Just re-watched All The President’s Men (1976) because, hey, impeachment is still topical. Watching young Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman slowly piece together the evidence that Richard Nixon was running a criminal organization out of the Oval Office was fascinating, both from a historical context, from the context of story-telling and writing. and from the context of what journalism used to be and maybe, in some minor areas, still is or can be.
First from the historical angle… where do I begin? Nixon was using the power of the presidency for explicitly political gain. At the time that was incredibly taboo. I mean, it was illegal, but it was also considered morally off-limits by people regardless of party. Nixon’s actions were not seen as practical or business-as-usual, they were scandalous. But a funny thing has happened over the years: the people behind those actions never really went away. Their ideas for “rat-fucking” their opponents and for gaining, and holding on to, political power infused the leadership of the Grand Ol’ Party, the Republicans. Nixon may have fallen out of favor and eventually died as an outcast, but the prevailing opinion isn’t that he was a crook—it’s that he got caught. Or, rather, caught too soon, before he could consolidate his power.
Republicans today have moved so far from that moral center that they aren’t even afraid of getting caught. Time and again they have done Nixonian things: extreme gerrymandering, whisper campaigns against political opponents based on lies and slander, illegal surveillance of reporters and politicians to suppress stories. As they’ve gotten away with it, they’ve upped the ante, to the point of taking outright bribes from foreign governments in order to win elections. There may be some cries of foul play, there never seem to be any real repercussions for those actions, and that, to me, is baffling. That’s a whole ‘nother topic, though.
Looking at All The President’s Men as a piece of story-telling fascinates me, too. The overall arc starts with some Cuban burglars breaking into the Democratic National Committee HQ in the Watergate Building and ends with a teletype machine printing out the story that Nixon is resigning. How does it connect those dots? By following the research, interviews, and discussions two reporters have with their sources, the subjects of the stories they write, and their editors and publishers. You’d think it was a very dry story, and yet each step in the path is clearly, and dramatically, explained. There is a sense of dread building up over time as you see everyday office workers clam up and act like they’re in fear for their lives. Over and over, in response to what seem like simple questions, they proclaim that they’re good Americans, good citizens, even as they know they’ve done rotten things, and display the reactions of knowing they’ve done them and now those actions are coming to light.
Would people react the same way today? It sure doesn’t seem like it. Shame, fear, and guilt no longer seem to be a motivating factor for the everyday bureaucrats in our government, particularly at a Federal level. How far we have fallen.