Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The sequel to Frost/Nixon could be far more chilling

It’s been fun watching the film Frost/Nixon again. Not just because it’s a gripping film with fine actors, above all the extraordinary Michael Sheen as Frost, but also because it’s a valuable reminder of some significant if deeply unedifying events. A reminder that’s particularly timely today.

Frost (Michael Sheen) interviewing Nixon (Frank Langella)
The film tells the story of what remains one of the more significant interviews ever shown on TV. That was the interview of Richard Nixon by David Frost. At the time, Frost was a man who’d made a strong though not first-rate reputation first as a comedian, second as a talk show host. It was extraordinary that, with such a background, he should have decided to interview the former US President three years after he had been forced to resign from the White House. Nixon went as a result of the Watergate scandal, once it became clear that his denials of involvement in the attempted cover up of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee were simply mendacious.

The film shows how Nixon initially ran circles around Frost but, eventually, the interviewer was able to turn the tables on him and extract the only public admission of guilt that Nixon ever made and the closest he came to an apology.

The most telling line of the film comes at the end. Sam Rockwell, playing journalist James Reston, points out that thanks to Watergate, Nixon’s “most lasting legacy is that today, any political wrongdoing is immediately given the suffix… ‘gate’”.

There has, however, been a move in recent years to try to rehabilitate the memory of Nixon. Apologists for him point to his construction of better relations with the Soviet Union, to his opening up of China, and most powerfully to his working through the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War. These are, it is true, major achievements, but I can’t help wondering whether other Presidents might not have been able to pull them off too, given the changing atmosphere both domestically within the United States and across the world. More to the point, while ending the Vietnam War was certainly a huge success, it’s worth remembering that Nixon had earlier extended it into Cambodia, inflicting terrifying numbers of casualties and, more important still, precipitating the seizure of power there by the Khmer Rouge. These instituted the most violent regime the world has seen, wiping out more people, proportionately to their population, than even the Nazi Holocaust.

All this adds up to my watching the revision of Nixon’s reputation with considerable scepticism. He may have had some achievements but I feel that his contribution was only to see, and seize, opportunities he had little role in creating.

Meanwhile, as the Watergate Scandal unfolded, we watched him retreating from position to position, admitting one offence when he could deny it no longer, while still denying others, throwing colleagues, often long-term friends, to the dogs rather than resign himself. Eventually, though, the options ran out. With the House of Representatives about to vote for impeachment, and the Senate almost certainly to convict him, he resigned. Soon after, his successor Gerald Ford pardoned him, ensuring that he was never brought to account for his misdeeds.

The damage has been long lasting. Nixon believed, as he claimed to Frost, that whatever a President did was, by that simple fact, not illegal. This is a claim worthy of a monarch, not the President of a republican form of government: a king by divine right might feel that nothing he does can be regarded as a crime or be sanctioned by law. But the nature of a republic is that it has at its core the notion of rule of law, making it impossible for any citizen, however powerful to be above it.

Nixon, like every President, had sworn to uphold the Constitution. By his behaviour, he had broken that oath. It was a fundamental betrayal, and it set a precedent.

That precedent is being cheerfully followed today. Trump’s Nixon, in spades. Charmless and dishonest just like the 37th president, he only lacks his predecessor’s competence and effectiveness. Sadly, we have to be grateful that he does. If he were to chalk up any achievements, they would be far more those of war than of peace – Nixon bombing Cambodia rather than Nixon talking peace in Paris.

They have in common their indifference to the law and their contempt for the Constitution they swore to uphold. But here too there is a major contrast. Nixon may have lied and cheated and obstructed, but he didn’t commit high treason by collaborating with a foreign power hostile to the United States.

It’s worth watching Frost/Nixon even if you’ve seen it before. It’s entertaining as well as insightful. Just remember that, relevant though it is, the President of that time was merely loathsome and criminal.

This one is profoundly toxic too.

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