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The Ornery Observer
April 14, 2009

Nixon-Frost: A Better Portrait than Intended?
by Paul Gottfried

After considerable hesitation, I went to see Nixon-Frost. My son warned me against this flick, although he had not seen it himself. Supposedly it featured the kind of Nixon-bashing that Hollywood and the media engage in now and then.

This warning turned out to be partly valid. Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up is presented as one of the greatest crimes against the Constitution committed by a sitting president. By the end of his last interview with British broadcaster David Frost in 1977, Nixon is depicted as a broken man, as he realizes how criminally he had behaved by trying to cover up the Watergate burglary. Nixon is also shown to be a lonely man, driven by his sense of inferiority, obsessive dislike for the media, and an addiction to alcohol. Nixon was, of course, notorious for sweating inopportunely, for example, during his presidential debates with John F. Kennedy in 1960; and the viewer is left wondering whether this particular characteristic was related to his passion for booze.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit to having known Richard Nixon and to having visited his home and office on a number of occasions. For those who wish to know more about my relation to the former president, please see my autobiography, Encounters, which will be published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in May. As far as I know, Nixon was at most a social drinker and he spent lots of time with his wife and daughters. He also had a profusion of cronies and rarely wanted for company.

Although a liberal Republican for his time — introducing affirmation action for blacks in government construction contracts as early as 1969, and seeking détente with the major Communist powers — Nixon ran afoul of the liberal media. He had risen to national prominence as a fierce anticommunist after the Second World War. By then, to Nixon’s misfortune, however, the press was becoming anti-anticommunist as well as antifascist. Unlike Harry Truman’s mostly ignored attack in 1948 on his GOP opponent, Thomas Dewey, for being “soft on fascism” (by then of course fascism was hardly a problem), Nixon offended the media by denouncing Democrats who had expressed sympathy or, in one famous case, were thought to be in league with the Soviet tyrant Stalin. He then parlayed such activities into becoming Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate in 1952, and the rest, as they say, became History.

As for the break-in committed by the Committee to Reelect the President that Nixon tried ineptly to cover up, I urge my readers to pick up Victor Lasky’s revealing book, It Didn't Start With Watergate (1977). There one learns that Lyndon Johnson had been privy in 1964 to his henchmen’s breaking into Barry Goldwater’s campaign headquarters in New Hampshire; nonetheless, the press had turned a blind eye to that incident. Most of the national media was then pulling hard to make sure that Goldwater would be defeated, the way they strained to get Barack Obama elected to the presidency last year. Lasky convincingly shows that Nixon and his team did not resort to nastier tactics against their opponents than his Democratic predecessor had used against Republicans with total impunity.

Moreover, if one throws into the scales the lying and duplicity that some of our activist presidents committed to push the United States into foreign wars, Nixon’s obstruction of justice by a Special Prosecutor seems comparatively trivial. By the way, an attack of boredom came over me while Frost in the movie was going after the sweaty ex-president for his complicity in the Watergate cover-up. Nixon’s stonewalling only became a possible felony through his refusal to cooperate with a prosecutor named by a Democratic Congress. His claim to Executive Privilege in fact was vindicated by the Supreme Court later, which nonetheless made an exception for the Watergate tapes.

There was, however, a positive side to this movie. Director Ron Howard, for the sake of balance, portrayed the son of New York Times columnist James Reston as an unpalatable Nixon-hater. The elder Reston, who could not contain his enthusiasm for Mao Tse Tung well into the 1970s, may have exceeded his son in beating up on the onetime anticommunist president. To his credit, Howard does not place Nixon’s adversaries in any better light than he does Nixon’s assistants, one of whom is played quite ably by actor Kevin Bacon. While Michael Sheen, who was cast as Frost, is far less prepossessing and likeable than the man who interviewed Nixon, the actor who impersonated the former president, Frank Langella, was brilliant.

I had the impression while watching Langella that I was standing again in Nixon’s presence. This veteran character actor had his tics down to a tee, including his occasionally self-deprecating comments. Langella may have played Nixon too well for the image that the movie sought to convey of the former president. Despite the heavy-handed hints from the other characters that Nixon sounded tiresome when he talked about his international contacts, Langella depicted his character as a generally engaging conversationalist. And that is exactly how I remember him.

See this column at News Blaze.

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The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2009 by by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.  All rights reserved. A version of this column appeared in the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Newspapers in October 2008. All rights reserved.

Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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