Clift: Seeing Bush in 'Frost/Nixon'

The last thing British playwright Peter Morgan wanted when he wrote the script for "Frost/Nixon" was to evoke sympathy for Richard Nixon or, even worse he says, dramatize presidential abuse of power in such a way that the movie would serve as a metaphor for the excesses of the Bush administration. Unfortunately for Morgan, he got both outcomes he claims to abhor, which bodes well for the movie's box-office success. Nixon, played masterfully by Frank Langella, emerges as a man in full, a character to understand even if he remains beyond forgiveness almost 35 years after he was forced to resign the presidency.

Morgan's gifts at humanizing were also on display in "The Queen," which he wrote, and which to his embarrassment sparked a huge outpouring of pro-monarchy sentiment, not at all what he intended. Judging by the knowing laughs at various points in "Frost/Nixon," the A-list crowd of politicos assembled in Washington Monday evening for a preview savored the parallels between the Nixon years and George W. Bush's overstepping of constitutional niceties.

In a panel discussion after the screening, director Ron Howard said he started out looking for a reason to forgive Nixon, but concluded that abuse of power cannot be forgiven, a remark that received applause. Howard said that isn't why he made the movie but he hoped it would serve as a reminder that democracy is fragile. Author James Reston Jr. (son and namesake of the legendary New York Times columnist) added that while his generation "railroaded" Nixon out of office, "what he did was trivial compared to George W. Bush." Reston helped British talk show host David Frost prepare for the landmark 1977 interviews with Nixon, and his research is credited with arming Frost for the breakthrough moment that made television history, an apology from the disgraced ex-president.

The assumption that Bush is worse than Nixon was evidently too much for Fox News' Chris Wallace, who accused the panel to a smattering of applause of "trivializing" what Nixon did and "misrepresenting" what Bush did by equating actions taken in the context of protecting the country with actions taken purely for political self-preservation. Wallace had a point, but one a tad too generous to Bush, whose place in history (and in the competitive Bush family) was also at stake as he rode roughshod over those who might challenge the course he had chosen. Do the ends always justify the means? The goal of the Frost interviews, as articulated by Reston, was to give Nixon the trial he had never gotten. And for a time, it looked like the whole venture would come off the rails. The three television networks turned down Frost, dismissing him as a frivolous entertainer. He had to scramble for financing, including a promised payment of $600,000 to Nixon, igniting a controversy over checkbook journalism even though some news outlets had also offered to pay Nixon, who needed the money for legal bills.

Until Frost found a way to goad Nixon into what was probably a faux apology, the interviews threatened to become one long self-serving Nixon filibuster. In the movie, trusted aide Jack Brennan (played by Kevin Bacon) advises the former president to crowd Frost—don't let him in—and the strategy works much of the time. When Frost finally gets what they need, his producer strips naked and rushes into the ocean to celebrate. (At the screening, playwright Morgan pointed out he's a dramatist, not a documentarian. He said that while the movie is not accurate, he hopes it is "truthful.") Reston (played by Sam Rockwell) is at first confused at why everyone is so euphoric. Then he understands. All it took was that one fleeting moment, Nixon's face close-up on camera, swollen and full of self-loathing and defeat. The rest of the project didn't matter; it ceased to exist. Indeed, the interviews were wildly successful, garnering the highest ratings in TV history and making the covers of both Time and NEWSWEEK.

For the American people, it was a welcome catharsis. Yet Nixon all these years later remains the gift that keeps on giving. More tapes released this week include a conversation between Nixon and Chief Justice Warren Burger, who is struggling with "this pornography thing" that has reached the Supreme Court. "Of course I'm a square on that," Nixon volunteers as Burger mocks the phrase, "redeeming social purpose," as an invention of liberal campuses to justify "orgies" as long as they mention Vietnam "or the condition of the ghetto." The conversation is illuminating not only for its paranoid right-wing tilt but for Nixon's enduring social awkwardness.

In the movie, Nixon admires Frost's shoes, expensive Gucci loafers. "You don't find them too effeminate?" he asks, adding, "Someone in your field can get away with them." At the end of the movie, as a farewell gift, Frost brings Nixon a pair. They sit on the sill of the patio as Nixon gazes out at the ocean. Director Howard experimented with having Nixon try the shoes on and that version tested better with audiences. It showed Nixon had changed, but that wasn't the message. Nixon hadn't changed. Playwright Morgan put it best, "I have no doubt that within minutes, like with a science-fiction creature, the wound had healed." It was a television triumph, but that was all.