TOP 10 AMERICAN POLITICAL FILMS
- The Candidate
- All The President’s Men
- Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
- All The King’s Men
- The Best Man
- Good Night and Good Luck
- A Face In The Crowd
- The Ides of March
I love movies and, thanks to a lifelong interest in politics, I’ve gotten an appreciation for the really good films about politics over the years. As works of art, they can tell us a lot about our society and system. They can also serve as a starting point for discussion of what’s right and wrong with that system, even on a local basis.
I’d like to begin with #2 on my list above, All the President’s Men. Released in 1976, it’s based on the book by the two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The movie is a testament to journalism at its best as the reporters, against long odds and White House roadblocks, slowly and painstakingly unravel the mysteries and deception of the Watergate break-in and resulting cover-up that led to President Nixon’s resignation. One might think that this would involve incredibly detailed, tedious plotting but not so. The film actually becomes a “chase” film, not one including car crashes or criminals on the lam, but a breakneck pursuit of truth. Starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffmann, the film ended up winning four Oscars.
The movie begins with the actual break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington. Woodward soon finds that the burglars all had ties to the CIA and that one, Howard Hunt, has ties to the White House. Soon Bernstein joins in and Woodward continues to develop a mysterious source named “Deep Throat” who directs the reporters forward in their investigation with riddles and a “follow the money” mantra. They ultimately learn that campaign money has been diverted illegally to pay off one of the Watergate burglars and establish a slush fund used for political spying and sabotage of Democratic candidates. Deep Throat finally divulges that the Watergate break-in was masterminded by White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and that the cover-up was not done so much to hide other burglaries but to hide covert operations by U.S. Intelligence agencies to advance Nixon’s re-election and political ambitions. DT warns the reporters that their lives are in danger but they persevere until the story is finished and the President’s White House of cards tumbles.
There’s a lot more to the story than the above but I’ll leave it to you to do your own research. Suffice it to say that, 40 years later, Watergate tells us much about how our system has changed. Back then it was far less likely for a journalist to be ducked by political and public figures. You’d at least receive the courtesy of a reply, even if it was just lip service. Today, if you report a story critical of a politician, you can find yourself out in the cold. As your job depends on access to information held by that politician, it may become difficult to do that job. That conundrum, “reporting the facts vs. possible ostracism by a public official,” can be a tough one to navigate.
It also must be said that, whether through the influence of electronic media or not, overall attentiveness to detail has diminished in recent years. While people were able to follow much of the considerable detail involved in the Watergate scandal, 40 years later public patience and the willingness and ability to process such detail has waned. Part of the problem with dealing with the widespread fiscal corruption that led us into the 2008 Great Recession was the fact that it had a complexity difficult for the public to deal with. Many people don’t understand the financial markets and when you don’t understand something, it’s hard to know what to do about its failings. Sure, you can watch an Oscar-winning documentary like Inside Job or read a lengthy analysis in the Sunday paper or a meaty online site but fewer today are willing to do so. A good journalist must do all he can to distill complex issues into concise, understandable packages. It’s not easy and, when you watch the TV news stations, you see that they’ve almost given up on investigative and detailed reporting.
Which brings us to the changes we’ve seen in journalistic standards. 40 years ago Bernstein and Woodward were held to high standards by the Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee. Bradlee didn’t like the pair’s use of unnamed sources like Deep Throat and pushed them hard to get additional confirmation. The story wasn’t going to press unless he was satisfied that it had been thoroughly investigated. Back then, you needed three solid sources for a story to get published or aired. Today, it’s one. If that. Meanwhile, the rise of the “blogosphere” has been incredibly destructive to real journalism. No sources are required there and many blogs are little more than rumor mills or simplistic, crude political propaganda. But they do serve as competition for real journalists and, as such, they can significantly lower standards across the board.
Similarly, fact-checking has become a lost art. Coverage of this year’s Presidential campaign, for instance, involves less fact-checking than ever. We get plenty on the horse race aspects of the race-polls, fund raising, GSR readings of a debate focus group, attendance at a stump speech, “who’s got the momentum” analysis-but we don’t get the fact-checking of candidate stands and accusations we could really use to become a better informed electorate.
Then there’s the existence of the “24-hour news cycle” where a story is flogged endlessly and repetitively for a day and promptly forgotten the next. Fortunately for Bernstein and Woodward, the “cycle” was not nearly as influential then as it is today where the only stories with “legs” seem to be the ones with a continuing supply of ghastly pictures or celebrity novelty.
And these issues don’t only apply to global or national stories. They also apply to local ones. Make no mistake, last year’s bailout of the Oakley City Manager’s mortgage at taxpayer expense was malfeasance of the first degree. The Contra Costa Times did a good job investigating the bailout and the Press reported the basics. But once the story got a few weeks old it lost “momentum” when our local leaders were not held accountable for their actions. Back in Bernstein and Woodward’s day, the District Attorney and Fair Political Practices Commission would have investigated and handed out stiff penalties. But the story was stonewalled by leaders and, with the help of the “24 hour” mentality and the public’s cynicism toward and “hold your nose” acceptance of political corruption, ultimately lost. Talking to residents in town during the campaign, I’m surprised by how many people haven’t heard about the bailout. Meanwhile, nobody’s been held accountable. Indeed, one of the Councilmen involved is running for re-election and another trying to move up to the California legislature.
Who’s responsible? Certainly those involved and the city/county system which allowed them to get away with it are. But so are we for not demanding more from our leaders. This election may be our last chance to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.
The system worked when it forced Richard Nixon to resign. 40 years later, while it may have failed so far, we have a chance to bring justice in our own admittedly smaller local version of Watergate. In the end, the most powerful element in our democratic system is our right to vote. If we don’t exercise that right and vote for change we will have nobody to blame for perpetuating political corruption but ourselves.
To paraphrase Shakespeare and journalist Edward R. Murrow, “the fault dear Brutus, may not ultimately be in our stars but in ourselves.”