It Was Mother

It Was Off-key

It Was Off-key
Wayras Olivier
APRIL 2018

O FF-KEY DESCRIBES A COMMENT made by author Caroline Myss more than a decade ago, that today forces us to revisit our assumptions about information. On an Australian podcast to promote her book Invisible Acts of Power she made a rather abrupt and anecdotal digression about monarchs in the dark ages, and the manner in which they deployed the states’ highest and most meaningful secrets. Information of this sort was always entrusted to, and safeguarded by, the fool. Of course, the comment jars itself as absurd until logic ferments. The fool himself, as a single personality, has no political aspirations and has dedicated himself to a life of compulsory nonsense. So consider: if the grapevine was compromised, no clear right thinking person could rely, let alone believe, in the veracity of the fool’s emboldened rubbish.

Today on American late night television, which has now given us multiple personalities since Letterman faded permanently into the background, we find fixtures on the network foreground like Noah and Meyers, Bee and Colbert, building their legacy on raillery whilst simultaneously assuming that it grants them the regnant title of being the bastions of serious public discourse. Without the aid of an audience, teleprompter, or laugh track, it’s hard to imagine any one of these court jesters being sober in a closed room unbottling “Russia” or “Flynn,” “Comey” or “Mueller,” right in front of the president as they serve him the whine.

Frost, itself an archaic term for rouse and irritate, is precisely what CBS’s Robert Pierpoint tried to do a year before the president withdrew from political life. At an October press conference in 1973 he asked President Nixon, “What is it about the television coverage of you in these past weeks and months that has so aroused your anger?”

Nixon shook his head. “Don’t get the impression that you arouse my anger.”

“I’m afraid, sir, that I have that impression,” Pierpoint shot back.

Nixon, before turning his back on Pierpoint, replied with a dismissive smirk, “You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.”

If one assumes that Nixon himself was an earnest intellectual then Frost/Nixon, based on Peter Morgan’s 2006 stage play, is an underdog story. Because real life talk show host David Frost had the respect of nearly no one in the journalistic community when he self-financed an interview against the learned yet disgraced Nixon in the hopes of teasing out a confession and apology for his involvement in Watergate. The play and film, scribed largely from transcripts of the real-life interview, does not include, obviously, excerpts of the additional 300+ hours of ‘tapes’ the National Archives and Records Administration released in 2013.

Morgan still manages to capture the uncomely tones of the Nixon administration even without the aid of the aforementioned tapes, which captured unlettered history lessons such as “I do not mind ‘the’ homosexuality,” a benighted Nixon explains to his White House Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, “I understand it, nevertheless…you know what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure. Aristotle was a homo; we all know that, so was Socrates. You know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags.” Note the talking points in Frost/Nixon regarding Frost’s laceless shoes; shoes that Nixon’s post-resignation Chief of Staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) dislikes and describes to Nixon as being too effeminate.

One conversation in particular, from the 2013 tapes, appears almost to be a scuzzy script that was just begging for some other future president to pantomime. Nixon is aware, mind you, of the White House’s recording system, yet he sees no need to restrain himself when speaking to his domestic affairs counsel John Ehrlichman, who rather casually comments that “The Mexican American is not as good as the Mexican.”

“Ohh?” Nixon responds.

“If you go down into real Mexico, Ehrlichman continues, “they’re clean and they’re honest, they’re moral.”

“They’ve got a heritage,” Nixon interrupts. “At the present time they steal, they’re dishonest, they do a lot of other things, but they do have, they do have some concept of family life at least. They don’t live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do live like. We’re going to put more of these little Negro bastards on the welfare rolls at twenty four hundred dollars a family. But I don’t believe in this to begin with, if you know what I mean. It’s work. Work. Throw’ em off the rolls. That’s the whole key. I have the greatest affection for them. But I know they ain’t gonna make it for 500 years. They aren’t.”

Nixon’s intolerant attitude has been scrubbed from the film, emerging only slightly in one scene when a dusky Nixon, (Frank Langella), is debriefed by a young Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant) after inquiring about his dotty opponent, David Frost (Michael Sheen). Sawyer informs Nixon that Frost nearly married Diahann Carroll, to which Nixon murmurs suspiciously “…isn’t she black?”

Nixon, however, is not a subject that can be turned into a thriller, unlike Bernstein and Woodward, Hoffman and Redford respectively, squaring off with the inscrutable informer known simply as Deep Throat in All The President’s Men. And it goes without saying that one character in every film, after enduring a grueling experience, is granted insight to lead them out of their dark age. But by the film’s conclusion neither Frost or Nixon have one. Instead, it’s the one character—arguably the smartest of the lot—James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) who reflects, “You know, the first and greatest sin or deception of television is that it simplifies. It diminishes great complex ideas, tranches of time, whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot.”

Even Reston Jr., who himself had the most compelling information and the greatest contempt for Nixon, was fooled by television’s most obvious trick: It does not work unless it has a knob.