Friday, June 17, 2005

'All the President's Men'

Earlier this evening, I went to see All the President's Men at the Vinegar Hill Theatre in Charlottesville. The theatre is running the film during the coming week in reaction to the Watergate revival in the news lately, since Mark Felt came out as Deep Throat and Bob Woodward offered his confirmation of that revelation. (According to IMDB, Vinegar Hill is the only cinema in the country showing All the President's Men this week.)

It wasn't until I sat down in my seat that I realized that today was the anniversary of the Watergate break-in of June 17, 1972, the event that led to the discovery of what John Dean called a "cancer growing on the presidency" and the premature resignation of Richard Nixon.

All the President's Men Robert Redford Dustin HoffmanThat brought to mind a memory of what I did on August 9, 1974 -- the day Nixon resigned.

I was a 15-year-old high-school student attending the Georgetown University Summer Forensics Institute in Washington, D.C. For those of you who are not familiar with summer debate institutes, they are quite intense. So preoccupied were we with the work we had to do to assemble our evidence, prepare our cases, and get ready for the end-of-institute tournament, we were largely unaware of the history being made virtually in our backyard. With little access to television or radio news broadcasts and little interest in reading newspapers for purposes other than the debate work at hand, we had not realized that the articles of impeachment against Nixon had been filed and that the government was paralyzed by scandal.

A digression: Reader who have not participated in competitive debate or forensics may not comprehend just how intense and insular summer debate institutes can be. Sociologist Gary Alan Fine notes in his 2001 book, Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture, that the "summer institutes at Georgetown University and at Northwestern in the late 1960s and early 1970s were particularly influential in forging and fostering the rapid-fire, evidence-intense national circuit style that dominates debate in many regions."

Fine then goes on to explain:

Debate institutes are intense times; participants want to "do debate," with sleep and leisure secondary. According to one participant, fifteen hours a day of debate work was common. One debater at an institute explained that she generally awoke at 5:30 a.m. and worked until breakfast at 7:00. After breakfast she worked on her research until 8:30 a.m., when she attended a general meeting and then a theory class until lunch at noon. From 1:00 to 3:00 she attended a research class, followed by research in the library, then dinner. After dinner, the individual lab groups met. In the evening she worked in the library, and from 10:00 p.m. until midnight she met with friends and worked on her projects. From midnight until 1:00 a.m. she worked in her room. At 1:00 a.m. was lights out but she "found ways to keep lights on, flashlights, to keep working." Given the amount of work and lack of sleep, it is worth noting that when I asked her about her most enjoyable experience, without hesitation she responded "institute" (interview). At institute, participants have nothing to do but "deal with ideas." I do not suggest that every student enjoys the rigors of institute life, or that all are equally successful -- horror stories exist -- however, working eighteen hours a day can be a peak experience, when coupled with a deep and profound sense of community.
The only dispute I have with that paragraph is that I don't recall any of my teammates working as few as 15 or 18 hours a day at the Georgetown institutes of the 1970s (when I was a student) or the early 1980s (when I was a coach).

Digression ends, and back to August 1974:

Still, word reached us that something big was happening, and on the evening of August 8, a large group of us gathered in a dorm lounge in New South Hall to watch Richard Nixon's address to the nation, in which he announced his resignation would take effect at noon the next day.

We may have been teenagers, but we were not unaware of the historical significance of what was happening. So a few of us -- I think there were 11 altogether -- decided that the following day, Friday, we would have dinner at a restaurant in the Watergate Hotel, the place where it all began.

So there we found ourselves, just short of a dozen 15- and 16-year-old boys, dressed in suits and ties and (as is the wont of teenage boys) shoes that did not match the rest of our outfits, gathered around a table at the Watergate. Here's the kicker: At the end of the evening, the bill for all of us came to just over $200, which seemed exorbitantly expensive to my Midwestern eyes. But can you imagine buying dinner for 11 hungry teenagers at a fancy D.C. restaurant today for less than $10 per person. (I'm not certain, but I think our bill included two bottles of red wine -- this was the 1970s, after all, and being a teenager was no obstacle to drinking wine with dinner.)

Now, let's return to the movie:

To my surprise, All the President's Men holds up remarkably well after almost thirty years. I had only seen it once before, not when it first came out (1976), when I was far too busy being a high school senior, but a couple of years later, when it played on campus at Georgetown for a bargain price ($1.50, I think, or perhaps $2.00). So my memories were vague, at best, in terms of the details, although I naturally remembered the basic structure.

What makes the movie work is that it is a mystery despite the fact that we know the outcome. It is simultaneously a political thriller and a demonstration of the plodding nature of investigative journalism without becoming tedious about the latter. What's more, it's a movie about politics without reference to political points of view. Nixon and his 1972 opponent, George McGovern, might as well be off-screen fictional characters. Even the Vietnam War, the major political issue of the day, is mentioned only in passing. Politics is irrelevant to the plot because the plot is about puzzle-solving.

In other words, a viewer would not have to have lived through the Watergate era to enjoy seeing All the President's Men today. In fact, this movie is so well-constructed, it holds its appeal to a wider audience much better than does the farcical satire, Dick, which came out in 1999 and covers some of the same territory. To understand and really enjoy Dick, one really must have either lived through Watergate or have studied it in depth. Such intimate knowledge is not necessary to understand or enjoy All the President's Men. (That said, Dick is a very funny movie; I really like Dick and even own the DVD and soundtrack CD. It would be interesting to see these two films as part of a double bill.)

I may go back to see All the President's Men next week with some friends who are not old enough to remember the times, just to see if their reaction justifies my theory.

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