In my Ron Paul Curriculum course on American literature, everything I teach from from 1915 to the present is based on movies. This is where American literature has had its greatest impact, both domestic and foreign.
I watched the 1976 movie, All the President’s Men, a few days ago. I had seen it before, but I needed to see it again. I regard it as one of the great movies of all time. It is virtually flawless as literature: the telling of a story.
One of the things that you learn when you watch the movie, if you’re paying attention, is this. Everything turned on one peculiar fact: two of the burglars’ notebooks that had two pieces of information: H H at W H, and Howard Hunt. The initial hint that something was peculiar came from these two scraps of information. If the burglars had not been carrying this, Richard Nixon would have left the presidency in an honorable way. Somebody other than Gerald Ford would have ended the Vietnam War.
In other words, the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry. “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.” A tiny detail leads to a great unraveling. Somebody utters the two crucial words governing the greatest discoveries in history: “That’s odd.”
Bob Woodward began the investigation. He had only been a reporter at the Washington Post for nine months. He was not a skilled investigator yet. He was not a skilled writer yet. He later became both. He became one of the most influential journalists in the second half of the 20th century. But in 1976, he was a nobody.
CONSCIENCE AND THE NEED TO CONFESS
As you watch the movie, you discover this: almost everybody stonewalled the two reporters. The two could not get anywhere. Finally, a handful of people talked. They were governed by their consciences, and they emotionally had to confess. They had to tell what they had been told not to tell. In retrospect, if about three of them had kept their mouths shut, the two reporters would never have been able to get any traction for the story.
The other major aspect of the movie also had to do with conscience — lack thereof. The perpetrators at the very top inside the White House were devoid of consciences with respect to the misuse of political power. A lot of them were lawyers. All of them were college educated. All of them appeared to be conservative. Nixon was the main one, and he became the representative of an entire generation of politicians.
The only comparable American figure was Lyndon Johnson, who decided not to run in March 1968 because of opposition within the Democratic Party: first Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy. Johnson’s decision not to run made it possible for Nixon to win by just barely defeating the hapless Hubert Humphrey. America had back-to-back true believers in political power, and we had back-to-back failures whose careers never survived their own actions.
I also choose for the students to watch the low-budget movie, Born Again (1978). It is online for free. This is also a movie about conscience. Nixon’s senior counsel Charles Colson was not bothered by his conscience until he faced an indictment. Then, because he had converted to Christianity, he finally got a conscience. He pleaded guilty to something which otherwise he would never have pleaded guilty to, and which probably could not have been proven in court. He was sent to prison. That led to his personal liberation. Because he went to prison, he was disbarred as a lawyer. After he got out, he became a major advocate of prison reform. The reforms he recommended were generally well-needed. We have not seen these reforms implemented, but at least there was somebody who articulated what needed to be done. He thought the prison system has been unsuccessful. He preferred restitution to victims. (So did the prisoners I dealt with inside a maximum security prison. I don’t think there was one of them who would not have accepted economic restitution to his victims rather than spend another 10 years in prison.)
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)