Richard Nixon is hot again. Though it has been 34 years since he was forced to resign his presidency and 14 years since he died of a stroke, he is now all the rage.
Tuesday, the National Archives released nearly 200 more hours of Nixon White House tapes that revealed more of him ranting about everything from George McGovern to "working" people and tokenism.
A few months ago, I saw "Nixon’s Nixon" at a community theater near where I live. It is a two-person play about Nixon and Henry Kissinger meeting in the White House on the eve of Nixon’s resignation. It was sad, funny, outrageous and maddening. So it captured the two men well.
Monday night, I went to a screening of "Frost/Nixon," a new movie opening this week around the country. It was directed by Ron Howard ("Cocoon," "Apollo 13" and "A Beautiful Mind," to name just a few of his pictures) and written by Peter Morgan ("The Queen"), who also wrote the play on which the movie was based.
The screening was sponsored by the film’s producers and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The movie deals with the famous interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon that took place in 1977, which were highly controversial. Frost paid Nixon some $600,000 for the interviews, and no U.S. network would touch them, forcing Frost, who was considered more of an entertainer than a serious journalist, to syndicate the interviews himself.
Helping Frost do research for the interviews was James Reston Jr., who passionately wanted the interviews to do what the Congress and the justice system were not going to be able to do: convict Richard Nixon of crimes.
"Frost/Nixon" is a fascinating, absorbing and entertaining movie. It feels like a thriller even though you know how it is going to come out. It is mostly a character study of Nixon, and people are sure to disagree about how he is portrayed. (He is played by Frank Langella, and Frost is played by Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in "The Queen.")
Even Morgan, who wrote the movie, was not entirely satisfied with it, saying Monday night that he had not been tough enough on either Frost or Nixon.
After the screening was over, there was a discussion moderated by presidential historian Robert Dallek, with Howard, Reston and Morgan as participants. To one degree or another, all reminded the audience that the movie was a movie, not a documentary, and that certain dramatic liberties had been taken. (One of the key dramatic moments of the film, a late-night phone call from Nixon to Frost, was made up, Morgan said.)
Reston spoke a little bit about other frustrations — the movie is much more compressed and faster-paced than the real interviews were — but also wanted to make clear his motivations in helping Frost interview Nixon: Reston wanted to bring Nixon down.
What Frost did was "called an interview but was really an interrogation," Reston said. "There had to be an inference of guilt from the beginning."
Reston also said, "We needed to see the breaking of Richard Nixon."
He then went further, saying that one thing driving the movie "is the metaphor for George Bush in this film. Who will be the David Frost who exposes him?"
Reston, who speaks a lot at college campuses, said, "The younger generation feels Richard Nixon was railroaded out of office and what he did was trivial compared to what George W. Bush did."
This was too much for audience member Chris Wallace of Fox News, who during the question and answer period, defended Bush, saying whatever Bush might have done following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was an attempt to "protect this country" and cannot be compared to Nixon’s actions, which were for political reasons.
"I see no personal political gain in what George Bush did," Wallace said. "I see political gain in what Richard Nixon did."
One of the points of the movie, however, is that Nixon justified his actions — even the criminal ones — as being allowable because he was the president, and presidents get to do what they want.
Abuse of power is abuse of power, no matter whether the rationalization is national security or political security. It’s one reason that we have laws.
But the movie is really about Nixon, not Bush, and I doubt many people will emerge from "Frost/Nixon" thinking it is somehow an indictment of the Bush administration.
The movie ends with Nixon a little sad and very alone, looking out at the Pacific Ocean from his estate in San Clemente. But Ron Howard had shot an alternate ending in which Nixon does a funny little piece of business with a pair of loafers given to him by Frost.
When Howard tested that ending with audiences, they loved it. But people wrote on their comment cards that they loved it because it showed how Nixon had "changed" and how he had become a more sympathetic figure.
So Howard scrapped that ending. Sad and alone is the image of Nixon that he wanted.