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.)
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.
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.