Saturday is the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation, an anniversary that has prompted any number of high-minded reflections. PBS is premiering a new documentary tonight about Dick Cavett’s coverage of the Watergate scandals. The library of Nixon-related books grows ever longer.
As its title might suggest, “Dick” is a loopy alternate history. Two teenage girls, Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) witness the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters during a sleepover at Arlene’s mother’s apartment in the Watergate. In an effort to neutralize the girls, who have no idea what they have witnessed, the Nixon administration makes them Checkers’ official dog-walkers. When the relationship sours, the girls turn to The Washington Post for revenge.
If this sounds manifestly silly, that is precisely the point. Betsy and Arlene are ineffably teenaged. Arlene develops an agonizing crush on the president and leaves a mash note of a message on his tape recorder, which will become the famous 18-and-a-half minute gap in the recording. Betsy seduces H.R. Haldeman’s (Dave Foley) son (Ryan Reynolds). The girls get Nixon (Dan Hedaya) completely and utterly stoned.
The adults are equally absurd. Nixon is awkward and crabby and secretly hates the dog he has adopted as an attempt to render himself more likable. “I’ve got a way with young people,” Nixon insists at one point. “They trust me.” Haldeman is simultaneously contemptuous of Betsy and Arlene and utterly befuddled by them. Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch play Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as squabbling rivals — Bernstein is constantly tossing back his shoulder-length hair.
Our memory of Watergate needs this sense of the ridiculous. The humor writer Veronica Geng recognized it when she reviewed the Nixon tapes as if they were jazz records. “Dick” recognizes it. Ultimately, a president of the United States had to resign because of his own hysterical paranoia and insecurity and because his aides thought they could play spy. And he further tarnished his reputation with recordings that stripped his character down to its essential, embarrassing elements. Or, as Betsy put it, “You kicked Checkers, you’re prejudiced and you have a potty mouth!”
Just because “Dick” finds Nixon risible does not mean that the people who brought him down were giants of civic virtue. “How dare those people treat us like we’re stupid teenage girls,” Arlene fumes. “We’re human beings, and we’re American citizens. And four score and seven years ago our forefathers … did something.” Sometimes heroism is an accident, a lesson worth remembering even though we now know the real identity of Deep Throat.
Unfortunately, “Dick” is difficult to track down. Netflix has it only on disc, as does Amazon. You cannot buy or rent it through iTunes or Google Play. The movie is no longer streaming on Crackle. And though it is available through Verizon’s Redbox rental service, you can no longer join Redbox because its registration process was misused as a tool for credit card scammers. “Dick” is a terrific example of the limits of our new media environment, which has made a great deal of content, but not all of it, available.
But if you can find a copy, “Dick” is a delightful jab at history with a serious point about how people gain and lose faith in politics and politicians. Betsy and Arlene may have chosen the sincerity of Nixon’s affection for his dog as their measure of his worthiness to be president. But they made the right choice, even if it was by accident.