Monday, April 04, 2011

All The President's Men

I guess the really implausible part of the whole Watergate story was the idea that the president of the United States — a man who had been nominated for national office five times and had been elected president twice — could be such a charlatan.

That was the great leap that I believed most people had to take. They had to accept that they had been so utterly fooled by Richard Nixon — when they should have known better.

I reflected on that in March 2010 when Turner Classic Movies was set to televise the film.

At the time, I was baffled by TCM's decision to show the movie when it did — TCM's annual "31 Days of Oscar" had just concluded, I observed, and then I pointed out that the scheduling decision may have had something to do with the fact that March 4 had been the traditional inauguration day for presidents until the 1930s.

By the time of the Nixon presidency, I observed, inaugurations were held on January 20, as they are now. The only link between the date the film was scheduled to be shown and the film itself was the presidency.

"But the thing is that a movie about Watergate," I wrote, "has a great deal of relevance to the presidency — well, presidential power, at least. And Watergate was the story of how one president abused his power beyond the point that most Americans would have thought possible."

The thing that made the story implausible in real life also made it implausible in the often fantasy world of the movies.

And the reason why few newspapers picked up the articles that were printed by the Washington Post in the early days of the investigation — and, consequently, relatively few Americans had heard of Watergate when they went to the polls in November 1972 — was neatly summed up by one of the Post's editors following a staff meeting during the movie.

The Democratic challengers to insurgent candidate George McGovern were self–destructing in the spring of 1972, which made the activities at the Watergate (about a month before the Democrats were scheduled to nominate McGovern) even more suspicious. Nixon appeared to be on his way to an easy victory that fall. Why would the Republicans feel the need to do something like that?

But even in the fantasy world of motion pictures, the idea that someone like Nixon (who was as despised — even by those who voted for him — as any public figure I have seen in my lifetime) could hoodwink millions and be elected president twice seemed too incredible.

In 1976, nearly two full years after Nixon resigned, that idea was still too far out there for some people — even though movie audiences of that time readily accepted stories that dealt with the concept of the antichrist, a giant ape on the loose in New York City, a telekinetic (and vengeful) high school girl who wrecks her prom and a past–his–prime boxer who gives the defending champ a run for his money.

There was nothing make–believe about the people in "All the President's Men," and one of the best was the rather understated character of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee — portrayed admirably by Jason Robards.

Robards delivered some of my favorite lines in the film ...

Like when he said, "We're about to accuse Haldeman, who only happens to be the second most important man in this country, of conducting a criminal conspiracy from inside the White House. It would be nice if we were right."

Or when he said pretty much the same thing when he reminded Woodward and Bernstein that they were "about to write a story that says the former attorney general, the highest–ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook!"

But especially when he urged them, near the end, to get some rest. The lesson was that there is no rest for those who protect freedom from those who would chisel away at it. Constant diligence is required, the same as is asked from those who stand between you and identity thieves — or between you and terrorists.

After 15 minutes of rest, Robards told Woodward and Bernstein, "Get your asses back in gear. ... Nothing's riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys f**k up again, I'm going to get mad."

Even if you've seen it before, watch it again. It's a reminder of how important a free press is in a free society.