I haven’t seen the new Nixon/Frost film. I do dimly remember the original Richard Nixon-David Frost interviews, and I think Ezra (who is way too young to have been there) overstates their impact on the nation. (I also don’t think “lightweight talk-show host” is an accurate description of David Frost’s place in media at the time. As I remember, he filled about the same niche that Barbara Walters lives in now. But that’s not an important point.)

Ezra writes,

The payoff of the “Frost/Nixon” interview was a close-up view of Nixon’s unending self-punishment. As James Reston Jr. put it, the whole confrontation was prelude to a single instant, our final glimpse of Nixon, his “face swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat.”

“Frost/Nixon” is about the need for national closure after a president has betrayed the public trust. Its question is mainly operational: How can justice be achieved when the criminal has been pardoned? For Nixon, an interview sufficed. But though the movie aches to give Frost, and thus the public, agency in Nixon’s televised collapse, it is in fact Nixon who chooses to give the country what it needs. Bush is unlikely to do the same.

I don’t think the country got what it needed. Yes, Nixon lived out the rest of his life in disgrace, and some of the Watergate conspirators got jail time. But what the country needed was a full and open acknowledgment from the perps that they were guilty of wrongdoing, and that we never got. As a result, on the Right the myth lived on that Watergate wasn’t that big a deal, and that Nixon and company went down just because liberal elitists were out to get him.

So while most citizens left Nixon in the past and moved on, on the Right the disgrace of Nixon was piled onto the rotting compost heap of resentment that feeds them. And the same mindset — and some of the same players — resurfaced in the Iran/Contra scandal, which the Right was powerful enough to bury alive, and again during the Bush Administration, probably even more than we know about.

Ezra also compares Nixon to the clueless wonder in the White House now. There are a lot of similarities between Tricky Dick and Dubya, but some ways they are very different. For example, Nixon was keenly intelligent, and Bush is not. Nixon also did not live his entire life in a bubble of power and privilege, as Bush has.

Ezra writes,

Nixon decided to give the country closure. That meant sacrificing the comfort of hiding behind partisanship, and it meant admitting the failures of his presidency.

Nixon couldn’t very well hide behind partisanship, because the Republican Party establishment of the time had deserted him. But he was also enough of a realist to perceive that his political life was over. (Was he genuinely repentant? I doubt it.) My read of Bush, on the other hand, is that he is not likely to admit failure because, unlike Nixon, he has never had to experience failure. This is not to say that he hasn’t failed, but that he has never had to live with and fully atone for the consequences of his failures. In his own mind, he is successful.

Bush shows no such inclination. And on this, he retains agency. Conflicting evaluations of his presidency will simply collide in the postmodern thunderdome of contemporary partisanship.

We’ll see. The current Republican establishment has not yet completely abandoned Bush. The Party has yet to atone for the consequences of its failures, and perhaps it never will. But once out of the White House Bush will find disgrace and ignominy, and unlike Nixon I don’t think he’s prepared for it.

24 thoughts on “Nixon/Frost/Bush

  1. Have not seen the movie. I watched the interviews (David Frost was small, and not hard-hitting, but absolutely not a light-weight). I remember being struck by how intensely Nixon felt sorry for himself. Frost let him do so. The result was maudlin and disgusting. Which, in hindsight, was perfect.

    (The other memorable Frost interview was with Jimi Hendrix, who at the time was villified for disrespecting the National Anthem at Woodstock. Frost showed him to be a very sweet, kind and gentle person.)

  2. As is usually the case, I agree with you maha. I have often thought that the Nixon pardon while some underlings took it in the neck may have set a precedent of sorts as today the instigators, the manipulators, the policy setters escape punishment while their employees take it in the neck.

    The ONLY camparison between Nixon and Bush is that they both presided over failed presidencies. Bush will forever be incapable of seeing himself in anything but a good light because he can live only if he can avoid anxiety. Nixon was a classic paranoid and I’m clueless as to what goes on in that world.

  3. Ezra is wrong about the country and its collective “closure” from the interviews.

    I was pretty young myself at the time, but I do remember them, and for me & my family & my school classes at the time, it was more about curiosity than anything else. I don’t think anyone gave a huge sigh of relief & said “thank goodness that’s over and we can trust our elected officials again!” (In fact, Ford’s pardon of Nixon destroyed my faith in democracy. I was, as I say, very young at the time, but I remember thinking quite clearly that this man — Nixon — was “getting away with it” because he had connections. And that that was very very wrong. And I haven’t had faith in our elected officials to do the right thing ever since. What do you suppose the number is of politicians at the federal level that actually believes in right & wrong? As opposed to wanting this, massaging that, let’s strike a compromise, is it REALLY so bad if we …? and so on. They equivocate away until the lines between right and wrong are washed away.)

  4. Nixon’s presidency did not have to fail. The tragedy is that, despite his gifts, Nixon allowed his own insecurities to overwhelm him. Bush having no other gift than favorable birth, was doomed to failure. Molly Ivins tried to warn us, but like Cassandra, she went unheeded. Instead of tragedy, the reign of Bush is blackest farce.

  5. zhak,
    I was in High School when Ford pardoned Nixon, and I thought it sent the wrong message to the country.

    Nixon, for all of his faults, was a political genious (read Perlsteins “Nixonland”).
    Bush is a ‘goober.”
    Unlike Nixon, who, after his Presidency, was much sought after for his opinion on foreign affairs, Bush will wake up on January 21st with an empty calendar.
    No one in the world gives one tiny jalepeno shit over what this fucking imbecile thinks about absolutely fucking anything.
    He and Laura, if she stays with him, will awaken every morning to complete irrelevancy.
    Yes, he’ll get some speaking engagements as part of the right-wing, wing-nut welfare . But, no one will ever, EVER, take him seriously.
    Painful irrelevance. That will be his legacy…
    I couldn’t wish it on a more deserving person…………………..

  6. maha, your take agrees with mine, spot-on, with one minor quibble. We agree that Bush really does believe he was a success. But despite what the world and even his party thinks, he will surround himself with sycophants who also believe the same, or who at least can act the part, until Bush is not useful to them – in other words, until the favors, influence and the money runs out. Bush’s great gift is conning others, and that’s not going to end soon.

    I never saw the real Frost/Nixon interiews, but I was alive and aware at that time, and agree that Ezra overstates their significance. Frost came to speak at my college in the 70s, and he came off as a gifted communicator, lightweight and even effervescent in style, but not in intellect.

    I saw a preview of the movie – looking forward to it.

  7. For Christmas I wish that W is given a healthy influx of intellectual curiousity and introspection, so that he will be able finally to appreciate his role in American history. I am mean and nasty enough to wish him to live with it throughout a long and healthy life.

  8. As I recall from those days, David Frost was kind of a pompous ass. He was really no better than Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas, who at least were fun to watch (Douglas especially).

  9. W has never accepted responsibility for anything. In a recent interview he still couldn’t think of a single thing that he’d like a re-do. He still thinks Iraq is wonderful. I wonder if his staff will pull the O’s from the White House keyboards on the last day? Bill Clinton did a breakfast meeting the week before last in London (Ontario) for 100 grand US. Not much chance of W seeing that kind of money giving breakfast speeches and all considering his current level of toxicity.

  10. But once out of the White House Bush will find disgrace and ignominy,

    I disagree with this statement…Bush doesn’t have the moral foundation to support a sense of disgrace, nor ignominy. Bush will view himself as a victim of misunderstanding, a greatness unrecognized and unappreciated by the ungrateful masses. He’ll continue until his dying day in his delusion that history will redeem him from it’s unjust verdict. There is no hope that Bush will ever experience the anguish of true regret or sincere sorrow. He’s a psychopath who is incapable of knowing a conscience.

  11. Bush has a problem but it isn’t stupid….I am not saying this to be mean but I think bush has mental issues,,I mean the dude hears voices in his head and he thinks it is God directing him…for all the hell we know it was dick cheney over the damn intercom system.

    Look we all have mental issues if we have lived at all, IMHO, but I am not talking about that..This dude is a real sick puppy on a whole other level.I am not about to let him off with stupid….

    But here is where I see this coming together, the whole Bush/ Nixon thing- because of Nixon we had bush. That is to say bush and his “people” knew he could get away with all of the things they did because of Nixon..Nixon and whomever is to blame, be it the country for not DEMANDING Nixon be brought to justice or Ford for giving him a pardon or someone in between did a major dis- service to future generations.Safe guards should have been put in place at that time to protect the country from future presidents and their criminal behavior…instead we sent the message thru history that presidential law breaking would not be punished because the country” just didn’t have the stomach for it”

    The waters have been tested and everytime no one calls foul they learn they can take it a bit further(Iran contra ring any bells?) …they all think “hey WTF? Its not like I will ever be held to account for it!”

    But you know what? bush is different.His crimes are worldwide and when we don’t call this one to account we can elect 100 Obamas and it won’t fix this in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of truth. I don’t care what anyone says the man has left a path of destruction and death behind him and then some…the world isn’t stupid everyone can see what has been done by that man in OUR name.They are watching and waiting for us to police our own and they are waiting to see justice..we can either take the fall as a nation for bush by doing nothing to clean up our mess or we can hold bush up and say “This was criminal behavior and we as a nation will not allow it to go un- punished.” Whether we have the stomach for it or not what is right sometimes NEEDS to be done…And if nothing else the punishment for doing nothing is the next time we have to overlook more and more serious criminal behavior…imagine more death and destruction than this one did?

    Yep bush is on his way out, but the stain remains.

    And on a more beautiful note: It’s funny how things change..Now that Hendrix song is played at 4th displays at Ft. Leavenworth KS and it is beloved…it makes the crowd pride just swell and I admit it, seeing that and hearing their screams and cheers as Jimi plays in the back round outshining the fireworks I get kinda misty with patriotism myself…and I think Jimi might just dig it ! Isn’t music a wonderful thing? Move over rover!

  12. Regarding what Bush will face when he leaves office, I agree that he’ll surround himself with sycophants. However, as we learned last year, he expects to make money by being an ex-President. He thinks he’ll get lucrative speaking gigs, and he plans to build a “Freedom Institute,” I assume with donated money. I can’t see that many people donating him money or paying him big bucks to speak.

  13. I also don’t think “lightweight talk-show host” is an accurate description of David Frost’s place in media at the time.

    That’s the statement of someone who really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It makes me thing — rightly or wrongly — that the writer isn’t worth reading on that subject. Frost was the guy who got the interviews no one else ever could, because he did them really well. He got Johnny Carson to do an interview (and even got him to do part of his old ventrilitism act). His long form interviews were extremely well prepared and very good. Frost also had some of that edge left from his old TW3 (That was the week that was) weekly news satire show. How old is Ezra?

    I see, BTW, that Ezra was born in 1984. He should probably avoid making grand pronouncements on matters before his time that require personal judgement or experience.

  14. Ezra’s statement, not yours, Maha. I should’ve made that clear in my comment. Sorry if I confused.

  15. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Bush “liberated” 50 million people.. by numbers alone, that makes Lincoln look like a piker.

    Oh, he also liberated 4200+ Americans from the burden of living.

  16. If we can put Blogojevich aside for a moment, how is Obama doing?

    The Wall Street Journal is running a poll this morning that says Obama is picking up support from a wide range of people, including mnay former McCain supporters.

    Overall, a majority of Americans are confident in Mr. Obama’s ability to govern and unify the country, with many who didn’t vote for him now seeing him in a positive light. The poll found that 73% of adults approve of the way he is handling the transition and his preparations for becoming president.

    Apparently, there is more unity behind Obama than there was behind Clinton in 1992 or Bush in 2000.

    Of course, those surveyed also agree that Obama faces bigger problems than either of the former two presidents and his actions will be watched with close scrutiny.

    The article continues:

    Similarly, three of four say he has struck the right balance over how involved he should be in making policy before taking office. Two-thirds say they are generally pleased with the people he has appointed.

    The mood will give Mr. Obama a longer-than-typical honeymoon, predicted Peter D. Hart, a Democratic pollster who conducts the survey with Republican Bill McInturff.

    “All these expectations are sort of sky high prior to his inauguration,” Mr. Hart said. “From that vantage point, he has a very long leash.”

    Realize that over half of those polled feel that 2008 has been the worst year in our recent economic history and this effects the support that is being given Obama by 3 out of 4 Americans.

    And how did the survey respondents feel about Bush?

    The survey also offers a final report card on Mr. Bush, who leaves office with near-record-low popularity. Just 18% say they are going to miss him when he is gone, half the number Mr. Clinton recorded on his way out of office. Asked to compare Mr. Bush with the past several presidents, half of those surveyed said he will go down as worse than most.

    I wonder if those who will miss him fall into the range of the top 1% of our economic population. My guess is that they are the ones who would like the last eight years to continue forever.

    Under The LobsterScope

  17. As I recall from those days, David Frost was kind of a pompous ass. He was really no better than Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas, who at least were fun to watch (Douglas especially).

    My recollection as well. If you wanted smart, you watched Dick Cavett.

  18. My favorite part of Nixon’s post-WH days was when his application for residency in a NYC condominium was rejected. Now we get to see a “rich white folks only” Dallas neighborhood welcome george with open arms.

    I’m putting my hopes on Laura rejecting this worm at some point.

  19. #19 Give up Stella. They can get a big enough house that they can come to the same room when the girls are visiting and the rest of the time they can have their peace with no headlines and rarely even see each other.

    Best to put your hopes on something more likely.

    Goooo Obama!

  20. Maha, I expect that money will found for a Freedom Institute. There are lot of rich people who would fund it — think Richard Mellon Scaife and other likes him, the folks who fund the Heritage Foundation, etc. Even with the economic crises we’re in, they have the kind of money to fund it.

  21. Well if we’re making predictions about Bush’s post-Presidency days: He will follow in his great… grand uncle Franklin Pierce’s footsteps and drink himself to death.

  22. I’m sure many others have had this insight before I did, but it struck me years ago that the inability to admit error was a defining characteristic of modern-day conservatism and conservatives. Not that all of us on the other side of the spectrum are anywhere close to perfect in that regard, but I’d have thought the sheer weight of failed conservative doctrine and history (supply-side economics, WMDs in Iraq, and Vietnam revisionism to name a few) would have broken the backs of the sturdiest conservative partisans. Or at least, I’d have thought that were there not even now an amazingly large portion of the electorate that still approves of Pres. Bush–something like 26%, I understand.

    It is my opinion that Bush’s biggest appeal in 2000 was not that he was the “guy you’d rather have a beer with,” but that many voters sensed that there was no chance he would ever do or say anything that would challenge their beliefs–that, in fact, he would stubbornly affirm the sky was green to the bitter end. I don’t intend this as a blanket indictment; certainly it’s possible to name some intelligent, thoughtful conservatives in the public sphere. However, it generally takes a few minutes of thought to come up with the names.

  23. Bush can’t be unaware of the widepread revulsion the vast majority have for him. His own Methodist Church denied him the use of Southern Methodist University to house his presidential library.

    In the past he’s sublimated any honest assessment of public opinion which has at times fueled his own resentment acted out in a variety of destructive and even self-destructive ways.

    We’ve seen strains of cultural resentment that arose from the Vietnam war passed down generation to generation by those who apparently feel intense personal shame regarding anything less than complete and total victory and equally complete destruction of anyone deemed the enemy.

    It is significant that the 26% of the electorate still approving of Bush is the approximate % that psychologists estimate authoritarian followers to exist in populations of any given culture.

    I would not expect any of the effects being discussed here to disappear nor would I expect that 51% will not occasionally fall in line with the 26%, particularly during times of duress.

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