When Richard Nixon, a politician who hated and feared the media, decided to spurn the networks and the newsmen and give his first comprehensive, post-resignation interviews to a lightweight talk-show host, the country got something unexpected from the disgraced president and his dilettante interviewer: Closure.
The televised confrontation, and the catharsis it engendered, made it to a wider screen last week as Ron Howard unleashed “Frost/Nixon,” his cinematic reconstruction of the events. Meanwhile, George W. Bush, another disgraced president, picked that week to give ABC the first wide-ranging interview since his presidency ceased to be relevant. The contrast between the conversations was depressing.
In “Frost/Nixon,” Nixon is played by a looming, arthritic Frank Langella. He is quiet and tired, broken by the stress of his own failure. The night before the climactic confrontation on Watergate, he cracks, placing a Scotch-fueled, midnight phone call to Frost, played by Michael Sheen, and launches into an angry, self-loathing, self-pitying monologue. The next day, he no longer remembers the conversation. When Frost makes reference to it, Nixon’s face falls and the fight leaves him. It is possibly the first cinematic portrayal of a president drunk-dialing. And the consequences are as serious as those of any bender. Nixon confesses to his sins.
It was this confession that rendered Nixon such a complete and tragic figure, in film and in fact. Thanks to Gerald Ford’s pardon, Nixon never stood trial for crimes he may have committed. But he didn’t escape them either. The payoff of the “Frost/Nixon” interview was a close-up view of Nixon’s unending self-punishment. As James Reston Jr. put it, the whole confrontation was prelude to a single instant, our final glimpse of Nixon, his “face swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat.”
“Frost/Nixon” is about the need for national closure after a president has betrayed the public trust. Its question is mainly operational: How can justice be achieved when the criminal has been pardoned? For Nixon, an interview sufficed. But though the movie aches to give Frost, and thus the public, agency in Nixon’s televised collapse, it is in fact Nixon who chooses to give the country what it needs. Bush is unlikely to do the same.
When ABC’s Charlie Gibson sat down with Bush recently, many of the questions were reminiscent of Nixon’s interrogation. Gibson probed Bush’s “mistakes” and, with echoes of Frost’s questioning on Cambodia, examined the lies underpinning Bush’s war. But Bush failed us. There was no admission of guilt, no hint of wrongdoing.
Asked to reveal what would surprise us most about his presidency, Bush replied that “every day has been pretty joyous.” That is indeed surprising. Asked if Barack Obama’s victory wasn’t a repudiation of Bush’s presidency, Bush allowed that some people may have voted for Obama in reaction to his presidency, but overall, “most people voted for Barack Obama because they decided they wanted him to be in their living room for the next four years explaining policy.”
The most galling answer, however, came when Gibson asked if Bush had any regrets. “The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq,” he said, entirely in the passive voice. “A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn’t just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington, D.C., during the debate on Iraq. ... I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.” In other words, Bush did not let the American people down. The intelligence community let Bush -- and, let’s not forget, lots of others -- down.
Nixon decided to give the country closure. That meant sacrificing the comfort of hiding behind partisanship, and it meant admitting the failures of his presidency. To date, Bush shows no such inclination. And on this, he retains agency. Conflicting evaluations of his presidency will simply collide in the postmodern thunderdome of contemporary partisanship. “I don’t spend a lot of time really worrying about short-term history,” he said to Gibson. “I guess I don’t worry about long-term history, either, since I’m not going to be around to read it.” Then he laughed, even though it wasn’t very funny.
Ezra Klein is an associate editor at the American Prospect. His blog is at EzraKlein.com.