It was a matinee crowd. This was apparent by all the gray heads around, for those lucky enough to still have hair. And then there was that 10 minutes of disruption at the show's beginning when stragglers were seated and the hard of hearing yelled to their companions, "Is this the right seat?" as the remainder of the audience shushed them loudly. So began the trip back to 1977, the year that British talk show host David Frost snagged 20 hours of interviews with disgraced President Richard M. Nixon.
The Broadway show Frost/Nixon (which closes Sunday, but watch out for the movie) is a wonderful exposition of how that interview came about and how it came off. Who would have thought that reliving the constitutional crimes of a president 30 years later would be so timely?
I had just turned 16 years old when the marathon interviews entered our living room. Mr. Nixon, I thought, would be the worst president in my lifetime. How could he not be? His list of offenses seemed endless: Sending young men and women to their deaths in a useless war, justified by cooked claims of impending victory. Getting the Internal Revenue Service to audit those on an enemies list of political opponents and uncooperative journalists. Asserting executive privilege in order to cover his own lawbreaking. Employing dirty tricks to gain and hold power.
It all was so beyond the pale, I naively thought that no American president would ever again come close to such official depravity.
Enter the boy king, George W. Bush, and his regent Dick Cheney, who have far surpassed Mr. Nixon on the dragging-America-down scale. This duo has beaten Mr. Nixon at every nefarious turn, from starting an unnecessary war on false premises, to stretching executive privilege to laughable lengths, to turning the Justice Department into a strategic operations unit of the Republican Party, to transforming the Constitution into a suggestion box. At least when Mr. Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, it was intended to actually clean the air, as opposed to Mr. Bush's anti-environmental "Clear Skies" initiative.
Yet, in the fascinating way that history inexorably marches over expectations, Mr. Nixon's presidency set the stage for the excesses of President Bush. It did so by radicalizing a young Nixon aide, Mr. Cheney. Unlike virtually everyone else, Mr. Cheney didn't see Mr. Nixon's tenure as an object lesson in the dangers of an imperial presidency. To him, it wasn't Mr. Nixon's acts but Congress' response that was the problem. Laws like the War Powers Act resulted in constraints on executive power that were for Mr. Cheney a strike against the president's realm of absolute authority.
This view was laid out bluntly when, as a congressman from Wyoming during the Iran-contra scandal, Mr. Cheney supported the actions of President Reagan in secretly selling arms to our enemy Iran for money sent to the Nicaraguan contras. It didn't matter that these actions explicitly violated the Boland Amendment that barred U.S. assistance to the contras. Mr. Cheney didn't think the law should get in the way of a president - a point of view he has amplified during his vice presidency.
So, in Frost/Nixon, when the gravelly voiced Frank Langella, playing Mr. Nixon, said the chilling line, "When the president does it, that means that it's not illegal," the audience laughed. We weren't laughing because it was funny in a "ha-ha" way but rather in a sick, gallows-humor way. The joke was on us, and we knew it.
The Frost interviews were an opportunity for Mr. Nixon to make amends, lay out his abuses of power and apologize for his misdeeds. That didn't happen. Instead, Mr. Nixon hijacked the interviews with long-winded remembrances and walked away with more than $600,000 for participating - real money back then.
The play's denouement suggests that the lightweight Mr. Frost triumphed by wangling an admission and apology from Mr. Nixon, who was confronted with Oval Office transcripts in which he discussed money to silence the Watergate burglars. But all Mr. Nixon really said about his complicity was that "a reasonable person could call that a cover-up," adding quickly that "I didn't intend it to cover up." The "very deep regret" he offered was halfhearted and defensive at best.
Yet, I bet the Frost/Nixon grudging admission is far more than we'll ever see from Bush/Cheney. The devastation they have wrought to the constitutional order will last generations. Still, it is likely that the only satisfaction we'll ever get is to see Mr. Bush swagger out of office while his American audience holds its applause.
Robyn Blumner is a syndicated columnist. Her e-mail is email@example.com.
© 2007 by The Baltimore Sun