Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in—the sloppy job by President Richard Nixon’s goon squad, the unravelling of which led to Nixon’s resignation in August, 1974—and, aside from the silly Gaslit (the creation of Robbie Pickering running now on Starz) I’m surprised there aren’t at least two or three movies or TV series set to coincide with the scandal’s jubilee. Has Nixon become a “good,” or at least “complex” Republican, and as Bill Clinton (never one to miss a photo-op) eulogized at Nixon’s funeral in 1994, as a man who should be remembered for the totality of his life, and not just as a disgraced chief executive? I suppose that Donald Trump has far surpassed Nixon for perfidy in the minds of Hollywood producers, but as one who followed the Watergate scandal with delight as a teenager, I’d like to see a serious film about the subject. (I did like All The President’ Men, as well as Oliver Stone’s Nixon.)
Gaslit isn’t serious; it’s a cartoon version of the events, ostensibly focusing on Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of Attorney General John Mitchell—who left his post in ’72 to run Nixon’s landslide victory over George McGovern—who delighted Nixon detractors, including me, with her appearances on talk shows and often-drunken ramblings to reporters about a vicious White House that did her dirty. In fact, Gaslit uses Martha (horribly portrayed by Julia Roberts) as a foil for a “dramedy” about the entire chain of events. The only performer who shines is Sean Penn as Mitchell—he’s heavily retrofitted to resemble the profane, pipe-smoking DC macher; interestingly, Penn is the same age as Mitchell was when the action takes place—and aside from a pretty good turn as Harvey Milk in 2008, it’s Penn’s best role in at least 20 years.
Less successful is Dan Stevens as John Dean, Nixon’s White House Counsel, who famously told his boss there was a “cancer on the presidency” that could implicate Nixon’s entire administration. Shortly after that conference, Dean was fired, and then went on to testify before the Senate Watergate Committee, for hours and hours, with lawyerly detail, never once smiling (unlike several other witnesses), and giving the impression of a smart man whose ambition bested any moral compass, and one who wasn’t willing to be a scapegoat. It was Dean’s testimony, even before the revelations of Nixon’s damning taping system, that led me (and millions of others) to believe Nixon was cooked. Stevens’ portrayal of Dean as a bumbling drunk (and sometimes stoned) underling doesn’t square with the lawyer’s comportment during the hearings. And while Betty Gilpin is a decent actress, she’s awful as Dean’s wife Maureen, and in a rare Hollywood twist, isn’t nearly as beautiful as the character she’s playing. Anyone who watched the Watergate hearings will remember Mo Dean, seated behind her husband, not saying a word, but more glamorous than anyone in Washington, D.C.; in fact, her mysterious and ethereal presence reminded people of stars like Grace Kelly.
Shea Whigham does little better as the crazy and ferocious G. Gordon Liddy (who parlayed his part in the scandal years later, appearing with Timothy Leary in debates across the country and hosting a radio talk show); it’s a difficult task to capture Liddy, but Whigham with a moustache that looks pasted on, plays the right-wing hero way over the top. Also, many of scenes between the principals defy reality, or at least what’s been recorded. I’ve read a lot of books about Watergate specifically and Nixon in general (one of my favorites is Thomas Mallon’s 2012 historical fiction Watergate), and don’t remember depictions of 10 a.m. meetings where most of the participants drink scotch and every other word is “fuck.” Even Nixon, whose anti-Semitism and racism was revealed by the tapes, wasn’t as profane as the set shots in Gaslit.
I’ve no idea how popular Gaslit is—from my perch it hasn’t generated much chatter—but I hope younger people who are retrospectively fascinated by Watergate and its aftermath (it still fascinates me that just six years after Nixon supposedly destroyed the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan was elected, a lesson about the fickle nature of politics that today’s political doomsayers ought to remember) don’t take this TV series as anything but a comedic sketch.
At first blush, it doesn’t seem sporting to ridicule veteran New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman—whose last achievement was the reasonable book The World Is Flat (2005). Friedman’s a dog who’s been kicked so repeatedly by the left and right that you’d think he was dead. But since his employer continues to give space to the extremely wealthy writer (who, now that the taxi industry is in tatters, no longer hits the default button with a “I was talking to this cabbie in Athens…”), he’s fair game. His column last Sunday, an unbelievable defense of Joe Biden as a sharp, ingenious president was laughable. His meeting was off the record, Friedman writes, so he only offers impressions. His second paragraph is a dilly: “I can, though, tell you two things—what I ate and how I felt after. I ate a tuna salad sandwich with tomato on whole wheat bread, with a bowl of mixed fruit and a chocolate milkshake for dessert that was so good it should have been against the law.” Was that Friedman’s moment of levity? I’m surprised he didn’t say the shake was “sinfully rich” and a “chocoholic’s dream.” He’d make a worse restaurant reviewer than foreign policy columnist.
At a time when Democrats in Washington—translated: elected officials—are privately trying to figure out how to deny Biden the nomination in 2024, Friedman’s one of the last champions of the Hardscrabble Man From Scranton. Friedman lavishly praises Biden’s “leadership” on the Russian invasion of Ukraine (which, if he has a sense of regret—unlikely—might haunt him in coming months; just like Biden’s self-inflicted confusion on how he’d respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan) but worries the President has a “heavy heart.” Friedman: “He’s worried that while he’s reunited the West, he may not be able to reunite America.”
And even though Americans elected “this old war horse called Biden, with his bipartisan instincts,” Friedman frets that Donald Trump may have stolen democracy from the United States. J6, Trump’s petulant behavior after his loss, claims of election fraud, etc. As I’ve written previously, I don’t think Trump will be more than a bit player in coming years, but for the media it’s All About Trump. Friedman falls in line with this fantastical conclusion (rivaling the former president’s hallucinations: “To defeat Trumpism we need only, say 10 percent of Republicans to abandon their party and join with a center-left Biden, which is what he was elected to be and still is at heart. [Even with a “heavy heart.”] But we may not be able to get even 1 percent of Republicans to shift if far-left Democrats are seen as defining the party’s future.”
Why would Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who felt and brushed off the wrath of Trump, join the Democrats? Or Glenn Younkin, Chris Sununu, Larry Hogan, Tim Scott or Mitt Romney, to name just a few elected officials at odds with Trump. Friedman has Bill Kristol and David Frum on his roster; he’ll have to settle for that.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955