"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Watergate needn't be revived by Hollywood

The movie "True Grit" has been re-made and it looks promising. The preview clips show Jeff Bridges in a role that could be award-winning for him. He reprises the role made famous by John Wayne.
Look for him with his horse's reins in his teeth so both hands are available for his pistols.
Re-makes are all the rage.
Hollywood could do us a favor by not re-making "All the President's Men." It was a successful movie that revealed the process by which the Richard Nixon administration crumbled.
It was a movie that featured the best of Hollywood including Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Redford and Hoffman played Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively. It was a detective movie that had newspaper reporters as the detectives.
You can never rule out the re-make of a successful movie. But I doubt this movie's storyline would really be entertaining in the year 2010. It would drag us through a story line in American history that is so forgettable. It was avoidable.
The best way to have avoided it, would be to have a president who just had the basic scruples to not allow certain bad behavior. The reason we have lawyers is that we can't rely on people's basic scruples. We need laws to keep our darker side in check.
Watergate even gave lawyers a bad name for a while. Many of the principals were associated with that profession.
Watergate was even bad for the newspaper business.
The heroes did in fact appear to be newspaper people. But this is not a role that is proper for them. Journalists came out of Watergate with this delusion that it's their role to take down wrongdoers.
Heaven help us if that's true. They are no more capable of donning a cape than I am of winning a piano competition. (I played trumpet.)
The political system just needs checks and balances. Something was out of whack leading up to Watergate. We had a president who had been in the political system too long. He thought he owned it.
It's a common human failing.
Richard Nixon was vice president under Dwight Eisenhower for eight years. He was barely denied the presidency in 1960 and became bitter because of that. He became convinced that politics was a blood sport.
Nixon wasn't caught doing anything unseemly in the 1968 campaign. He beat our own Hubert Humphrey in perhaps the most tumultuous year in American history. He campaigned like a conservative but governed far more like a centrist.
It's always wise to campaign like a conservative.
I can't imagine any scenario by which Nixon could have lost in 1972. But for some reason, maybe because 1960 had left him cautious and cynical, he went scorched-earth. He was caught.
Let's debunk: It wasn't the genius of any newspaper reporters that brought him down. The reporters were pawns on the chessboard. They were manipulated.
The real players were power figures through the myriad hierarchies in Washington D.C.
Pat Buchanan has called Woodward and Bernstein "stenographers."
They had plenty of legwork to perform, of course. In the end they put enough pieces in the puzzle together to cause (or reveal) the spectacle of Watergate.
They worked the rotary dial telephones. They rapped on doors. They talked to all kinds of people who today would probably be revolted by the thought of talking to a reporter.
Reporters circulated with fewer impediments then. They were allowed to wear those "capes" to a certain extent. Not today. People feel empowered to manage their own communications universe.
Perhaps we have forgotten how weary we became of the term "Watergate." The truth of the scandal came out in dribs and drabs. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.
It was good for the truth to come out. It was wrong for newspaper reporters to have that superhero sheen.
Regarding the latter, I think the legal profession decided "no more of that." Lawyers had a black eye and were going to get the ship righted on their own terms. Quite proper.
Reforms were initiated. Legal professionals could ferret out the truth in the future, or take the lead. (The terms "lawyers" and "politicians" are pretty interchangeable.)
It was no more healthy for young writers to be influenced by Woodward and Bernstein than for young artists to be influenced by Jackson Pollack. Woodward and Bernstein were Beltway animals. It'a a different planet from America's heartland.
The face of "journalism" began changing in ways that couldn't have been foreseen. Technology showed that journalism could take many forms. It's evolving as we speak.
It's a more enlightened world we now live in. There's more sunlight, yes, even with "Wikileaks."
The Washington Post limps along the way all newspapers are limping along. Paul Gillin of Newspaper Death Watch has said that Watergate is the worst thing that ever happened to journalism. Because it made reporters feel like they should be celebrities.
Bernstein is able to go on Larry King because of Watergate. He was quoted recently on the Poynter Institute website saying "the system worked" in Watergate. It certainly did for him. It was dysfunctional by the germane criteria.
The reporters needed luck to come through as heroes. There was drama that comes through great on the movie screen. But in the real world we don't need such drama.
Bob Woodward writes a treadmill book every couple of years. He and his "sources" all know how the (Beltway) game is played: Let's reflect on the (predictable) conflict, turf battles and personality issues that arise in D.C., get some quotes that include expletives and sell books.
"All the President's Men" was a truly significant book. Nice catchy title too. The fact that it would be parlayed into a movie allowed Woodward and Bernstein to do a "high five" if they chose.
A remake of that movie is probably a no-go. It would revive such a ridiculous chapter in American history.
We don't even want to get our young people thinking about how such cynical machinations are possible. The late Leslie Nielsen could have at least made the Nixon character funny.
It all began with the arrest of five men for breaking and entering at Democratic National Headquarters. The date was June 17, 1972.
Less than a month after that, I was having my evening meal on the roof of the then-new Kennedy Center. I couldn't have imagined all the intrigue that was unfolding in connection to Watergate, a stone's throw away.
I'm not sure if the term had general circulation yet. But the Washington Post was quite surely on the trail. I know because I have a back issue from then.
I was already interested in the media so naturally I was going to tuck the Post under my arm.
I kept the July 11, 1972, issue all these years because I'm in a photo that appears in it. I was in a musical group that also included Joan Force, whose personal web page is linked in the right-hand column on this blog.
Joan is a lifelong Iowa resident. Force is her maiden name so that's how I knew her. Today she's a top-notch trumpeter with the Eastern Iowa Brass Band of Cedar Rapids.
The musical endeavor we shared in 1972 was special. You could tell the Kennedy Center was new because the land immediately surrounding it was scruffy, not landscaped. Its public debut was in September of the previous year.
Richard Nixon could have had a grand second term, perhaps blemished only by a too-late exit from Viet Nam. But his hubris sank him miserably.
My July 11 Washington Post has a front page article co-written by Bob Woodward and a collaborator who was not Carl Bernstein. I have always been vaguely aware that not all of the Watergate articles were Woodward-Bernstein projects.
Woodward worked with Paul Valentine for the July 11 article. Located at the bottom of page 1, the fairly prominent headline is as follows: "GOP says 'bug' hearings would hurt campaign."
Here's the first sentence: "The committee for the re-election of the president said yesterday that civil court hearings in connection with the alleged break-in and attempted bugging of Democratic headquarters here could cause 'incalculable' damage to President Nixon's campaign."
The cat and mouse game was on.
A whole array of names entered the news as the snowball rolled downhill: Hugh Sloan, Bernard Barker, G. Gordon Liddy, Jeb Magruder, Donald Segretti - enough for an extensive series of trading cards.
By October of 1972, the FBI concluded that the Watergate break-in was part of a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage on behalf of officials and heads of the Nixon re-election campaign. It's amazing that so many high-ranking people got their hands dirty. One would expect a little more finesse.
Extracting the truth was like extracting teeth until we finally reached the point where Nixon, badly deteriorated in his state of mind, left the presidency.
Normally, significant historical episodes make good movie material. We've already had "All the President's Men."
We're best off leaving that whole mess in the past now. Let's just enjoy good old-fashioned westerns like "True Grit."
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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