First Tragedy, Now Farce: Nixon (The Post and Mark Felt), Reagan (The Reagan Show and American Made) and George W. Bush (W.)

by Daniel Garrett Volume 22, Issue 7 / July 2018 24 minutes (5906 words)

Can an American president violate the law? “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” said Richard Nixon (1913 – 1994), as ambitious as he was insecure, a man of significant gifts and profound flaws, such as paranoia and pettiness, along with his inflated—imperial?—sense of political power. President Richard Nixon’s career continues to haunt American politics: Nixon did important work, advancing aspects of civil rights and protecting the environment as well as improving international relations with China and Russia, but Nixon’s malignant hubris threatened democracy itself. Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017) and Peter Landesman’s Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017) are two cinematic works that allow us to contemplate Richard Nixon and his legacy anew. Other presidents have come and gone—Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama—and a few have challenged public expectations and political principles, but despite the questionable decisions, the controversies, of Reagan and Bush II in national affairs—the Iran-Contra affair and the Iraq war—nothing seems to have come to rising to the constitutional crisis of Nixon, though there are fears that such a crisis may arise now with the election of someone, a bankrupt businessman, a braggart and bigot, thought unfit for office by many informed observers—although he did attain the important electoral votes required to enter the office of president. Painful it is to be forced to hear, see, and read reports on contemporary American politics; and yet some of it is so strange that one’s horror—at the disregard for the environment, misunderstanding of international agreements, indifference to civil rights, suspicion of voter registration and political dissent, hateful immigration policies, contempt for gender and sexual differences, and misrepresentation of labor and consumer concerns—is disrupted by hysterical laughter, as one tries to remember if there is any precedent for the incompetence and ignorance, malice, and dumb determination, the sheer craziness, on view. Many of us are forced again and again to consider American history.

The common vision of American democracy, of a nation of laws that recognizes individual rights, and what that democracy might become has had certain moments of crisis and development: its founding in philosophy and war, its difficulties in respecting the humanity and value of indigenous people and enslaved Africans and its civil war, its development of modern industry in the late nineteenth century and the rise of corporate monopolies, the great economic depression of the 1930s and the threat of fascism and the long fear of dissent and communism of the 1940s onward, television and rock music, the civil rights movement of the 1960s and feminist movement of the 1970s, Wall Street euphoria at mergers and acquisitions and the simultaneous rise in homelessness and the spreading AIDS plague of the 1980s, the increasing appeal of the pride and violence of hip-hop music, and the effects of immigration: these eras and events challenged what the country and its people thought of themselves and inspired a broadening or narrowing of perspective. Yet, despite the country’s triumphs and turmoil, Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States of America, has been, thus far, the only president to resign his post. Things might have been different.

History can be a brilliant blur, a cacophony of conflicts and conciliations, so much of it lost to us unless we have been scarred by it. Richard Nixon remains a legend, although some of the details of his life and work may escape memory. Richard Nixon, the son of a grocer and lemon farmer father and Quaker mother, had two brothers who died when he was young; and Richard was a very good student, graduating from Whittier High School second in his class, and he received a scholarship to Harvard he could not accept, for the prohibitive costs of traveling and living. One wonders about the grief with which Richard and his family lived after the death of one brother, then another; and the hope and humiliation embodied by the forfeited scholarship. What if Richard Nixon had gone to Harvard, his intellect respected and rewarded: would Richard have become, and felt himself, an insider rather than an outsider? Would Richard have been alienated then, insecure, suspicious, resentful, punishing? Richard Nixon attended and graduated from Whittier College, a Quaker school, where Richard was again a good student and an athlete and actor in school plays; and he got a scholarship to Duke University Law School, attended, graduated; and Richard became a small town (Whittier) lawyer before marrying a cast member (Thelma Catherine Ryan, called Pat) in a local play he was in, and moving to the District of Columbia. (What if Richard Nixon had become a Shakespearean actor rather than a Shakespearean politician?) Nixon worked for the Franklin Roosevelt administration, but, apparently, did not like the bureaucracy—one wonders if small-town life had not prepared Nixon for that kind of complexity; or if his own early deprivation made him less sympathetic to the deprivations of others and the programs designed to remedy them; or if Nixon just found the big-government programs inefficient. Richard Nixon joined the Navy and received service stars and commendations, further proof of his grasp of personal and professional excellence. Yet, Richard Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 after running a campaign that indulged in anti-communist rhetoric, the fear-mongering of decades; and Nixon did something similar in a 1950 senate campaign, defeating Helen Gahagan Douglas, and he was called “Tricky Dick” for his efforts—yet, army general Dwight Eisenhower, a moderate conservative wary of the Soviet Union, chose Nixon as a vice-presidential candidate in 1952, for Nixon’s appeal to western and southern American voters. (Nixon, later, would speak of reaching the silent majority: what was that, old-fashioned people who valued community, decency, hard work, pragmatism, sacrifice, and tradition; or ignorant and bigoted people who hated change and feared those who were different, refusing to recognize any fact not in accord with their beliefs; or, most mystifying, some amalgam of both groups?) Dwight Eisenhower’s choice established the highest possibilities for Richard Nixon’s future.

Richard Nixon was accused of using a slush fund established for him by millionaire political patrons; and he defended himself, saying the only personal gift he had accepted was a dog, Checkers, for his young daughter Tricia (one suspects the fund was created because supporters recognized he did not come from money); and thus, although Eisenhower had considered abandoning him, the presidential Eisenhower-Nixon ticket prevailed. After Nixon helped President Dwight Eisenhower pass the 1957 civil rights bill, Eisenhower’s decline in health (a heart attack) gave Nixon more responsibilities, and Nixon went to Venezuela and Moscow; but when Nixon ran for president in 1960 he lost to John Kennedy, then he wrote a political memoir (Six Crises), not his last, and Nixon ran for the office of California governor, losing to Pat Brown: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” Nixon said, words that resound with a sense of injury, with self-pity. However, the chaos and controversy of the Vietnam war, and President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run in 1968 for a second term was Nixon’s great opportunity—Americans wanted out of the war and hoped Nixon would end it.

The ongoing disaster of the Vietnam war, scored to the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival begins Steven Spielberg’s The Post, his recreation of the controversy surrounding the war and the periodical publication of a comprehensive government (Pentagon) study of its execution. Daniel Ellsberg, a Harvard graduate, a (Marine) soldier and a Pentagon analyst (played by actor Matthew Rhys), is shown with active soldiers in Vietnam, and they and he are threatened by shelling and gunfire. Daniel Ellsberg’s report to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declares that although there has been more investment of resources in the war, there has been no change in the results, with the implication being—to McNamara—that things are getting worse, but McNamara tells the press and public that there is progress. Ellsberg is disturbed by the government’s lying to the American public about the rationale and success of the war (Rhys looks offended, frightened, and determined); and disturbed that officials knowing the truth are making no plan for ending the war. Ellsberg takes secret files, the evidence of what is going on, and begins copying them in 1969 for subsequent distribution to selected journalists. (Spielberg is cunning for making photocopying documents seem dynamic, urgent: he intercuts the copying with clips that make plain why these particular papers are important.) Shocking it was—and is—to realize that administration after administration lied to the American people about the origin, execution, and positive prospects of the war in Vietnam: archival footage of presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson reveals complex motives, duplicity, and misrepresentation. (Fear of communism and national pride were propellants.) Richard Nixon did not end the Vietnam war as hoped, but he reduced the American troop presence in Vietnam while expanding bombing in Laos and Cambodia (where Vietnam fighters were thought to find refuge). The apparent expansion of the war disappointed and infuriated the public. Yet, Richard Nixon’s administration advanced progressive domestic projects, despite his fiscal conservatism, such as protecting the environment, and supporting biracial committees’ implementation of desegregation in southern schools, and fighting employment discrimination against women; but Nixon’s Vietnam policies drew street protests—and that kind of opposition angered and frightened him.

The publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) inherited the mantle of the Washington Post from her father Eugene Meyer and his designated and deceased heir, her husband Philip Graham; and she, a woman with unique power but not the confidence to go with it, wakes in 1971 on the morning of a newspaper board meeting, surrounded by briefing books, many having to do with the paper’s plans to go public, sell shares. Kay Graham (Streep) prepares for the board meeting, alone and with a trusted colleague, Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), a man she respects and who respects her, a respect not shared by all colleagues of this rare woman executive. Kay Graham’s power is two-fold: she has the power of the newspaper and the power of her parties, which collect and entertain people who matter. Graham receives a phone call from White House chief of staff Bob Haldeman, before she meets with first her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a former Newsweek administrator, and secondly with her newspaper’s board. Apparently the White House is not pleased with coverage of the president’s family, and do not want to grant access to Tricia Nixon’s wedding; and publisher Kay Graham (Streep) suggests to editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) more expanded and sympathetic coverage of women’s concerns, but Bradlee, direct and impatient, is preoccupied with what Bradlee considers serious news, and he wants to find out what big story the New York Times is working on. Ben Bradlee sends an intern to New York to find out quietly; but Bradlee learns only that large space has been set aside for reporter Neil Sheehan. Meanwhile at The Post board meeting, publisher Kay Graham, who though prepared, and convinced selling shares will support the hiring of journalists and expansion of the paper’s coverage, making it a national force rather than merely a regional resource, faces her own newspaper board with hesitance, as some of the men do not recognize her articulation of the facts until another man has seconded it (Streep as Graham half-swallows her words, and nods in agreement when someone has made her point).

The women and men at Kay Graham’s parties are separated once serious talk about the world begins in Graham’s house, with Graham joining the women to discuss apparently lighter matters; but Robert McNamara (actor Bruce Greenwood), a Nixon administration official, the Secretary of Defense, warns Graham of a coming profile of him in the New York Times that will be critical. The nation had been spending sixty to eighty-million dollars per day on the Vietnam war by 1969; thus the war cost blood and treasure. Nixon’s military attacks on Laos and Cambodia were alarming, and would lead to economic inflation and federal deficits—but the most disturbing fact was that deception and waste had dogged public policy for years, through different administrations; and that is what the Pentagon papers, a compendium of research and analysis, documented—forming the basis of Neil Sheehan’s Times report. Kay Graham feels that Robert McNamara deceived her. Graham has tried to think of the personal and the political as separate in her life; but she and Bradlee will be forced to face the blurred lines in their lives and work. The Neil Sheehan article in the Times is about the Pentagon papers and their critical and honest analysis of the Vietnam war, its lack of sound or sure purpose, its difficulties, its probable failure, and the lies told the public; and Spielberg gives us a pictorial view of the Nixon White House and we hear an actual tape recording of Nixon and diplomat (warmonger?) Henry Kissinger complaining about the publicity and planning to punish people and press. Citizens of different ages, classes and ethnicities, women and men, assemble for street protests, with chants and posters, organized against the violations of conscience and trust.

The Pentagon papers are delivered to a general assignment reporter at the Washington Post by a hippie girl who asks him if he is important before leaving the box of documents. Meanwhile, the Nixon administration is taking the New York Times to court to prevent further publication of classified documents, something Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) learns while having lunch with Times editor Abe Rosenthal (Michael Stuhlbarg), a tip she shares with Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks): an atmosphere of confidentiality shared, and shared again, is created—and one wonders if any secrets can be kept. One Post journalist, the paper’s assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), thinks that he, Bagdikian, knows who the newspaper source or leaker might be—and the journalist is right; and he meets with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who talks about covert operations, lies, and the different presidential administrations wanting to avoid the humiliation of military defeat—and Ellsberg shows journalist Bagdikian the documents Ellsberg has gathered; and the journalist, with boxes of documents, leaves Ellsberg, knowing that all who have this material may be in danger.

Kay Graham (Streep) is the lone woman entering the American Stock Exchange (other women stand outside its impressive door), as her company goes public, selling shares. Her newspaper’s financing might be lost if The Post encounters immediate controversy after its initial public offering (a clause that may recognize that negative information could emerge that had not been disclosed before the publicity); so Graham is wary when editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) speaks with her about holding power accountable by publishing the Pentagon papers—which are brought to Bradlee’s house in boxes by the journalist Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk), with other staffers there to read and digest them. There, in Bradlee’s house, as his wife serves sandwiches and daughter sells lemonade, the journalists assess the documents, and there is the excitement and exhilaration of true employment, exploration, and enjoyment. Kay Graham (Streep) confronts the nation’s defense secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) herself, someone she considered a friend, but whose public declarations went against his own personal knowledge and the choices he allowed his friends to make concerning sending their sons to war. That confrontation may be one of the rare times when a powerful person is forced to face his/her own hypocrisy by a powerful someone that he or she claims to care about, but who knows? How many of us really know what goes on in the halls and homes of power? (Most of us are clumsy about power, and have little that matters, and we tend to be driven by instinct and impulse more than we would like to admit; often we lack not merely diplomatic skills, but the information necessary to instruct our instincts.) Will Graham’s newspaper publish the Pentagon papers? That may be a violation of the nation’s espionage laws, if it does; and, certainly, The Post‘s lawyers seem resistant to publishing. Of course, those who know history know what happened: Spielberg’s film dramatizes the whys and hows; and in making a film about the public good, the right to know, and about how that good was threatened and defended, Spielberg restores social memory and provides encouragement at a time when not enough journalism conveys a complex or even useful view of history or current events; when the repetition of certain facts, without explanation, programs our expectations, encouraging cynicism; when too many public officials substitute rhetoric for reason and lies for facts. The truth, however, is that while newspapers, radio, television, and the internet are important resources, they cannot equal the knowledge to be found in personal experience, specifically in political participation, and, very specially, in good books—such as Evan Thomas’s Being Nixon: A Man Divided (2015), John Dean’s The Nixon Defense (2014), Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger (2007), Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002), Larry Berman’s No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam (2001), Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (1997), H.R. Halderman’s The Haldeman Diaries (1994) and Will Swift’s Pat and Dick (2014).

In Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Kay Graham’s colleague and board member Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) is against publishing the Pentagon papers, and Bradlee (Hanks) is for publishing; and, after multiple consultations, although Graham (Streep) has much to lose, she—weighing emotion and thought, risk and gain—says yes to publishing (Kay Graham would write about this time in her 1997 book Personal History). Her claim of authority has been long in coming, and it benefits more than herself. The Supreme Court, in a decision that went against the Nixon administration, supports publication of the Pentagon papers analyzing the execution of the Vietnam war by several administrations, in favor the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Yet, despite his errors, moral and legal, Richard Nixon is not considered the worst American president, though Nixon may have been one of the most dangerous: according to a 2018 survey of the American Political Science Association (solicited and published by the New York Times, February 19, 2018), the worst presidents were: Zachary Taylor, Herbert Hoover, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison, James Buchanan—and the nation’s current president, its 45th; men faulted for encouraging political division and southern secession, owning slaves and/or promoting slavery, killing Native Americans, corruption, lack of achievement, or incompetence. Richard Nixon had as much natural strength and personal potential as anyone, but his amoral ambitions and devastating insecurities were lethal, lifting him up and knocking him down; and, after some evaluation, his disgrace seems predictable. Despite a significant intellect, Nixon, who did some remarkable things for his nation, had no grand vision, no grace; and his pettiness was evidenced by his collusion in an attempt to obstruct justice regarding the Watergate hotel burglary of Democratic Party offices, including making false statements, witness tampering, and bribery.

American Made

The roiling aura and constitutional threat of Watergate would haunt other American presidents. When the Illinois-born and Hollywood-packaged Ronald Reagan, once the California governor, succeeded Georgia governor, peanut farmer, and humanitarian Jimmy Carter as president in 1980, Ronald Reagan attempted to reverse liberal polices, cutting taxes for the rich and programs to help the poor, increasing military spending, and inflating rhetoric against the Evil Empire (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics); but despite his gung-ho promises of safety and security, 241 American servicemen were killed in Beirut in 1983, the same year Reagan invaded the tiny country of Granada. Yet Reagan, once a Eureka College economics student and then a Warner Brothers contract player and Screen Actors Guild president, seemed to be acting the part of president rather than fulfilling the office’s duties (Reagan ignored the acquired immune deficiency syndrome as it cut down a generation; and did little to combat homelessness, which he said was a choice). Who could imagine Ronald Reagan would be elected for a second term as president? Reagan was elected again, and despite his idealistic talk of liberty and virtue, of that shining city on a hill, we learned of his administration, in the name of fighting communism, allowing the Central Intelligence Agency to train fighters in other countries, and that Reagan and his security adviser Robert McFarlane approved the sale of more than fifteen-hundred missiles to an embargoed Iran, while Iranian terrorists in Lebanon held seven Americans hostage, with funds from the sales going to anti-communist rebels (contras) in Central America, principally Nicaragua. Had arms been traded for a foiled hostage retrieval? Patriotism proved, once more, the last refuge of scoundrels. Reagan admitted, merely, that mistakes were made. People wanted to know of Reagan, as they had of Nixon: What did the president know and when did he know it? Wild times—so crazy, they were hard to believe. Yet, if you lived in or near Manhattan, you remember something else, the streets filling with homeless people, who slept in corners, parks, and the subway (I recall someone with a scaly, swollen, and suppurating leg, not an unusual sight, but one I have not been able to repress. Worse was bumping into a homeless classmate who was first nonchalant but became more and more insane). You remember beautiful young men, intelligent and talented, their lives in front of them, men for whom love and pleasure had been poisoned, suddenly growing pale and pocked, skeletal, turning into corpses before your eyes. While I prefer Ronald Reagan’s mean-spirited performance in the Hemingway fiction feature The Killers (1964, Don Siegel director) for revelation, the documentary The Reagan Show (2017), directed by Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill, captures Reagan’s personal playfulness—his humor could be sentimental or sharp—and offers a gloss on the Reagan presidential years, on his sugar-coated destructions; and Doug Liman’s American Made (2017), featuring Tom Cruise as a Louisiana airline pilot Barry Seal, who is recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, and soon smuggling drugs and guns to Central America, suggests the extent of the farce—but for the sobering facts, the Eugene Jarecki documentary Reagan (2011) is better. The best and most lasting thing that Ronald Reagan did was to conduct diplomacy with Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev, leading to the elimination of certain nuclear weapons—and, of course, the reduction of fears and tensions Reagan himself had inflamed. Reagan was lucky to have Mikhail Gorbachev rather than one of the old-style (rigid) Russian leaders: Gorbachev was humane and honest enough to criticize his own political system but he lacked a vision for its positive future. One of the most terrifying things about Reagan is the fond memory many people have of him.

The Reagan Show

A less effective president was George Walker Bush, another man who might seem an accidental president: almost literally, as the contest with Al Gore was so close (the balance of the votes in Florida were in doubt) that the Supreme Court essentially selected Bush as the 43rd president: the grandson of a Wall Street banker, Prescott Bush, and the son of George Herbert Walker Bush, a CIA man, vice president and president, George W. Bush had seemed a good-time Yale fraternity fellow, not particularly distinguished in business or much else until he met his wife Laura and found Jesus and, following his father’s defeat to Bill Clinton, began to pursue politics. George W. Bush, like Reagan, exuded friendliness, which some Americans took for goodness. He, George W. Bush, had invested in education as Texas governor and would do the same as president, the soundest part of his legacy, and possibly ironic considering his own ambivalence about Stone learning (and his inclination to mangle language itself). Yet George W. imposed a one-trillion dollar cut in American taxes, and began two expensive wars—one in Afghanistan (starting October 2001), one in Iraq (March 2003)—after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, its buildings burning and crumbling (while there had been terrorists in Afghanistan, the Iraq war was begun justified with false intelligence—lies). Who can forget the millions of people marching in protest of the planned Iraq war in America and around the world, people whose governments ignored their wants and will? Yet, somehow George W. was elected again in 2004 and he further demonstrated the quality of his leadership with his administration’s botched handling of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (drowned residents, survivors desperate for slow-arriving relief), and a developing national economic crisis of nearly unsurpassed proportions. George W. Bush left national office with many thinking him one of the country’s worst presidents (in retirement, he did perform some charitable actions—and took up painting). The documentary Bush Family Fortunes (2004), directed by Steve Grandison and Greg Palast, follows the oil wealth, political favoritism, corporate donations, Arab connections, political intrigues, and publicity stunts of the family dynasty; while Oliver Stone’s 2008 dramatic feature film W., starring Josh Brolin, attempts to capture the shallow abyss that may be at George W. Bush’s center, while acknowledging the volatility of his administration. James Vanderbilt’s Truth (2015) gives one perspective on CBS News’s Dan Rather (60 Minutes), played by Robert Redford, with co-star Cate Blanchett playing his producer Mary Mapes as they pursue a story about George W. Bush’s questionable Texas National Guard record; and other films deal with 9/11 and the subsequent wars, including Redford’s Lions for Lambs (2007), which featured Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. Could either man, Reagan or George W., despite the death and doom left in his wake, compare with Nixon? Richard Nixon was a tragedy; Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were farcical: bad jokes that the American public, out of hope, ignorance, or willfulness, played on itself.

Richard Nixon is one of those singular persons whose (sinister?) mystique seemed to grow with what he said and did rather than evaporate—his answers and actions brought more questions; thus, after he left office, people still thought of him. The English media figure David Frost interviewed Nixon about domestic and foreign affairs and Watergate, for the 1977 Frost/Nixon televised interviews (later reinterpreted and recreated in Ron Howard’s 2008 film of a British play by Peter Morgan): then when asked about law violations, Nixon said, “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” What was sought in the Watergate burglary? Money? Equipment? Information? The break-in at the Democratic national election headquarters, located in the Watergate hotel, had been more complicated than it first seemed, as the arrested burglars revealed to the court that they were former government intelligence officers, some of whom had connections to the Nixon White House—connections that will lead investigator Mark Felt to be circumspect about sharing his findings. Why would the Nixon White House or his election campaign feel compelled to commit the crime, when Nixon was leading in the election polls? Was he that insecure and paranoid? The film Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017), directed by Peter Landesman, who made Parkland (2013) and Concussion (2015), is about the extreme strain and stress, if not failure, of a political system at the highest levels; and it begins before the Watergate hotel event, with its title character, Mark Felt, the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as played by Liam Neeson, preparing for work, getting dressed, listening to the morning news, in Washington, the District of Columbia. We see Mark Felt ride pass the Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial, and other landmarks—and street protests; and Felt arrives at a meeting at the White House in which Felt rebuts queries about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s leadership, letting the president’s men know of the secrets director J. Edgar Hoover and Felt know and hold. (The president’s men ask Felt what J. Edgar Hoover would like upon retirement, and Felt says his bullet-proof car.) Yet, when J. Edgar Hoover dies in 1972, Felt directs that Hoover’s confidential files be shredded so that others cannot use them. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), deep and dignified, a man of conviction who is cool to a glacial degree, is assisted in his agency work by two men, Mr. Bates (Josh Lucas) and Mr. Miller (Tony Goldwyn), whose profiles are principled and professional; and they seem sensitive to Felt’s subtle—and not so subtle—fluctuations in mood and policy. Richard Nixon appoints an interim director, looking for those secret files, those files of secrets; but Felt tells the appointee that there are no such files; and after a memorial is held for director Hoover, an old agent, Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore), a Nixon crony, accosts Felt: the scuzzy Bill Sullivan, a blackmailer and lawbreaker, mocks Felt’s competence, decency, and loyalty (it is chilling to realize how moral sense is absurd and foolish to certain people: what else, in terms of a practical attitude, could be more villainous?).


Mark Felt, an experienced and knowing professional, has thought that he, Felt, might be chosen the new director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation but someone else, Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), Mr. Gray, a Justice Department deputy attorney general and a former submarine commander, is appointed; and Felt counsels Gray on the necessary independence of the FBI. Mark Felt is disappointed that Felt did not get the promotion, but his wife Audrey (Diane Lane), sensual but critical, understands why: Mark Felt and J. Edgar Hoover had the same enemies. Audrey, passionate and precise, is disappointed too: she thought merit might win the prize, and thought the appointment, and its prestige, would justify her having made and left thirteen homes for the benefit of her husband’s career. Audrey drinks to console herself. Yet, Mark Felt’s participation in the investigation of the Watergate hotel break-in may be his most important professional distinction; and Felt suspects how high the corruption goes, thus instructing his men to be circumspect about dissemination of information.

Mr. Gray (Marton Csokas), the interim director and Nixon appointee, is not impressed by the assertion of Federal Bureau of Investigation’s independence and integrity, and wants to limit the time and scope of investigation—which worries deputy director Mark Felt, who then meets with Time magazine reporter Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood), to whom Felt confides about the reins that are being put on the agency, thinking the press attention might keep the case open. How much had the federal justice department been compromised by Richard Nixon, who had approved an illegal surveillance project, the Huston plan, in 1970 that J. Edgar Hoover of all people had disapproved, stalled? Felt sees the bureau’s ability to investigate as one of democracy defenses—but are Felt’s own motives pure? Did Mark Felt resent his lack of promotion? Was his pride insulted? Does it matter why Felt began to expose the obstruction of justice, the criminality? The White House accuses the media of bias and error in its reporting, attempting to discredit the media and minimize the significance of the investigation. Meanwhile the Felts, Mark and Audrey, are haunted by the absence of their daughter Joan, and concerned about what Joan might be doing: has her sympathy for radical rhetoric turned her into a revolutionary? If Mark asks for official help with finding her, will she be discovered amidst criminal activity? Friends and family have not heard from his daughter, but her room—despite its furious posters and books—remains a place of solace for Mark Felt. Felt may have needed solace from her memory in light of the obfuscation and pressures surrounding the burglary investigation. John Dean (Michael C. Hall), White House counsel, complains to Felt of the ongoing leaks to the press, suspecting they may be coming from the FBI; but Felt tells Dean the White House has no authority over the FBI. Mr. Gray (Csokas), sanctimonious and self-satisfied, a servant to greater power, asks Felt’s investigators to give fuller reports to Gray, not the brief summaries Felt mandated—and Gray, who asks his investigators for loyalty, passes those confidential reports on to the White House.

The separation of powers—executive, legislative, and judicial—remains important, as the Landesman film demonstrates by the investigation of corruption, which Felt identifies to his staff: the forensic clues found, the opposition of high authorities to the truth, the administrative stalling, and the public lies. Mark Felt confides in Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who has been getting lost in the detail; Felt says, “They want everyone confused.” The confusion is strategic. (Mark Felt as media source would be a secret for decades, until publication of a year 2005 Vanity Fair article, after Felt’s children Joan and Mark encouraged him to declare himself. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have said that Felt was one among many sources for their Washington Post reporting, which was presented in a 1974 book and in the 1976 motion picture All the President’s Men, directed by Alan Pakula, a film more about the discovery of facts, about journalism, than politics: it is about the use and abuse of power by implication, whereas Mark Felt is more explication.) The White House is putting all its crimes in different boxes, but it is all the same corruption, sees and says Felt later. Richard Nixon, despite the federal investigation, was respected by many American citizens; and in 1972 Nixon was elected again, by a large margin (Nixon defeated George McGovern, getting almost twenty-million more individual votes than McGovern, and 520 electoral votes to McGovern’s 17). Nixon, who accused others again and again of partisanship (accusations that could inspire doubt in significant public institutions), names the obedient Patrick Gray as the permanent director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with Bill Sullivan his second in command, subject to congressional approval; but the agency and Congress and the press continue to investigate; and, eventually, White House legal counsel John Dean begins to admit the administration’s wrongdoing, and Dean and chief of staff Bob Haldeman and domestic adviser John Ehrlichman all resign. (Dean himself would spend four months in prison; and Haldeman and Ehrlichman eighteen months.) “I’m not a crook,” Richard Nixon says, while claiming executive privilege over the evidence, documents and tapes, which he, Nixon, has in his possession, a claim the Supreme Court would evaluate. In life and in Peter Landesman’s film Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Nixon appointee Patrick Gray admits in a public hearing that Gray shared investigation documents with the White House and his appointment is not confirmed; and, finally, after the Supreme Court denies that executive privilege extends to withholding evidence, the tapes of presidential conversations confirm Richard Nixon’s participation in a political conspiracy (it seems Nixon was a crook); and Nixon is impeached (charged with crimes) in the House of Representatives, but before he was convicted by the Senate, Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, the ninth of August. The White House was not Nixon’s, but the American people’s White House—the man as president was but a caretaker; and we were, and are, reminded that good government depends on the vigilance of all.

(Article Submitted in June 2018)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 22, Issue 7 / July 2018 Film Reviews   bio-pic   george w. bush   oliver stone   ronald reagan   steven spielberg   watergate