The temptation in watching “Frost/Nixon,” Ron Howard’s compelling adaptation of Peter Morgan’s stage play, is to compare now to then, one president with historically low approval ratings to another, and Bush to Nixon.
It’s already stirred debate during screenings, as when Howard told a D.C. audience on Monday that there was a link of Nixon’s abuse of power to that of the current president’s. According to the Washington Times, he was followed by the man who interviewed him, historian Robert Dallek, who said, “We’ve been, back in the past eight years, through this anguish about an imperial presidency.” And James Reston Jr., an adviser on the film who was David Frost’s researcher, said that the movie was “driven by the metaphor of George W. Bush.”
As the Washington Times reports, all of this was too much for Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who was in the audience and said there was no comparison to Nixon, a president who faced criminal charges before he was pardoned, and Bush, who will leave office with no such cloud hanging over him, albeit with similar degrees of unpopularity.
Historic differences aside, what is similar is the question of whether Bush will ever sit down for an interview similar to the eight hour marathon (broken up into several days) that Nixon did with Frost; and whether there will ever be a more candid and emotional Bush and a frank discussion of his administration’s mistakes, even if there is not, as some of his detractors would like, an actual apology.
Thirty one years ago, Nixon admitted that he “let down the American people” and all but said that he was engaged in a cover up and therefore an obstruction of justice.
On Monday, ABC News began airing portions of Charles Gibson’s interview with George and Laura Bush, the first such sitdown since Barack Obama was elected. It was perhaps the closest thing to an exit interview, and may very well be the closest thing that we will see to “Frost/Nixon.” Bush said that his biggest regret was that the intelligence has been off in the search for weapons of mass destruction. “I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.” Asked whether he would have gone to war had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction, he said, “That is a do-over I can’t do,” Bush said.
The interview was more candid than we’ve seen Bush, but it is far different from Frost’s interview with an exiled Nixon. Bush was adamant that he would leave office with his “head held high,” and warned that he planned to spend his initial post-presidential phase out of the limelight.
Howard told me in a Q&A a few weeks ago that he came to the belief that it was better to release the movie after the election, and not before, as he originally wanted. Otherwise, the comparisons of Nixon to Bush may be “misunderstood.”
Test “audiences,” he said, “were not responding to it on the whole as a sort of a direct correlation to the Bush administration. That wasn’t a primary response. ….I ultimately think it is a great drama, beautifully written, and I am sort of glad that it is not in a position to be characterized as a political movie with its trying to make a point, pre-election.”
The real comparison is whether the media can actually capture anything like the confessional of the Frost-Nixon interviews in an era where politics and personality are ever more stage managed. Only rarely, like with Sarah Palin’s disastrous interview with Katie Couric, are public officials caught off guard.
“Actually getting Nixon to sit for that number of hours — I don’t think could be achieved today,” Howard says. “I don’t think it would be allowed. and you know, Nixon needed the money. Nixon I think had this hubris to believe that he could beat television. It had beaten him, and I think he felt that it would be a great irony that he could redeem himself through the medium that had caused him some pain over the years. And I do believe he thought that he could probably control things and have his best chance with Frost. But I don’t think another president would sit for hours like that.”
I’d be willing to bet that he’s right.
I’ll have more on “Frost/Nixon” in my monthly column for the Politico, which should be posted later today.
The Washington Examiner has more from the D.C. screening of “Frost/Nixon” here. Screenwriter and playwright Peter Morgan also doubts that there will be a Frost/Nixon style interview with Bush. “I don’t think we’ll get it. I don’t get a sense that he’ll be as haunted [as Nixon] by a need to leave a legacy.”