I finally got around to watching Frost/Nixon this weekend. It's a compelling dramatization of the actual interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon, an event which I largely ignored at the time (being a teenager).
There are a couple of things that surprised me. First, Nixon in many ways comes across as a more sympathetic character than Frost. Frosts motivation is driven entirely by his desire to redeem a career was quickly fading. Frost had been relegated to hosting Great Escapes, a precursor to reality TV shows.
This becomes even more apparent after he is largely manipulated by the more skilled Nixon. During a pivotal scene, Nixon calls Frost after having had a couple of drinks and essentially tells Frost that the winner of the final interview would win back public acceptance. The loser would be cast out to the wilderness. While not literal, it does a great job at showing the stakes.
Frost ultimately deliver the coup de grace to Nixon by revealing details of a previously unknown conversation between Nixon and Charles Colson, which proves that Nixon obstructed justice. At first Nixon is defiant about the cover-up declaring that “When the President does it, it’s not illegal.” His chief of staff, Jack Brennan, stops the interview but it is clear that Nixon has essentially admitted his guilt. When he comes back we see a broken man but one who is also glad that the burden of his guilt has been lifted and admitting that he has let the American people down.
In the end Nixon is revealed as an insecure and lonely man who let power and his own paranoia destroy his administration, career and legacy. It also severely damaged the credibility of the American democratic system.
But the interviews also provided the accountability and transparency that the American public needed to find closure and that the American democratic system needed in order to begin healing.
These lessons shouldn’t be lost on the Obama administration in light of the recent revelations of White House cover-ups during the Bush/Cheney regime. On Sunday, GQ magazine published an article detailing the corruption, incompetence and deception that characterized Rumsfeld’s Defence Department.
Perhaps the most disturbing revelation is a collection of daily cover sheets that mixed “Crusades-like messaging with war imagery”. One particularly chilling example shows a U.S tank roaring through the desert with the quote from Ephesians: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
These “cover sheets were the brainchild of Major General Glen Shaffer, a director for intelligence serving both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense” and were clearly designed to manipulate the fundamentalist Bush.
This combined with revelations published in the New York Times on Jan 14, which revealed a major cover-up of corruption as a result of revelations that the Bush/Cheney Pentagon had “fielded a clandestine network of retired military officers and defense officials to spread administration talking points on television, radio and in print while posing as objective “military analysts.”
Many of these propagandists worked for military contractors with billions of dollars of business at stake in Pentagon procurement. Many were recipients of junkets and high-level special briefings unavailable to the legitimate press. Yet the public was never told of these conflicts of interest when these “analysts” appeared on the evening news to provide rosy assessments of what they tended to call ‘the real situation on the ground in Iraq.’”
The Obama administration has been reluctant to launch a full scale investigation into these scandals and others carried out by the Bush administration. This is a mistake and a clear violation of the mandate of the new era of transparency that Obama promised during the election. More than transparency, the Obama administration must demand accountability and give the investigations the full force of the law.
Just as with Watergate it was only when the American public got both transparency and some measure of accountability that both they and the government mean to serve them could move on.