall and has continued to haunt him over a decade after his death).
There's a temptation, actually, to consider the argument that Nixon's legacy was not defined by his policies but by his personality. After all, he was hardly the only president embroiled in controversy. Unlike our last two presidents, however, he was utterly pathetic at explaining his way out of it. Bill Clinton could charm his way out of a torture chamber if necessary, while George Bush doesn't seem to take anything seriously enough for us to expect him to carry on mature conversations, much less give logical excuses for his mistakes (a particular scene in W. comes to mind).
How would Clinton and Bush have fared against David Frost (or his contemporary version, Ryan Seacrest)? I'm not sure, but it's interesting to think about considering their shameful brotherhood. Yes, Clinton's transgressions were significantly more personal than Bush's bad deeds, but the point is that both left office with some owning up to do (and it should not not be forgotten that like Nixon, Clinton also faced impeachment). So we've had three presidents in a span of 30 years that, depending on who you ask, betrayed the oath of the country's highest office. Isn't it ironic?
Maybe not. Despite our best efforts to make them otherwise, these men have all been fallible humans like you and me. Their mistakes play out on a much bigger stage and their actions are analyzed like so many tabloid stars of the moment. They screw things up royally every now and then, and sometimes people die.
It's reason enough to make you protest, vote, or run for office yourself. You think somebody must be able to do a better job, despite so much evidence to the contrary (name me an honest politician and I'll name you two facing trial). Am I that cynical? No, not really. To the contrary, I'll be excitedly attending the inauguration of our 44th president in less than a month. There is a large serving of hope on my plate, but I've always found it goes well with a warm side of hesitancy, and after Frost/Nixon I have little reason to think otherwise.
What did you take home?