On mad kings, Mueller’s report, and Altman’s Secret Honor

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2019)

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It’s been déjà vu all over again this week. In my 2008 review of Frost/Nixon, I wrote:

There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5-year long usurpation of the Constitution and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view. […]

[Actor Frank Langella] uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.

Speaking of the devil, on Sunday CNN premiered the concluding episode of Tricky Dick, a 4-part docuseries about Nixon’s life and political career (recommended-CNN always repeats broadcasts, so don’t despair if you missed it first time around).

It was followed by an hour-long panel discussion about the lessons learned, hosted by Anderson Cooper and featuring journalist Carl Bernstein (who famously broke the Watergate story for the Washington Post with Bob Woodward), former Nixon White House lawyer John Dean, presidential historian Timothy Naftali and former Watergate Special Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste. When Cooper asked him about the legacy of Watergate, Ben-Veniste said:

“As I said in my book, written shortly after I left the office [as Special Prosecutor] …For the future, the lessons of Watergate are wonderful, in that the system worked–in this circumstance…but they almost didn’t work. For the future, does it take something more than what we have experienced in Watergate [regarding] the type of evidence: demonstrative, incredibly powerful evidence of criminal wrongdoing for a President of the United States to be put in a position of either resigning, or certainly [being] impeached and convicted?”

That was a loaded question, coming as it did 4 days prior to the official (belated) release of the (almost) full Mueller report to the United States Congress and the American people. Of course, everyone on that panel was fully aware that the exhaustive 2-year investigation looking into possible foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, possible collusion with the Trump campaign, and possible obstruction of justice by Trump and/or members of his administration after the fact was about to come to a head.

Carl Bernstein was more succinct, offering this take:

“The system worked in Watergate. But it worked ultimately because there was a ‘smoking gun tape’. It’s very questionable whether the system would have worked without that gun.”

Bernstein was referring to Nixon’s self-incriminating statements regarding a coverup and obstruction of justice…captured for posterity via a secret recording system the President himself had arranged to be set up in order to document all his Oval Office conversations.

And so here we are, 45 years after Nixon resigned, and the media, members of Congress and concerned citizens find themselves poring over the 400 pages of the Mueller Report (replete with “limited” redactions) as they ask themselves the other $64,000 question:

Is there a “smoking gun” buried somewhere in here…or a reasonable facsimile thereof?

At least one Congressperson has stepped up to the plate and said (in so many words) “Smoking gun?! Try a field howitzer!” Taking an extraordinarily fearless and principled stance amid the disappointing backpedaling and hand-wringing angst emanating from many of her colleagues, senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren was interviewed Friday night by Rachael Maddow on MSNBC, and did not mince any words:

 “This is about point of principle […] This isn’t about politics. This isn’t even specifically about Donald Trump himself. It is about what a President of the United States should be able to do and about the role of Congress is in saying: ‘No. A president does not get to come in and stop an investigation about a foreign power that attacked this country, or an investigation about his own wrongdoing.’ Equal justice under law, no one is above the law; and that includes the President of the United States. It is the constitutional responsibility of Congress to follow through on that. […]

Because it matters, not just for this president, it matters for the next president, and the next president after that, and the next president after that. I get it…in dictatorships, the government coalesces around one person in the middle and does everything to protect that one person. But that’s not where we live. We live in a democracy, and it is controlled by a constitution. And the way we make that democracy work is with checks and balances. And a president who says, “I don’t have to follow the law, and nobody can touch me on criminal acts” -that’s not right.

The Constitution says that the House and the Senate can do this. […] And every member of the House, and every member of the Senate should be called on to vote: Do you believe that constitutes an impeachable offense? I do believe that the evidence is just overwhelming that Donald Trump has committed these offenses, and that means that we should open proceedings in the House. And then the House can take a vote.”

Nixon famously stated in the David Frost interviews, “I’m saying that when the president does it…it’s not illegal.” Mind you, he made that statement several years after he had resigned from the office of the president in shame, ending a decades-long political career in the most humiliating manner imaginable. Yet he never publicly apologized for any of the questionable actions he engaged in while serving as the President of the United States.

If that pathology reminds you of somebody else…perhaps a specific “somebody” currently occupying the White House, you will not be surprised to learn that there is a disturbingly prescient link between Richard M. Nixon and Donald J. Trump, in the form of this letter:

 

December 21, 1987

Dear Donald,

I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great on the Donahue show.

As you can imagine, she is an expert in politics, and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!

With warm regards,

Sincerely,

(signed) Richard M. Nixon

 

Nightmare fuel.

How ironic that Nixon, the man who many historians posit lost his 1960 presidential bid because he was not as telegenic as JFK and never did get the hang of the medium (even once he eventually became the leader of the free world) was nonetheless canny enough to recognize a master manipulator of the idiot box when his wife saw Trump on a TV show.

Howard Beale: “Why me?”

Arthur Jensen: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

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Which brings me to why I felt this was the perfect week to pull out my dusty DVD of Robert Altman’s brilliant (and underappreciated) 1984 film adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man play Secret Honor (****) to take it for a spin on current events.

Originally titled as “Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon” when it opened in 1983 at Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, the film is a fictional monologue by Nixon, set in his post-presidential New Jersey office. Part confessional, part autobiographical, and (large) part batshit-crazy postcards from the edge rant, it’s an astonishing piece of writing; a pitch-perfect 90-minute distillation of Nixon’s dichotomy.

Philip Baker Hall (most recognizable from the Paul Thomas Anderson films Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) pulls out all the stops in a tour-de-force turn reprising his stage role.

His Nixon is at once darkly brooding and explosively feral, pacing his claustrophobic office like a caged animal, swigging Chivas Regal and alternately pleading his “case” before an unseen Court of Public Opinion and howling at the moon (not dissimilar to how late night TV satirists envision Donald Trump pacing the Oval Office, wolfing cheeseburgers and unleashing Tweet storms from the Id).

Nixon, who is taping his monologue on a cassette recorder (in a blackly comic reference to his purported technical ineptitude, he spends the first several minutes of the film fumbling and cursing while trying to figure out how to work it) largely speaks in the first person, but oddly switches to the third at times, referring to his “client” whenever he addresses “your honor” (it’s no secret Trump often refers to himself in the third person).

The word salad soliloquies Nixon utters as he prowls the long dark night of his soul in arctic desolation share spooky parallels with the word salad soliloquies that Trump bellows as he prowls podiums in the full light of day at his public rallies.

Nixon frequently rants at his “enemies”. He is particularly obsessed with “those goddam Kennedys”. This is one of the more revealing insights into Nixon’s psychology contained in Freed and Stone’s screenplay; Nixon, ever self-conscious about his modest Quaker roots, is obviously both resentful and envious of the Kennedys’ privileged patrician upbringing, Ivy League education, movie-star charisma, and physical attractiveness.

He also lights into the other usual suspects in his orbit: Henry Kissinger, President Eisenhower, liberals, “East coast shits”, Jews, the FBI, and the media (you know…the “deep state” and “fake news”).

In rare moments of lucidity, he sadly recalls the untimely deaths of his brothers (Arthur, who died in 1925 at age 7, and Harold, who died in 1933 at age 23, both from TB) and speaks tenderly to the portrait of his late mother (although it gets weird when he refers to himself as her “loving dog”…and promptly begins to bark).

Hall is mesmerizing; while he doesn’t physically resemble Nixon, he so expertly captures his essence that by the end of the piece, he is virtually indistinguishable from the real item. It takes substantial acting chops to carry an entire film; Hall has got them in spades.

Film adaptations of stage plays can be problematic, especially in a chamber piece. But since this is, after all, Robert Altman…not to worry. He cleverly utilizes the limited props to his full advantage; for example, the four CCTV monitors in the office pull double duty as both a metaphor for Nixon’s paranoia and a hall of mirrors representing his multiple personalities (shades of the symbology in Pete Townshend’s rock opera Quadrophenia).

It also helps that Hall’s performance is anything but static; he moves relentlessly about the set (in a supplemental interview on the Criterion DVD, Hall recalls the original running time of the play as 2 ½ hours…I can’t begin to imagine the mental and physical stamina required to deliver a performance of that intensity night after night). DP Pierre Mignot deserves major kudos for his fluid tracking shots.

Watching the film again in context of all the drama and angst surrounding the release of the Mueller report, I was struck by both its timelessness as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and corruption, and its timeliness as a reminder of what democracy looks like at its lowest ebb-which is where we may be now. Time to wake up.

As Oliver Stone reminded us in the closing credits of JFK: What is past is prologue.

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