Reliving Nixon’s ‘Final Days’ : ABC-TV docudrama, based on Woodward/Bernstein book, details the resignation of a President
He swallowed his words saying, “We have done some things wrong in this Administration and the top man always takes the responsibility. . . .”
He fought back tears talking about his father, who owned the “poorest lemon ranch in California,” then sold it before they struck oil and became a grocer. “But he was a great man because he did his job. . . .”
And when he mentioned his mother, whom he said no one would ever write a book about, his voice fell to a whisper. “Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother"--he paused--"my mother was a saint. “
It was from Richard Nixon’s last speech as President on Friday Aug., 9, 1974, coming back to TV in the form of docudrama. And these were the final days in the shooting of “The Final Days"--a three-hour movie for ABC based on the 1976 book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein--with actor Lane Smith as Nixon. As the fourth in a series of AT&T; Presents dramas, “Final Days” airs next season.
In the Gold Room at Pasadena Civic Auditorium late last winter--the high-ceilinged ballroom bore the closest resemblance the producers could find to the East Room of the White House--there was a palpable hush among the cast and 200 extras as Smith portrayed Nixon.
Behind the Nixon character a pace and off to his left stood actress Susan Brown, looking oh-so-much like the real Pat Nixon with her prim hairdo and pink-and-white gingham dress just like the one the First Lady wore that final day. As Mrs. Nixon, the actress also wore a stoic face reddened by the effort to stay in control. The characters of the two Nixon daughters and sons-in-law completed the picture.
Now 15 years later--and much to the disapproval of Nixon family loyalists--here they all are again--Dick and Pat, Watergate and the lawyers, the courts and the tapes. Facing certain impeachment on charges of obstruction of justice and abuse of power, the 37th President had virtually no choice but to resign. The irony was that it was not the actual break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972 that forced the first presidential resignation in American history, but the cover-up afterward.
As the last chapter of the Watergate scandal, written by the two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story, “Final Days” was the stuff of high drama. Like the book, the script deals with the behind-the-scenes saga of the last 15 months in the Nixon White House. The mood of fatalism is summed up early on in the docudrama when Nixon lawyer Leonard Garment, played by “St. Elsewhere’s” Ed Flanders, says: “We’ve got time bombs all over. Some have already exploded, the rest lie ticking. . . .”
“I didn’t want to do the obvious,” said executive producer Stu Samuels, who had been ABC’s vice president for movies and miniseries when “The Day After,” the landmark drama about nuclear war, and “Something About Amelia,” the first TV movie to deal with incest, were made. “I didn’t want to bash Nixon.”
Without prompting, Samuels shrugged. “Because it’s too easy. The issue for me was: How do you provide insight into the mistake? Clearly Nixon had made a mistake. How did that happen?”
“Look at the man’s accomplishments: Nixon remains one of the most outstanding Presidents in contemporary history with regard to his achievements. He did get us out of Vietnam. He did reopen a dialogue with China. This is not a stupid man, a man given to casual error. . . .
“There’s a wonderful moment in the movie,” Samuels said, “when Nixon is in his E.O.B. (Executive Office Building) office, when he says to (Press Secretary Ron) Ziegler, ‘Maybe we were talking about a cover-up.’ It’s as though he were waking from a dream, at least from an unconscious state, and asking himself, ‘Is this what we were doing?’ Our own assessment is that this President acted as though he were on a kind of auto pilot.”
The script was written by Hugh Whitemore, an Englishman who wrote “Concealed Enemies,” PBS’ Emmy-winning “American Playhouse” miniseries about the Alger Hiss case (in which then-Rep. Nixon had a featured role), as well as the plays “Pack of Lies” and “Breaking the Code.” Both Samuels and ABC felt that a non-American would be more dispassionate.
Whitemore anchored his script around Nixon lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt. “It’s pure instinct, but dramatically it seems to me things work better with much less-known people,” the writer said.
So, while the relatively unfamiliar Smith and Brown respectively play Nixon and Mrs. Nixon, Richard Kiley (“A Year in the Life,” “Man of La Mancha”) is Buzhardt.
Asked what attracted him to the role of Buzhardt, one the least known of the Watergate players, Kiley snapped to attention: “You just answered your own question. He was one of the mystery men, very much behind the scenes, and yet he played a key role. He was the one who really found the incriminating (tape) passages. . . .”
Woodward, now an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post and author of another controversial book-turned-movie, “Wired,” about the final days of comedian John Belushi, was an active consultant on the production. He supplied notes on Buzhardt.
It was in the final speech that Nixon shed some emotional masks, as well as a certain vanity. Reading a passage from Theodore Roosevelt’s diary, he put his glasses on for the first time in public. So does Smith in his long monologue.
How do you play Nixon? And how do you bypass what director Richard Pearce calls the bump-- that instant when the audience knows it’s an actor, after all?
Pearce (“Country,” “Heartland”), who was in Yale’s Class of 1965 with Woodward though they didn’t know each other then, said he “did not want the portrait of Nixon to be charged with a star turn, somebody who is doing Nixon.”
So, with ABC’s consent, he chose Smith, 50, originally from Memphis, a professional actor for 29 years, who won a Drama Desk award for his role in “Glengarry Glen Ross” on Broadway.
The actor was cast so hurriedly as Nixon--less than a week before shooting began--that he had no time to read the book. His hairline was shaved to resemble Nixon’s, and each morning his hair had to be finger-waved. But a prosthetic ski-jump nose was not used. Neither Pearce nor Smith wanted “imitation” or “caricature.”
Preparing to read for ABC, Smith found an old Nixon tape. “I got the physicality of Nixon,” Smith said. “He’s so specific in what he does, but you have to get it to the point where it’s second nature to you, and then not overdo it.”
“I stay pretty much in character the whole time I’m here, I stay in the physicality. I’ll show you,” Smith said, standing and hitching up his trousers. “My father used to wear his pants real high like they did in those days. And all of a sudden I saw pictures of Nixon with his pants way up to here. So you put your pants up there, and it’s a little tilt back, and then all of a sudden it’s just there . . . .”
Smith captured the Nixon wave as he stood on the helicopter ramp, when he realized Nixon “throws his hand away almost. His wrist, it’s limp but it’s not effeminate. And I think part of that physicality is that there’s so much emotion there.”
The actor deliberately did not view tapes of Nixon’s final speech, but he said he could play it because he understands loss. “Here you have this man totally isolated from everybody, from his loved ones. He can’t reach out to a soul. With all the power and majesty of his office, you have him isolated down to three or four people. So you see the pain.”
Wasn’t the pain brought on by Nixon himself, Smith was asked?
“Pain is pain. I can’t approach this, right or wrong, who’s going to throw the first stone here? Regardless of whether he brought this upon himself, it’s tragedy, Greek tragedy, it’s Richard III, the fatal flaw. And I had to evoke in my experience that pain. . . . I called on the very most private things that have occurred to me, as far as the loss of a great love, and the isolation, when things totally turned against me in my life.”
He was quiet for a moment, making it clear he would not brook further questions, then added: “If there is a parallel between Nixon and Lane Smith, it’s that I’ve been waiting for this moment for many, many years and for this kind of work. So when it came about, even with this short a period of time, it’s like everything that I know, my whole experience of 36 years, 29 professional, it all came together.”
For Pearce, 15 years after Nixon’s resignation, his movie must balance “the emotional issues surrounding this man’s loss of the presidency and the abuses of power that went on during the Nixon presidency. It’s not the sorrow and the pity, it’s like the horror and the pity. . . .”
Two days after principal photography was done in March, the director was discussing technique as well as politics.
“We begin the movie--it’s not in the script--when Nixon is backstage on nomination night ’68, and it echoes everything up to the (Robert F.) Kennedy assassination. All the Secret Service are there, and the kitchen help and the campaigners, and you (Nixon) are like a rock star.
“For me there’s a great shot from an early film when people were first working with hand-held cameras. It’s a documentary called ‘Primary’ about (John F.) Kennedy in the Wisconsin primary. This was (early) cinema verite where people were following a character around. The camera was right behind the back of his head, and you saw what it was like to be Kennedy that night.”
Pearce would have liked to take the Nixon character onto the stage “to see the whole place rise up” but he said budgetary constraints precluded re-creating the GOP Convention in Miami.
“But we could take him right up to the moment that he walks out on stage,” Pearce continued, “and then with stock footage, you see Nixon from a distance, the footage so far away you can accept it. Then we go to the speech that begins the script, and the preparations for it. You don’t see Lane Smith’s face. You see it the way you saw Kennedy--you never saw Jack Kennedy’s face; you saw everybody else relating to him. You never hear Nixon’s actual voice. You hear Lane’s voice.
“Then what happens, you gradually introduce the image of him as Nixon on a TV monitor. It was easier to introduce him where you sort of felt he was President. He’s talking about accepting the resignations of (H.R.) Haldeman and (John) Ehrlichman, he’s speaking about Watergate. . . .”
By the end of that speech, said Pearce, “we will have seen enough of Lane as President to allow him to speak directly to the audience.”
The Nixon camp apparently first learned about a TV production of “The Final Days” after Pearce phoned Steve Bull, now a tobacco company lobbyist who had been Nixon’s personal aide. “You can imagine, I’m going to have to re-create not just the words but what it felt like to be in the room. Did Nixon pace? Did he just sit at his desk? Did somebody smoke? Hundreds of questions. . . .”
So Pearce invited Bull to the set. “Suddenly he was talking as if this was an ideological issue. The book was the enemy, Woodward and Bernstein were the enemy.”
Samuels says with pride that the script scrupulously adheres to the book, “the primary source.” “We are dealing with a living ex-President, and in all of us there was a sense of responsibility for getting it right. You don’t want to take cheap shots. It wasn’t a question of libel. On the other hand, here is a book written by two of America’s most noted journalists, in existence for years now, and with no legal action against it.”
Old arguments involving the accuracy of specific incidents in “The Final Days” (see story on Page 80) also did not bother Alfred R. Schneider, ABC vice president for policy and standards. “We relied on the veracity of the book,” he said, adding: “It’s certainly of notice that (a lawsuit) did not occur.”
Still the script does contain certain inaccuracies, such as having Nixon in the White House as the Supreme Court unanimously ruled he had to turn over crucial tapes, when actually he was in San Clemente. “I kept driving (Whitemore) back to what’s in the book,” noted Woodward, “and for reasons of compression he may have had to do it a different way. In ‘All the President’s Men,’ they had to compress the city editor and metropolitan editor into one character. . . . As a reporter, I would do it the way it happened.”
But he quickly added that he and Bernstein had the “luxury of a 450-page book.” More important, Woodward noted, Whitemore caught “the emotional reality” inside the White House, the “isolation” of Nixon. “As I watched some of it being made, there’s not a wasted word or phrase. It’s very tight, very directed at the target--'What was it like ?’ Jack Kennedy’s question to journalists always (had been) ‘Tell me what it was like.’ ”
At Samuels’ request, Woodward phoned Schneider to clear up two problems the ABC executive had with the script. One was the Kissinger-Nixon prayer scene,” Woodward said, “and essentially there are differences in the (Kissinger and ‘Final Days’) versions, and I said, ‘Now sit down and read ‘em both. What’s really different here, and what’s disputed? . . . There’s really minor difference.’ ”
In “Final Days,” Woodward and Bernstein wrote that Kissinger knelt along with Nixon that Wednesday night before Nixon resigned. Nixon seemed to back them up, Woodward points out. In his memoirs Nixon said he asked Kissinger “to pray with me now and we knelt.” Kissinger wrote: “In whatever posture, I was filled with a deep sense of awe.”
Woodward also stands by their book’s account of Nixon pounding the carpet. Even Kissinger described Nixon as “shattered,” Woodward said.
On a second point, Woodward said he and Schneider discussed a scene in the script, which is in the book, where Nixon is portrayed gnawing at an aspirin bottle because he can’t open it with his hands. “They had to make sure it was an illustration of clumsiness, and not that he was going to (kill himself),” Woodward said, “and that it was aspirin . . . .”
Woodward said he told Schneider he could justify everything he and Bernstein wrote--in court, “if it ever came to that, but we wouldn’t reveal our sources.”
But it’s “not the issue now,” Woodward explained. “The essential historical point is that with time, truth emerges.”
“I’ll tell you one thing that Hugh Whitemore used,” Woodward said. “When Julie (Nixon Eisenhower) said in her book the family was talking about the tape transcripts and Nixon says, ‘Was it worth it?’ .. .Wow, I wished we’d had that line.”
From Woodcliff Lake, N.J. where Nixon has his office, not far from his home in Saddle River, aide John Taylor said the ex-President has “lived through hammer blow after hammer blow of pressure and controversy. Frankly an ABC Entertainment dramatization of ‘The Final Days,’ at this late point, is really not going to keep Richard Nixon up nights.”