During the '60s, Dwight Eisenhower wrote a friend that what bothered him most about the new era in political analysis he observed was not its politics, but rather "ther erosion of the critical faculties of the best minds." Several writers since then have developed this idea, citing specifically journalism's lack of objectivity, its insulation and inbreeding, and its retreat into partisanship caused by the traumas of the Vietnam war, assassinations and Watergate. This "erosion" may have culminated last week with the airing of ABC's "docu-drama" "Washington: Behind Closed Doors."
I, naturally, am biased. First, I know Richard Nixon well, and I resent ABC's explicit protrayal of him as "Richard M. Monckton." Secondly, I have had a recent and revealing experience with ABC, which had planned to do a "docu-drama" on Dwight Eisenhower's war years. Negotiations regarding that project broke down over ABC's insistence that the show highlight Eisenhower's alleged "affair" with a wartime secretary-driver. AbC wanted to proceed with the story despite its own concessions that there were good reasons to doubt the "affair" ever happened. The "affair" has been substantially refuted by letters released by my family and another letter attested to by Forrest C. Pogue, biographer of George C. Marshall. During neogtiations, every time we raised historical objections to the idea, the network argued it was "in the entertainment buisness." Television seems to have trouble dealing with the untidiness and ambiguity of history.
With "Washington," television has carried entertainment's adulteration of history to fantastic lengths. "Washington's" producers do not acknowledge that a real-life portrait has been attempted, thus liberating themselves from all restraints. Yet the network has made the connection between the historical Nixon and the fictional Monckton abundantly clear. ABC maneuvers close enough to the Nixon story to be interesting while staying far enough away toavoid the lawsuits it deserves - and, I might add, manages to confuse enough with reality to ensure itself every conveivable commercial benefit obtainable in the Nixon tragedy. At least ABC did not claim to be performing a public service.
The print media, including Newsweek, should have picked ABC apart for its "fictional" portrayal of Nixon, specifically:
(1) That Nixon's best efforts in office devoted to harrassing "enemies," closeting the dissent, isolating protesters, "screwing editors" and the like. I challenge a single member of the White House press corps on hand during the Nixon era to state that this "obsession" with dissent dominated the energies of the Nixon White House.
(2) That Nixon sought the presidency in 1968, in order to exact revenge against the Kennedy legend, "faggot" Ivy Leaguers and press critics. This charge is both unfair and a Pandora's box. If Nixon's alleged motives are fair game in 1968, then so is the contention that Robert Kennedy ran the same year for the sole purpose of unseating his brother's usurper, Lyndon Johnson.
(3) The source of this "docu-drama" is a book written by an aide who has undertaken to purify himself of his former association. Don't "converts" have a tendency to exaggerate the magnitude of their past sins?
(4) Worst of all, the show juxtaposed myth and fact without a trace of discrimination. Its effect was to place most if not all the blame for the Washington syndrome of cynicism and corruption on the Nixon administration. A public conditioned to mix fact and fantasy indiscriminately is a public one step away from complete indifference toward the truth in any form.
"Washington" is a small test of journalism's often repeated professions of sympathy for social victims and the unpopular. Nixon may not be a sympathetic figure as a former President and a powerful man brought low. Nonetheless, he deserves protection from depersonalization, reveling in his tragedy, and bullying.
After viewing "Washington," one longs for a semblance of the restraints, civility and mutual respect that have characterized our politics in the past. Needless excesses like "Washington" may create not one but many of what ABC's fictional LBJ called "vengeful little squirts" in the future. I believe and crucial element - "the critical faculties of the best minds" - ought to re-examine this program, scrutinize the future ones, and begin resisting television's glib and cynical assumptions about politics and public figures, its slavish fascination with power and vanishing regard for the truth.