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Frost/Nixon, Nixon/Bush

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London: It's impossible to see Peter Morgan's brilliant new play, Frost/Nixon, and not consider the similarities between Dick Nixon and George W. Bush. Wonder: did Americans suffer through the agony of the Watergate era only to forget the hard lessons we learned?

Frost/Nixon focuses on the events leading to Nixon's disintegration during the last of four extended interviews with British TV personality David Frost-the most widely watched news program in history. Nixon's advisers expected the 1977 taping sessions to augur the rebirth of his career, where the 37th President would be honored as an elder statesman. Instead, three years after Nixon was forced to leave office, the interviews marked his swan song.

After thirty years, it's useful to dust off the tumultuous history of that period to see the many similarities with our own: In November of 1972, Nixon overwhelmed Democrat George McGovern and won a second term as President. On August 8, 1974, he resigned. What brought Nixon down was a confluence of events: he savagely expanded the War in Vietnam-including the bombing of Cambodia and Laos. He formed a paramilitary group, the White House "plumbers," to go after those who opposed him. Many of the deliberations regarding the "plumbers" were captured by an automatic taping system in Nixon's office.

Because of his escalation of the war, public opinion turned against Nixon. Psychologically inclined to believe that others were out to get him, Nixon barricaded himself in the White House, surrounded by a small circle of advisers, and began plotting his revenge on imagined enemies.

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There are obvious parallels between the Nixon and Bush presidencies: The 43rd President also supports an unpopular war, which has turned public opinion against him. Bush seems similarly inclined to believe that others are out to get him. He, too, barricades himself in the White House, surrounded by a small clique of true believers. Plots his revenge.

Nixon's demise happened in two stages: The first when he resigned, because he was convinced he would be impeached and removed from office. Nixon had the sense to see that would dishonor the office of the Presidency. Nonetheless, he did not acknowledge guilt or make an apology. Nixon's contrition happened in the second stage, during his climactic interview with David Frost.

It's difficult to imagine George Bush resigning from office. Still harder to envisage his acknowledgment of error. Or an apology. Any contrition. Perhaps it depends upon who interviews him.

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In the place of David Frost, who might interview George Bush about the consequences of his Presidency? The ideal person would be someone with a mean streak. A person who understands the history, as well as the temptations of the Presidency. Someone like Dick Nixon.

It's easy to imagine Nixon smelling blood, going for the throat, as David Frost did. In the play's climactic scene, Frost asked Nixon: "Are you really saying that there are certain situations where the President can decide whether it's in the best interests of the nation and do something illegal?" Nixon declared: "I'm saying that when the President does it, that means it's not illegal."

Of course, the Nixon morality, "when the President does it, that means it's not illegal," is at the heart of the Bush moral code. It's the justification for the unprecedented expansion of Presidential power that's occurred since 9/11.

What's remarkable is that Nixon ultimately saw the error of his ways. That's the power of Frost/Nixon: It shows us the travails David Frost and his team went through in order to be able to confront Nixon. And, the play also reveals Nixon as a tragic figure, someone capable of realizing he'd made terrible mistakes.

In a hypothetical interview, who would be better able to challenge George Bush than Dick Nixon? Especially when Bush tried to justify his lies-as he frequently does-on the basis of "The President has to make tough decisions. Americans may not agree with me but they know I'm a 'decider.'" Who better than Nixon to respond: "I once thought as you do: believed the ends justify the means. I learned from bitter experience that the President serves at the will of the people. And, therefore, the President is not above the law."

When Bush explained his rationale for ignoring constitutional limits on his power, Nixon could say, as he did: "I went down that path, too. Then, I realized I'd failed my country. Disgraced the office of the Presidency." Who would be better than Dick Nixon to put George Bush in his place?

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Ah, if it were only that simple to turn fiction into reality. Then Peter Morgan could provide us with a sequel: Nixon/Bush. That play would surely be an enormous hit. Perhaps even be viewed by American politicians.

Frost/Nixon is playing at the Donmar in London. Its sold-out run ends on October 7th. The producers are negotiating to bring it to the U.S. The play stars Frank Langella (Nixon) and Michael Sheen (Frost). It was directed by Michael Grandage.

 

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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