December 03, 2008


A couple of hours ago I was listen to National Public Radio for the first time in years. I was doing some tedious work and decided to put on the radio. NPR was on the clearest station that I could receive that wasn't playing music that I hated.

Anyway, Daniel Schorr, senior NPR commentator and CBS News veteran, read a brief piece called Viewing Bush Interview Through 'Frost/Nixon' Lens. (The link contains the text as well as a link to an audio file of the radio piece. They don't match exactly, but no matter.)

Schorr begins:

I have recently had occasion to see both the play and the movie about the famous David Frost interviews with ex-President Richard Nixon in 1977. I was struck all over again by the way that Nixon, having insisted that what a president does cannot be illegal, finally broke down in a misty-eyed mea culpa.

Schorr, right off the bat, repeats an all-too-often repeated mischaracterization of Nixon's statement to David Frost. Nixon, no doubt refering to the War And Emergency Powers Act of 1933, asserted the long-standing and equally long-controversial authority given the president in an emergency. (Here is some chatter about it.)

Unlike the dishonest dramatic treatment given to the exchange in the Ron Howard film Frost/Nixon, Nixon did not say that anything "a president does cannot be illegal". He was speaking about agitators of civil unrest and, specifically, about the protection that law enforcement agents would have from criminal prosecution were they to act on the president's authority.

Here is the actual exchange, beginning at 1:04. Note that Nixon begins his answer with "But..." and stops, and then attempts to school Frost on executive powers (Frost's intro and framing of the exchange not withstanding):

NIXON: An action's either going to be covert or not.

FROST: So, what, in a sense, you're saying is that there are certain situations...where the president can decide that it's in the best interests of the nation, or something, and do something illegal.

NIXON: Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.

FROST: By definition?

NIXON: Exactly. Exactly. If, for example, the president approves something, approves an action, because of the national security or, in this case, because of a threat to internal peace and order of a significant magnitude, then the president's decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out to carry it out without violating the law. Otherwise, they're in an impossible position.

While Nixon simply reiterated established precedent, the play and the film (and many commentators over the past three decades) would have us believe just as Frost seems to have believed at the time: That he made a matter-of-fact statement the he, himself, merely "by definition" of being the president, was above the law. An appalling assertion, for sure, had he actually asserted such a thing.

It's not unusual for some ill-informed armchair historians to take as canonical the widely held misinterpretation. But Daniel Schorr is old enough to have lived to through the Nixon years and watched the Nixon-Frost interviews as they first aired. Perhaps time and prejudice have colored his memory of the events. Perhaps he didn't feel it neccessary to check the actual historic record against the Hollywood representation of that history before committing his own musings to record. No matter.
Schorr goes on to quote Frank Langella's version of Nixon:

"I have impeached myself," he said. "I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life."

I hope that's not a faithful rendering of the script because that'd mean they left out the best part, in my opinion, of Nixon's actual statement, which was: "I let down all the young people who ought to get into public life but who think it's all too corrupt."
Again, no matter. Schorr continues:

As I listened to Nixon on film, I thought of President Bush.

Yeah, I could see that one coming up the interstate, too.

While still in office, he is having to respond to questions of critics but not only critics as to whether he let the American people down, primarily by launching an invasion of Iraq in search of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Interviewed by Charles Gibson of ABC, the president said his greatest regret was "the intelligence failure" that led to the war. As to whether he would have gone to war if intelligence had been right, Bush said, "That's a do-over that I can't do."

Makes sense to me. Gibson asks a hypothetical question and Bush refuses to speculate. But Schorr, for some reason, calls Bush's unwillingness an "inability":

But Bush's expressed inability to look back avoids the issue. It is now generally accepted that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush, urged on by Vice President Dick Cheney, was determined to find a target for American anger.

Yes, it's "generally accepted" among Daniel Schorr's crowd that the invasion of Iraq was done out of a determination to kick some butt. Anybody's butt. Of no matter, of course, were Saddam Hussein's past use of WMD and his threats of terrorism against the United States to ambassador April Glaspie. History doesn't matter, it seems, either in political commentary or filmmaking. It is sad when what is the truth to a journalist is what is "generally accepted" rather than what is actually true.

And, speaking of what is and isn't true, get this:

The decision was made to go to war to topple Saddam Hussein. In the words of a British government memorandum, the intelligence and facts were "fixed" to support that decision. Efforts were also made to establish some link between Iraq and the Sept. 11 terrorists. Unsuccessful, but no matter.

Yes, friends, Daniel Schorr did indeed just invoke the "Downing Street Memo" and its long-debunked interpretation of the meaning of the words: "the intellegence and facts are being fixed around the policy". Schorr, like so many others, prefers not to read the meaning of "fixed" as the equivelant of the strategic "made firm", "secured" or "set in place", but, rather, the slang meaning "made to happen through subterfuge".
That this one word -- given that interpretation -- would be the single instance of American slang being used in the British memo and, thus, out of character with the rest of the document, seems to have escaped Mr. Schorr. But no matter. He concludes:

As he prepares to leave office, Bush might want to look at the Nixon interview and consider doing a do-over reconsidering the wisdom of invading Iraq.

Oh, right. Nixon and the false premise that he said that the president was The Law and, somehow, that's supposed to remind us of Bush who, apparently, should "consider doing a do-over".

But, Daniel, do-overs are possible only in Hollywood.

UPDATE: Compare and contrast. Here's Dick Cheney with Chris Wallace on December 21st, 2008:

Posted by Tuning Spork at 10:17 PM | Comments (150) | TrackBack
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