There's something resonant about watching a play about Richard Nixon in a performing arts center named for John Kennedy that abuts the Watergate complex.
It's especially resonant watching it as the Bush presidency draws to a close. Seeing Frost/Nixon last night at the Kennedy Center, it was impossible to watch certain scenes—especially the climax where the disgraced chief executive announces, "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal"—without hearing echoes of contemporary arguments.
And that in turns brings to mind the question of where George W. Bush rates in the presidential pantheon. Many argue that Bush has eclipsed Nixon and Buchanan (James, not Nixon scribe Pat) as the worst of the worst. Future historians and constitutional scholars will be better positioned to make a firm judgment, but as Frost/Nixon reminds us, the current chief executive may have neighboring poll numbers, but for national psychic trauma he simply isn't in Nixon's league. (Insert Bush league joke here.)
"Long national nightmare is over" quips will be made in abundance on Jan. 20, 2009, but let's remember for whom the phrase was coined. Bush is unpopular, but not as viscerally disliked as was Nixon for as broad a swath of the country. (The swath of the country for which Bush is as viscerally disliked will no doubt weigh in the comment section below.)
Here's the thing: George W. Bush will leave the spotlight in January, and while we'll be dealing with his legacy for a long time to come, we'll be shot of him. Bush will himself join the likes of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush as half-forgotten figures. Out of mind and back to the ranch.
Richard Nixon left office nearly a quarter century ago but is still with us today. He is not merely a reviled ex-politician but a part of the national culture. One cannot imagine a "Bush-Soren" series of interviews in a few years, or for that matter such a play or major motion picture in a few decades.
Part of the reason, of course, is that Nixon remains a far more fascinating character than George W. Bush. The former Nixon speechwriter William Safire wrote in his White House memoir that Nixon was like a layer cake—the icing was the "stern, dignified" public face, the inner layers including "progressive politician," "pugnacious man," "hater," "realist," "risk-taker," and "loner." In order to understand Nixon, Safire argued, one had to take in all of his many layers. Bush does not seem nearly as multidimensional as Nixon. He might be described as a pound cake.
Many of these layers are on display in Frost/Nixon—the confident Nixon, holding forth with ease and dominating the overmatched Frost; the socially awkward Nixon ("Do any fornicating?"); the maudlin Nixon; the paranoid, driven Nixon, drunkenly growling to Frost about (what he sees as) their shared insecurities and need to prove themselves to the elites.
Tricky Dick's many facets give him both his malevolence and, in a weird way, a sympathetic quality—his insecurities make him human and interesting. Bush's apparent supreme confidence makes him bland.
Nixon's various aspects are ably portrayed by the great veteran Stacy Keach, who more or less captures Nixon's famous "buttery baritone," as someone once described it, and even better the physical Nixon: the hunched shoulders, almost exaggerated hand gestures, sweaty upper lip, occasionally forced, creepy grin.
At one point in the well-paced, well-acted Frost/Nixon, a member of Frost's team says that he wants to give Nixon the trial the nation was denied by Gerald Ford's pardon, and indeed the story plays out the narrative arc of a courtroom drama, with the prosecutors appearing overmatched, doubting themselves but ultimately winning the day when the villain is induced to self-immolate in the trial's waning moments. Think A Few Good Men with fewer histrionics but greater verity.
[The full disclosure portion of this review: My feeling that the most powerful performance in the play comes from Noel Velez as Nixon's longtime manservant, Manolo Sanchez, has nothing at all to do with the fact that Noel is my wife's cousin. Really. And speaking of cousins, one of the play's characters, Caroline Cushing, was in real life married to a cousin of mine. And, of course, Nixon himself was a neighbor of mine for a few years—as I write this, I'm looking at a Nixon mask much like the one I wore trick-or-treating at his house as a child—but that's another story entirely.]