[On April 14, 1922, the Wall Street Journal published a story breaking the news of a crooked deal that became known as the Teapot Dome scandal. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that history and four other presidential scandals, leaving aside the Grant administration as we’ll get to them in a couple weeks and the Trump administration because ugh. Share your thoughts on these & other histories, including Grant or Trump if you’d like of course, for a scandalous crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On three telling pop culture representations of the generation-defining scandal.
1) All the President’s Men (1976): The 1976 film was of course an adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s popular 1974 book of the same name, but I would argue it was really the film—and of course in particular the pair of acting luminaries known as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman—that really made President’s the defining cultural representation of Watergate. There’s a lot to like about the film, including one of the best pop culture portrayals of journalism this side of Spotlight. But I wonder sometimes if the success of this story and in particular that emphasis on the journalists helped minimize the focus on the Nixon administration’s genuinely horrific misdeeds, making it easier for us to gradually forget some of the worst of (to my mind) the most stunning presidential crimes in history (at least until, well, y’know).
2) “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974): That certainly wasn’t the only reason for our gradual downplaying of Nixon’s crimes, however. In the same year that saw Woodward and Bernstein’s book, the good ol’ boys in Lynyrd Skynyrd (man does Word not like the spelling of those words) released their Southern-fried anthem. I’ve long found the song’s second verse one of the most politically despicable in all of rock music: “In Birmingham they love the governor/Now we all did what we could do/Now Watergate does not bother me/Does your conscience bother you?/Tell the truth.” In so feeling I tended to focus on the governor lines (that’s Governor George “Segregation Forever” Wallace, to be clear); but as awful as they are, I’d say minimizing the Watergate crimes committed by the President of the U.S. by asking listeners if they have a perfectly clear conscience is just as horrific, and helped set the stage for our ongoing ability to dismiss presidential crimes through a partisan lens.
3) Dick (1999): When I initially planned this post, I thought I’d be making the case that a silly comic film like Dick, with its focus on two fictional teenage girls who become intertwined with Nixon and the scandal, further reflects that gradual cultural (and social and political) dismissal of the worst of Watergate. And maybe that’s still the most viable argument, I dunno. But I’d also say that the film, alongside a work like Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), could be read as part of an attempt to grapple anew, a couple decades later, with the histories and stories of this most scandalous presidency and period in American history (again, to that point). Of course scholarly and historical writing, along with further journalism and other nonfiction genres like documentary, offer their own lenses on such histories. But so do pop culture works—and, with all due respect to the boys with the unspellable band name, such works can help remind us why yes, we should be bothered by a presidential scandal like Watergate.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Takes on this scandal or other ideas you’d share for the weekend post?