Monday, January 26, 2009

Frost Nixon Confessional

Using movies as a window on reality is always tricky business, particularly when the subject is an American president. Oliver Stone’s forays into the genre –from JFK to his recent W – are well known, and discerning viewers are wise to keep their antennae up for the spin coming from Mr. Stone and others. Nonetheless, there can be much to learn from a cinematic perspective on a president’s life and times when one approaches with the right level of wariness.

The current film Frost Nixon, from director Ron Howard, is based on a 2006 play by Peter Morgan and features an uncanny performance by Frank Langella as Nixon, with Michael Sheen as David Frost, the British talk show host who conducted lengthy interviews with the disgraced Nixon for broadcast on television in 1977. At first, Nixon is eager to defend himself, but the film builds gradually to two memorable moments, in which his desire to make some sort of confession becomes palpable.

As depicted in the film, in their fourth and final interview, Frost nails Nixon with a previously little-known but highly incriminating piece of evidence regarding Nixon’s participation in a cover-up of the Watergate break-in. The two men tangle briefly over the legal definition of “obstruction of justice” before Frost, sensing that Nixon is on verge of some sort of confession, throws his notepad to the floor and asks Nixon pointblank whether he is prepared to admit his actions were wrong and apologize to the American people.

Initially, Nixon will only go so far as to admit “mistakes,” but other words to describe his actions are hovering close at hand. I found myself wondering: If he’s willing to admit to mistakes or errors, and has a look of such agony on his face, is Nixon prepared to say the word “crime” or – even more fundamentally – “sin”? Though those precise words do not exactly pass his lips, Nixon concedes, with downcast eyes and an ashen expression, that he let the American people down. Frost’s crew quickly revels in the “gotcha” moment while a bewildered Nixon leaves the interview site in a daze, still trying to come to terms with his sense of shame and isolation.

What was it about Nixon’s character that led to the fateful choices he made? In what may have been a moment of dramatic license, Ron Howard’s film offers much to speculate about in a scene that occurs shortly before the final interview session. An anxious Nixon calls Frost late at night and launches into a remarkable, rambling pro vita sua. On the one hand, Nixon claims that he and Frost are kindred souls, because each rose to the top of his profession despite humble origins but was denied acceptance by the old elites due to sheer snobbery. Yet having claimed this kinship with Frost, in the next breath Nixon is vowing to vanquish him in the last interview, because in American life there can be only one winner.

In the culture of fame we live in today, such a statement scarcely makes sense. By the standards of fame, Frost and Nixon were complicit with each other in attracting the widest possible audience for their common venture. With a sense of irony, one might even call them co-conspirators seeking to co-opt the Nielsen rating game.

Yet Nixon came from another America, one where, as Vince Lombardi famously asserted, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” His simplistic conceptions of winning and losing were reflected in his hardball political tactics and his refusal to end the Vietnam War. For all his knowledge of geopolitics, he didn’t see that Frederick the Great was wrong: God is not on the side of the big battalions. Indeed, in a world turned upside down by Christianity, God is especially close to the victims, even if that doesn’t fit with Kissinger’s Realpolitik. It would have been a breakthrough far bigger than the openings to Russia and China if Nixon could have reclaimed enough of his Quaker roots to recognize this.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Read, mark, learn . . .

When I arrived at Valparaiso University to begin law school, there was an assignment posted on the notice board just inside the entrance to Wesemann Hall. First year students were to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” several cases on lost or abandoned property for the required property course.

At the time, I did not know this language had been appropriated from the Book of Common Prayer. Though I had spent six months in Oxford as an undergraduate, and had frequently attended Anglican services, it was not familiar to me. I was oblivious to the irony of using language taken rather too freely from a completely different context to make a school assignment about lost or misappropriated property. Years later, I wondered whether the irony was intentional or merely the result of what Walker Percy calls linguistic drift. In any case, the theme of digesting reading material, in the sense of making it part of one’s inner apparatus, still carries power for me, a quarter century later.

In Real Presences, his remarkable meditation on the nature of creativity in the arts, George Steiner picks up the ingestion metaphor. Citing Ben Jonson, he writes eloquently of how what we know by heart becomes an active shaping force in our consciousness. Memory is crucial to identity – a fact known to the Greek muses and a reality that becomes agonizing for those suffering from forms of dementia, when they feel the old anchors of the self slipping away.

On the subject of criminal justice, what have I (in a secular sense) ingested? In high school, I came across Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol in our little library, and portions of that poem stay with me. Around that time, I also read much of Solzhenitsyn’s monumental Gulag Archipelago, as well as Falconer by John Cheever. A little more than twenty years later, when Tom Wolfe published A Man in Full, I had occasion to compare Cheever’s prison descriptions to Wolfe’s. More importantly, by then I had first-hand experience of visiting real correctional facilities to draw upon, starting with Clarinda, Iowa, in 1999, followed by most of the state-run correctional facilities in Minnesota, including Stillwater, St. Cloud and Oak Park Heights, in 2001. What I quickly learned, on these visits to actual correctional facilities, is that books can only take you so far. How could it be otherwise?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

All Was Not Calm

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a powerful, yet still little known, symbol of peace. At more than one place along the Western front, German, British, French and Belgian troops left their positions to sing sacred songs, play soccer, share a drink or two, and bury the dead who had been trapped in No Man’s Land. The French film “Joyeux Noel” (2005) offered a vivid version of these events, and two musical groups in the Minneapolis – St. Paul area recently staged a theatrical production based on them called “All Is Calm.”

On Christmas Eve in 2008, all was decidedly not calm in Covina, California. Bruce Pardo, a 45-year-old man dressed in a Santa Claus suit, burst into the home of Joseph and Sylvia Ortega, parents of his ex-wife, also named Sylvia, armed with a gun and an explosive device. A family gathering was in progress. Pardo began by shooting an 8-year-old girl in the face, sprayed others with bullets, and set fire to the house, killing nine people, wounding two, and leaving thirteen children orphans. Though he had planned to escape (having purchased a plane ticket), Pardo was badly burned in the fire he set and ended up driving forty miles to his brother’s house, where he committed suicide by putting the gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger yet again.

While this carnage was unfolding in California, on another side of the world, in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, an equally gruesome set of massacres began on Christmas Day. According to the aid agency Caritas, a Ugandan rebel group calling itself the Lord’s Resistance Army killed a total of more than 400 people in at least three sites by using swords, clubs and machetes to force them into fires. More than 20,000 people fled to the mountains after their villages were burned down, and five people had their lips cut off by the LRA fighters in a brutal effort to forestall speech with terror. Forty-five of those killed had attempted to take refuge in a Catholic church.

In the grimmest of circumstances, the idea of sanctuary holds up well neither for place nor for time. In May 2002, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was the site of a prolonged siege by Israeli forces, with Palestinian fighters holed up inside; the impasse eventually ended with the church in shambles. Revered graves in the Iraqi city of Najaf fared no better at the hands of American forces in 2004, as the U.S. sought to stamp out resistance to its occupation of Iraq by taking the fight into Islamic cemeteries.

Despite all the bloodshed, however – one might even say because of it – the hope for not merely a truce, but a lasting peace, remains a deep need of the human heart. Longfellow gave voice to this in "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," written at the height of the American Civil War, upon hearing news that his son was wounded.

And in despair I bow'd my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Today, charities are already at work, raising money for the Covina survivors and the killings and cutting off of lips by the Ugandan rebels have not stopped Caritas from giving voice to the victims or continuing its work on their behalf. Surely this why, in the Christian liturgical year, December 29 is set aside to remember “the holy innocents” – the infants martyred by Herod in a futile, desperate gesture to suppress the new world being ushered in by the baby Jesus. Without looking away from the violence around us, we can still say Joyeux Noel.