Monday, January 12, 2009

Historical Lies or Literary License

Biographies can take only a few formats – books, plays, serials in magazines, cinema, and “films made for television.”

“Based on historical events,” by contrast, may use an event or series of events as the basis for the genre of “historical novel.” Such a product is a fictionalized re-telling of an event or series of events. And despite the time-cost pressures most evident in the electronic media to fling the script through History’s transom with only minimal interest in how the pages fall, the general public may be better served if the dramatis personae and literary license are slid under Literature’s door.

Most biographies and historical novels are written about persons who are dead – and of these a significant number had been deceased for hundreds of years. In a sort of cosmic irony, Shakespeare, the English language’s most prolific writer of “history plays,” has himself now become the subject of 20th and 21st biographers.

I am always willing to be educated and entertained simultaneously as long as the parts intended to entertain are clearly distinguished as non- historical. But when that part of the retelling that is fiction is claimed as history, it is time to take notice and object.

Two such incidents were part of my past weekend’s experience. What has been called “the nation’s attic” –the venerable Smithsonian Institute flanking the Mall between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument – has mounted an exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery (which is at 8th and F Street NW, not on the Mall) of the significant events during the George W. Bush administration (January 20, 2001-Janaury 20, 2009). This morning, National Public Radio reported that written material accompanying the exhibit says that 9/11led directly to the War in Iraq – at least that is what NPR says Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) says the exhibit states.

Whether or not this association of 9/11 with Iraq is another attempt to rewrite history – an enterprise to which Bush has devoted much time of late –or a simple reductionism of facts that went awry, the Smithsonian has an obligation to correct this mistake as soon as possible – preferably before January 20, 2009. As the nation’s attic, it is the keeper – along with the National Archives – of the national memory: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The other event in my weekend was seeing the film “Frost/Nixon,” the story of the first interview of Richard Nixon three years after he resigned (1974) the presidency in disgrace Like the stage play, the film is based on the unpublished tape interviews of Nixon at his villa in San Clemente, California.

I was “with” the film until the climax where Frost is portrayed as asking three direct questions that “nailed” the former president to Watergate: did Nixon concede that he made “more than mistakes,” that “wrongdoing” and even crimes might have been involved; and that the former president was involved in the cover-up. In the film and the play Nixon confesses, but in the taped interviews he adamantly refuses: “You're wanting me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up. No!”

Noted political journalist and presidential author Elizabeth Drew faulted the script writers for both the play and the film for grossly distorting the answer – and possibly popular history. (One is reminded of the impact of films by Oliver Stone.) While this is a legitimate criticism, I was more interested in an associated statement by Nixon that, while not a “confession,” seemed entirely out of character: “I let down my country.”

Drew, as I found later, also remarked on this statement as an unusual sentiment to be expressed by Nixon. (See Drew’s entire critique in the on-line December14, 2008 Huffington Post entitled “Frost/Nixon: A Dishonorable Distortion of History” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-drew/ifrostnixoni-a-dishonorab_b_150948.html .)

I could never think of Nixon as suffering remorse for anything he did, especially if he was caught out in the act. He was, in contrast to what Drew seems to convey, a remorseless person willing to do whatever was needed – according to his lights and for his advantage. I believe Nixon cared little about the opinion of the American public except or unless it threatened to interfere with his plans and projects – especially when the subject was foreign policy.

Like the Smithsonian exhibition, the film presents itself as history or nearly history. In this it does a dis-service to the majority of Americans today who were not alive in the mid-1970s and who therefore will have to rely on others to understand what really happened.

But then, so must I, for I was not at San Clemente either.

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