When journalists look into the past, the era of Watergate looks like a better and braver time. Yet the genius of Ron Howard's new film Frost/Nixon is that it shows how much of our contemporary culture of infotainment and celebrity were present in the years right after Watergate--and how, at the right moment, even a a dodgy enterprise like David Frost's interviews with Richard Nixon could drag revealing words from the ex-president.
To be accurate, Frost at the time of the Nixon interviews wasn't quite as oily as he appears in the film. And Elizabeth Drew makes a good case that the "confession" wrung from Nixon, as depicted in the film, wasn't quite as momentous as Howard's picture makes it out to be.
Still, the negotiations between Frost and Nixon--which resulted in Nixon being paid for appearing in the interview--are a reminder that ethical compromises are nothing new in television. More valuable, however, is the idea that even a flawed venue like the Nixon/Frost interviews can produce valuable bits of history.
Frost/Nixon presents the interview as a battle between David and Goliath, in which Frost finally finds his nerve and pins a wily Nixon in an interview on Watergate. Even if this is a bit hyped, it does elicit the two utterly unforgettable quotes from Nixon: "when the president does, it, that means it is not illegal" and his maudlin statement on how he was not the victim of a coup, but of is own errors--how he gave his enemies a sword that they wielded with relish.
The first quote, which essentially places the president above the law, echoes into our own time in the wrongs of the Bush administration.
The second, which is Nixon at his most self-pitying, arrogant and cynical, treats his fall not as the consequence of his own dishonesty, but as result of a political error exploited by his enemies in good Washington fashion. Thus did Nixon contrive to look humble while casting aspersions on all politics.
America, and the world, have suffered enough from presidents who think they are above the law. And American politics has certainly been blighted by the notion, rampant since the Nixon years, that our politics is nothing more than the naked pursuit of selfish gain. Both points are worth remembering and both are driven home nicely by Frost/Nixon.