Saturday, November 29, 2008

Peter Morgan's Not-So-Youthful Perspective

In a "Newsweek" column, "Frost/Nixon" playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who won an Oscar for "The Queen," imagines being at next week's Washington premiere of Ron Howard's movie and being asked by the city's older denizens what business a whippersnapper such as he had writing about Richard Nixon, whose peccadilloes they know far better.

Dramatists love straw characters. Obviously, Washington's media and political elites won't act like that. Would anyone with a brain tell an historian, "You weren't at the Battle of the Wilderness, so keep your opinions to yourself"? They'll probably jostle one another for photos with Morgan and autographs for their "Queen" DVDs.

Morgan uses the device to explain the advantages for the moviegoer of his gift of a more objective, less emotionally involved perspective:
As a European from a different, younger generation, I wasn't really gripped by the trauma that was Nixon's presidency.... The horrors and betrayals that Nixon visited upon his electorate left me comparatively unscathed, though I have clear memories of my late father's anger and sense of disappointment as the Watergate scandal began to unfold. (He died in December 1972, close to two years before Nixon resigned from office.)

Nor did I set out to write "Frost/Nixon" as a metaphor for the failed imperial presidency and abuses of power of George W. Bush...

Not to minimize the traumas, horrors, and betrayals, but Watergate was a political scandal, not the Siege of Leningrad. I still meet people who loved every minute of it, never missing the Senate hearings and even throwing Watergate parties. So it's not as though if Morgan were 20 years older and had actually experienced the Ordeal, it would be completely beyond his considerable powers to imagine a Nixon character who was halfway human.

Though not gripped by trauma, Morgan is obviously gripped by a fashionably left-wing perspective on U.S. and British politics. Nothing wrong with that, but since it's the same perspective most of RN's critics had during Vietnam and Watergate, his youth doesn't seem to add much value, notwithstanding his play's merits. As for an accurate rendition of the era's real trauma, the war President Nixon inherited and ended, that's yet to come.

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