The 1970s: Revisited and relevant
Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) meets the bankers.
Both the first run movie The Post, preview here and George V. Higgins’ 1984 novel, A Choice of Enemies focus in on a decade that it seems in hindsight, has a lot of lessons for Americans living under the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
The Post vividly tells the story of how the Top Secret-classified Pentagon Papers chronicling 30 years of American policy blunders in Vietnam came to be and then wound up on the front pages of major American newspapers while the war was still ongoing.
Director Steven Spielberg uses his first rate cast and flawlessly authentic backdrops to tell the tale of Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to effectively steal a copy of the papers and provide them to whoever would publish them, making that party a co-conspirator in violating U.S. espionage acts and facing hard prison time. The decision to publish or fold fell on Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) who had inherited the financially troubled Post and the publisher title.
Those involved with journalism will pick up on scenes where (all male) bankers, who want to float Post stock in a public offering, point out that other newspaper groups with less focus on practicing ‘serious journalism,’ such as Gannett were more profitable. The money-men, thinking Graham is out of ear shot, express grave doubts about her or any women’s ability to handle the job. Rejoining the group, her ears doubtless burning, Graham maintains, “Quality and profitability go hand in hand,” though they clearly disagree and are horrified at the potential financial impact of publishing the papers.
The figure driving most of this is President Richard Nixon, seen only in profile through a White House window, but clearly furious at the humiliation visited on his administration by the publication of the papers. In a bit of interesting foreshadowing, there’s a scene toward the end where the Watergate burglars, under orders from Nixon are shown breaking into files at the Democratic National Committee. As 2016 showed us, this is done a little differently these days by Russian hackers and fed to the receptive U.S. media.
The Trump administration and the people it has put in power have reminded many that attitudes and behavior thought to be consigned to history are still very much with us. At times, Higgins’ Massachusetts world of the 70s sounds more like a leaked closed-door meeting in 2018 Washington.
Massachusetts General Court [State Legislature] Speaker Bernie Morgan is a corpulent, drunken official who menaces the streets of Boston in his gold pin striped Cadillac. In an early scene, Morgan’s enabler and ‘fixer’ Frank X. Costello shows up at the legislator’s office to witness Morgan swigging whiskey while cheering on nearly nude dancing by his female office staff in the back room.
In 2018, California politician Jesse M. Unruh’s dictum still stands: “Money is the mother milk of politics. [Of lobbyists and California legislators:] If you can't take their money, drink their booze, screw their women, and look them in the eye and vote against them, you don't belong here.” Speaker Morgan would clearly agree.
But plenty of Morgan’s money comes from blatant influence peddling and kick-backs from contractors on state projects and that’s the vulnerability targeted by “crusty Yankee” Otis Ames, who, despite his clear onset of senility has got a crime commission with which to do the job and settle old personal scores with Morgan. And Bernie’s got plenty of other enemies.
Contractor Vincent Mahoney tried to play this game as a rookie, acquiring a contract to expand an airport runway, but then resisted the continued payoffs demanded of him. This provides a great opportunity for Ames’ operatives including his legal counsel, Lyle Putter. Mahoney, who rages constantly about government requirements for affirmative action hires in reflexively racist terms, finds out to his horror that Putter is not only African-American, but already has lots of evidence implicating him in the corruption scheme.
Behind the scenes, Costello is dining with another legislator, unhappily trying to avert the seeming train wreck ahead for the speaker. In 2018, the language would fit right in at what has become known as the “shit-hole meeting” at the White House. What to do about the commission? “’Ames is senile. We all know that. But has got that goddamned law that I told Bernie we never ought to let come to a vote and he laughed at me, and he has also got a giant hair across his ass for Bernie Morgan. Which now that he has hired himself this nifty nigger prosecutor he is probably gonna find a way to scratch.’
‘Well,’ Costello said, ‘they haven’t got anything yet. That I know about at least.’ ‘They will, Archambault said. ‘You mark my words, they will.’”
Suffice it to say, it doesn’t end well all around. Worth a read or a re-read.