Apr 25, 2009

DOOMED TO REPEAT - THOUGHTS ON FROST/NIXON

Now that Frost/Nixon is available on DVD or On Demand more of us have had the opportunity to see and respond to the Ron Howard film. I have re-read the relatively unflattering reviews here on Daily Kos by AdamB and chingchongchinaman and the even less flattering comments to both diaries. But over the past 48 hours I've viewed the DVD and the special features completely twice and parts more often. In addition I've had the computer by my side consulting the YouTube interviews and additional historical references, so I am not limited to a memory from a single viewing in a theater. So let's discuss this again in relation to what is current - prosecution of the Bush administration for torture and lying to the American people.

At 63 years of age I have a complete perspective of the Nixon years. I watched every minute of the Watergate hearings after leaving the USA for Canada on the eve of Nixon's re-election in 1972. I worked hard for George McGovern and decided I should not live in a country that would elect Nixon for a second term. At 26 years of age in 1972 I was passionate about politics and very involved in raising money for Jimmy Carter so I could feel good about returning home in 1975.
As a starting point in this discussion I offer these quotes from George Santayana who is responsible for the "Doomed to Repeat" title reference
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

* This famous statement has produced many paraphrases and variants:
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.
Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it.
Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.

History is nothing but assisted and recorded memory. It might almost be said to be no science at all, if memory and faith in memory were not what science necessarily rest on. In order to sift evidence we must rely on some witness, and we must trust experience before we proceed to expand it. The line between what is known scientifically and what has to be assumed in order to support knowledge is impossible to draw. Memory itself is an internal rumour; and when to this hearsay within the mind we add the falsified echoes that reach us from others, we have but a shifting and unseizable basis to build upon. The picture we frame of the past changes continually and grows every day less similar to the original experience which it purports to describe. George Santayana
I find these thoughts to be agreeable, and it is in that agreement where I wish to engage debate about the film Frost/Nixon as a distillation of one view of the history for the purpose of compelling drama. Is that really such a problem?
We cannot expect any kind of a majority of American's to dig deeply into the specific history of Frost/Nixon or Watergate or the Nixon Presidency. I feel that Frost/Nixon is wonderful tool for teaching a simple truth. Nixon's statement "When a President does it it isn't illegal" seems to me to be a good place to start a conversation about what made the Bush/Cheney administration so wrong and why prosecution on any part of their crimes is preferable to the alternative.
You may find this article from TIME published shortly after the airing of the Frost/Nixon interviews illuminating. I cannot find anything is the article read shortly after viewing the film on DVD that dissuades me from the view that the film is of great value as a starting point to interest more people in prosecution. If Nixon's lawlessness and his escape from legal responsibility led to Bush/Cheney, should we not learn that allowing them to escape will only lead to more illegal activity in the future?
Perhaps the most interesting perspective comes from James Reston Jr. who was deeply involved in the interviews and passionate about prosecuting Nixon for his crimes. Reston says of the play and the film:
In a New York Times article published this past November, Morgan (Peter Morgan, the acclaimed British screenwriter (The Queen), who wrote the play) was unabashed about distorting facts. "Whose facts?" he told the Times reporter. Hearing different versions of the same events, he said, had taught him "what a complete farce history is."
I emphatically disagreed. No legitimate historian can accept history as a creation in which fact and fiction are equals. Years later participants in historical events may not agree on "a single, 'true' version of what happened," but it's the historian's responsibility to sort out who is telling the truth and who is covering up or merely forgetful.
But this was not my play. I was merely a resource; my role was narrow and peripheral. Frost/Nixon—both the play and the movie—transcends history. Perhaps it is not even history at all: in Hollywood, the prevailing view is that a "history lesson" is the kiss of commercial death. In reaching for an international audience, one that includes millions unversed in recent American history, Morgan and Ron Howard, the film's director, make the history virtually irrelevant.
In the end it is not about Nixon or Watergate at all. It's about human behavior, and it rises upon such tran­scendent themes as guilt and innocence, resistance and enlightenment, confession and redemption. These are themes that straight history can rarely crystallize. In the presence of the playwright's achievement, the historian—or a participant—can only stand in the wings and applaud.
If Reston can have this perspective who are we to disagree with his applause? If he can view the play and film as being about guilt and innocence is that enough to make it useful in bringing others to view prosecution as an impediment to future wrongdoing instead of some dwelling on the past? If President Obama wants to look forward can he not look forward to a future where leaders know they will be prosecuted if they break the law?
I feel the article in Time and Reston's point of view are ample evidence that the film and play constitute a reasonable distillation of the event more than suitable for inspiring large numbers of people to think positively about prosecution of Bush administration officials for their criminal activity.
It seems to me the negativity about the Frost/Nixon project is counterproductive to the goal of encouraging American's to support the prosecution of wrong doing at the pinnacles of power. We watched the Republicans prosecute Bill Clinton for being less than candid about a sexual encounter and now we are seeing a lack of united resolve on the part of the current leadership to go after Bush/Cheney for criminal activity that has cost the lives of thousands of American's and many more Iraqi citizens.
If the thousands who read Daily Kos were to actively rent/buy and show this Frost/Nixon DVD to their friends and families with the intent to engage them on the idea of demanding prosecution of criminal activity by the Bush/Cheney administration perhaps we could put an end to this kind of criminal activity in high office for a longer time span then 25 to 30 years(1977 to 2002-7)that passed between the Frost/Nixon interviews and the crimes of the Bush/Cheney administration. Perhaps the Santayana quote that has been distorted to give us the idea 'those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it' combined with the slightly distorted history of Frost/Nixon may help lead to a majority of American's demanding accountability through prosecution of these Republican's who believe they are above the law because they hold high office.
If you know of a more compelling piece of contemporary art that has the capacity to inspire action please let me know. If not please give your recommendations if you agree that Frost/Nixon is worth seeing and promoting as a tool to get others to encourage prosecution to stop the cycle of abuse of power. Go rent or buy Frost/Nixon and think about it in these terms as a part of the experience. It is a brilliant reminder of a not too distant past that is relevant to the central discussion today involving prosecution of high officials for breaking the law.
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