The Final Days

The Final Days.
Multicom Entertainment Group 1989

Before watching the movie:

Long ago, in another time, a corruption scandal went all the way to the top and there were consequences. This is the story of what was happening in the White House as Nixon’s power and psyche crumbled.

As interesting as the intrepid reporting profiled in All The President’s Men was, it’s a story told from the outside. It’s a mystery, but one where every reader will know who did it, just not the path the sleuths took to figuring it out. As I watched that movie, and more so as I read the book, I was more interested in the legal and political processes that, as the story went on, seemed increasingly out of focus as Woodstein followed the money. So I was glad to find that their followup book was a reconstruction of what was happening in the Nixon White House as everything fell apart, put together from interviews with basically everyone involved except Nixon himself. The Happily Never After of the political fairy tale.

After watching the movie:

As Watergate investigations probe into the White House, President Nixon takes the resignations of two of his closest advisors, Ehrlichman and Haldeman, and takes on Fred Buzhardt and Leonard Garment as his lead defense counsel. Nixon endeavors to be a strong president and world leader as his political and constitutional position gets worse and worse. The existence of audio recordings of his private meetings becomes the chief battleground of the investigation, and despite Nixon’s best efforts to keep them private, they become the fulcrum around which the investigation turns to impeachment proceedings.

I’m glad that the movie pretty much begins and ends where the book does. While it would be unthinkable to end the story of the last days of the Nixon Presidency earlier than the resignation, the book and the movie both more or less begin with the hiring of Buzhardt and Garment shortly after the departure of Ehrlichman and Haldeman. If the movie were to start later, it wouldn’t be much of a loss, but this movie will by nature be compared as an adaptation to All The President’s Men, which cuts off at least a third of the book because it made a better plot arc.

While the book makes one understand Nixon as an introvert under immense stress who may have never actually understood how his actions were criminal, the movie really makes him sympathetic. Lane Smith delivers a highly emotional performance as Nixon’s world collapses around him, and conveys the weight of just how deeply afraid and hurt he is by the noose closing around his neck. It brings home the idea that the actions of the people around him, and his own involvement with them, were smaller matters that got out of hand at a breathtaking pace.

Regardless of whether other administrations before or since have been guilty of similar actions, and I’m sure many or most have been, what’s important to remember is that covering up illegal operations is inappropriate and illegal, and the appropriate consequences need to fall upon anyone found to be involved in such activities. The holder of the highest office in the land is expected to represent the best of us. At several points, Congressional Republicans and even Nixon appointees in the Supreme Court sided with what was right over what was politically convenient, and the Nixon Administration had to go as a result. I would hope that others finding themselves in similar situations could face the music with as much public grace and dignity as Nixon mustered, but again, it was a different time with different standards, the likes of which we may not see again.

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