Watching All the President’s Men in 2017

This afternoon, I was home alone, and happened to notice that HBO was screening All the President’s Men. Great film, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman at the top of their game as Woodward and Bernstein. Screenplay by William Goldman. Beautifully directed by Alan J. Pakula, and shot by the great Gordon Willis, the cinematographer known as ‘the prince of darkness’ for his wonderful use of shadows and unlit corners. The film holds up beautifully.

Obviously, though, that’s not why I watched it. John Oliver has called the Russian collusion scandal “stupid Watergate,” which is to say, it’s a scandal as consequential as Watergate, but carried out by dumber people. I was in high school during Watergate, and I remember vividly coming home from school every day and watching the Congressional hearings on TV. I was a news junkie back then, and I knew all the players, not just Nixon and Haldeman and Dean, but bit players too: Kalmbach, Magruder, Segretti, Hugh Sloan.

Richard Nixon was an intelligent and capable man. He certainly had his character failings, one of which, his thin-skinned sensitivity to criticism and his paranoid creation of enemy lists seem rather Trumpian. Nixon also seemed more ruthless. In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein were told that their lives were in danger, and in the movie, we believe them. They thought, and people generally thought, that Nixon could have his enemies killed. That turned out to be groundless. But everyone around Nixon seemed to be, at least, good at their jobs. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, both men were noted for their intelligence and competence. The analogous folks in Trump’s White House would be John Kelly, chief of staff (like Haldeman), and senior counselor Jared Kushner, special councilor to the President, similar to Ehrlichman. The one apt comparison would be the comically inept Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler, and the ghastly Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose job seems to be to reinforce whatever the lie of the day is coming from the President.

That’s the biggest difference, though, between Nixon and Trump. Nixon was smart, a genuine expert on foreign policy, a real diplomat, but also amoral and vindictive. Nixon lied, but it wasn’t always easy to see through his lies. Whereas Trump is willfully, intentionally, insistently ignorant. You wondered, with Nixon, what he believed, and how it informed his governing. With Trump, you just assume he’s what he appears to be; a not-very-bright braggart narcissist.

Trump just lies all the time, about matters of importance and more trivial matters. He lies reflexively; telling a lie seems to be his default position. He drives the press corps crazy, not because he tries to mislead them, but because he’s so brazen about it. He lies when he doesn’t have to, lies when the truth is perfectly obvious to everyone. When he’s not lying, he’s bragging. And then, when it would do him the most damage, seemingly, that’s when Trump tells the truth, just blurts it out.  That really wasn’t Nixonian.

Both Nixon and Trump have been accused of obstruction of justice, for example. One of the reasons All the President’s Men is such a great film is Gordon Willis’ cinematography. So shadowy, so mysterious. That’s the feel of Watergate. No wonder the key figure in the film is Deep Throat, this guy meeting Woodward in parking garages. That’s not Trump. He’s all bluster. Did you ask James Comey to shut down the Russian investigation? Nixon would have obfuscated, offer some legalistic defense. Trump says ‘yes, I did, because I was trying to shut down the Russian thing.’ Nixon would never have done that.

But, then, Nixon couldn’t. Yes, he was head of the Republican party. But the Republicans were a different party then. For one thing, the party wasn’t consistently conservative. It was home to both Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, two men who couldn’t agree about anything. Nixon himself self-identified as a conservative, but he in domestic policy, he would be a moderate Democrat today. And in both parties, there were politicians of integrity, people who were appalled by Watergate as the drip drip drip of new information about the coverup became known.

That’s not true anymore. The Republican party is the conservative party; a Rockefeller or a Charles Percy (liberal Republican Senator from Illinois) wouldn’t be welcome in it anymore. And politics had norms and standards and traditions Nixon had to at least pretend to follow. Trump sees all that nonsense as so much political correctness.

Trump’s lies are open and obvious. It should be much easier to catch him. It won’t be, because the Republicans seem unwilling to investigate even his most egregious statements and actions.

Nixon had to pretend not to be a crook. Trump, far more obviously, is a crook. So what? say his followers. A crook? A colluder? Possibly even a traitor? Who cares. He’s going to make American great again. And that’s all that matters.

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