“The Post”…Why Now?
Forty-Six Years and Five Months Ago Today the Washington Post Began Publishing the Pentagon Papers. What Compelled Steven Spielberg to Tell The Story Now?
Steven Spielberg’s latest film, “The Post” tells an interesting, but well-worn historical tale. It doesn’t dig new dirt, plow new ground, or tell us anything those of us old enough to remember didn’t already know.
It simply allows us to see that important event through the eyes of the people involved, many of whom, after forty-seven years are dead and forgotten.
No one’s going to say Steven Spielberg can’t make movies. He grabs us with an action hook on the opening, followed by the usual, near perfect, Spielbergian blocking and pacing, filming and editing, along with the same near perfect performances we’re used to from Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks…
…and others. Bruce Greenwood does a great Bob McNamara, and you’ll do a double take at Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, a newsman with a conscience. (Yes, Bob Odenkirk as a man with a conscience — a breakout role for him.)
It is a typical and typically good Spielberg film, not more or less, about a story with a name familiar to many of us, but not much talked about these days.
But, contrary to the headlines, “The Post” isn’t performing as a typical Spielbergian blockbuster. It’s attracting a much smaller and older audience than have most of his films. Sadly, I was the youngest viewer at my showing.
And, that was too bad.
Because the people who lived through that era and know about the Pentagon Papers will already know the tale this film has to tell. It’s the younger crowd, people who’ve never heard of the Pentagon Papers, or have heard those words but don’t know what they mean that need to see this film.
This is a film for our times. Those aren’t my words, they’re Spielberg’s.
“This film is for our times.”
I vaguely remember first hearing about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers in school. It was 1971. Washington and the things that happened there were far away, and by the time I got to college, even though my generation’s political die was cast, the war was over, and so was Richard Nixon.
The Pentagon Papers had been superseded by Watergate as the preeminent scandal of our times.
Again, that was too bad, because…
…though Watergate was a criminal act, and revealed how unworthy Richard Nixon was to be President, in a broader sense the burglary and attempted bugging of one political party’s campaign office by members of another political party wasn’t very important.
It didn’t change the election, and had it not happened, or not been discovered, the Vietnam War would still have ended. (Nixon didn’t start the war, and was on his way to ending it, and — given his personality, may well have found another way to disgrace himself and lose the Presidency anyway…)
In the grand scheme of history, even though Watergate is a pop culture catchword, it wasn’t and still isn’t an important event.
The Pentagon Papers were and still are. They told the story not of a politician and a few lackeys gone rogue, but of many politicians and lackeys, and civil servants gone rogue, of a government conspiring against its people.
It is a story for our time.
They revealed a succession of administrations had lied, not just put the best face on bad situations, but blatantly lied about what the country was doing, and what were the results.
They’d engaged us in an unwise and unwinnable war that killed tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, and was so costly it started a run on the dollar, forcing us off the gold standard, while destroying the public’s trust in its government — our trust in our government.
Obviously the Pentagon Papers were important then, but why, after so many years, are they important now?
Actually, they aren’t what’s so important now, and no matter what you’re lead to believe, they’re not the point of the film.
Americans don’t need so much to learn about the Pentagon Papers as they need to learn about the other papers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the others of that time, that took up the cause of a free and unfettered press — and the people behind those banners, who risked everything, who laid it all on the line — to let us know the truth.
That’s why it’s important for people to see this film, not for what it teaches about the government, but for what it teaches about the press, because the only guarantee of an honest government is an honest press.
For those too young, here’s the story: The US Government commissioned the Rand Corporation to study America’s involvement in Vietnam, from 1945. Daniel Ellsberg worked in Vietnam for the Rand Corporation. He knew the truth, and after watching Robert Mcnamara lie about it during a television interview Ellsberg decided he had to get the truth out to the rest of us. He gave copies of the study (The Pentagon Papers) to the New York Times.
Before The Times could reveal much of the study the Government sued, and found a judge willing to grant an injunction against further publication. Not content with stopping the publication, the government threatened the people at The Times, and their sources with criminal prosecution.
The Times backed down — but Kay Graham, owner and publisher of the Washington Post didn’t.
She risked everything, and published the Pentagon Papers.
After the opening hook, showing Ellsberg in Vietnam, there’s no real action in this film, no spandex suits, no fist fights, no super powers and no special effects. The main characters barely raise their voices at each other.
The film spends its time showing us dedicated reporters seeking the truth, from wherever it may be found, and following it, to wherever it may lead, then telling that truth to the public…
…and ignoring the personal and professional consequences of doing so.
Kay Graham’s willingness to risk her social status, the approval of her board of directors, her family’s fortune, and a prison term, along with the same kind of dedication from her editor and reporters, permitted us, the public, to know the truth our government had been keeping from us.
She destroyed friends and friendships and the images of some of the world’s most powerful people, and she destroyed the American public’s blind faith in its government.
All in the pursuit of the truth. All so the public, so we, could know the truth. All to save us from a government run amok.
And she did. She and her staff at The Washington Post and those at The New York Times saved us from a government run amok.
Prior to the Pentagon Papers she was a wealthy socialite who owned a newspaper. After the Pentagon Papers Kay Graham was my hero.
The Supreme Court eventually decided the Constitution meant what it said about a free and unfettered press. Graham avoided prison, kept the family fortune and her newspaper, and set a standard for courage and integrity to which few then measured up, precious few have in the intervening years, and apparently none do today.
Because today we’re facing another battle for the truth, different, but every bit as dangerous as, and far more more insidious than the one Kay Graham fought and won.
Today it’s not a runaway President and Pentagon and military industrial complex refusing to tell the truth.
Today it’s the press.
Today, as the objective evidence becomes more and more compelling that a US President, his appointees, and his political party made illegal use of Federal agencies and their powers, first to sway multiple elections, and failing that, to destroy their political opponents and disrupt the lawful transfer of power —
— the press doesn’t want to know!
Our sources of truth have taken sides, and wrenched their eyes so tightly shut it doesn’t matter where they look, they cannot see, or refuse to see anything they don’t want to.
There may still be Daniel Ellsbergs out there, there may still be idealistic civil servants willing to blow the whistle, but there are no longer any Ben Bradlees or Ben Bagdikians helping them, putting it on the line, searching relentlessly through hard drives full of digital records, today’s version of yesterday’s piles of telltale documents —to give us the truth.
And no Kay Grahams telling them “Let’s go, let’s just go!”
That task is left (God help us…) to Congress.
Amazing, isn’t it, the depth to which the American press has sunk? It is now less trusted than the 535 formerly most ridiculed, despised and mistrusted people in the country — the US Congress.
Kay Graham risked it all to expose the lies of her personal, professional and political friends, to destroy the reputations of a generation of her party’s Presidents, many of whom she knew, to tell us the truth we needed to know.
Who is our Kay Graham today? Who is so dedicated to the truth that he or she will risk destroying the public images of those in government now, as well as those who occupied past administrations, to allow the public to see what’s happening behind our government’s closed doors?
Who is our Kay Graham today?
Those over sixty won’t marvel at this film. It will simply remind them of a time when the press could be trusted, when it gave its all, when one, and only one thing mattered — the truth.
Those under forty won’t believe this film…that there was ever a time when those in the press would risk everything to print unflattering facts about their own parties, friends and colleagues, to seek and tell the truth, no matter from whence it came or to where it might lead.
I don’t think that’s the outcome Spielberg hoped for.
He started filming in March of 2017, worried we’d elected to the Presidency a corrupt autocratic who’d break more than social norms, who’d break laws, and then repress those who tried to report on his transgressions. He compared Donald Trump to Richard Nixon, saying he made the film to urge the press to do its job with regard to President Trump.
Ironically, despite the determined efforts of a cadre of career civil servants to destroy evidence, or keep it secret, the digital blood seeping out from under the various government doors tells a different story — it isn’t Trump who’s a corrupt autocrat, it was his predecessor.
It seems Mr. Spielberg may have been right — about the wrong man.
Nixon wasn’t so much burying his lies and mistakes as he was the lies and mistakes of his predecessors. Many of the misdeeds revealed by the Pentagon Papers were those of Kennedy and Johnson. Nixon wanted to bury them because he didn’t trust the press to tell the truth, and he worried the exposure of Kennedy’s and Johnson’s lies and misdeeds would do serious and lasting damage to the nation.
Today’s evidence seems to indicate, if Trump is, as was Nixon, hiding any secrets, they are those of his predecessor/s.
It would be to Trump’s political advantage to declassify and expose everything the Obama (and perhaps Bush) IRS, FBI, DOJ, and NSA have been doing, going back at least as far as the 2010 IRS attack on that irritatingly bumptious crowd, the Tea Party. (He may have burglarized the Democrat’s offices, but not even Nixon was able to weaponized the IRS.)
So, why doesn’t he…expose everything?
Is it possible not even the President can get to the truth? Are the bureaucrats so powerful they can hold even Donald Trump at bay, or are the secrets so terrible that Trump is, as was Nixon, afraid to let us know the whole truth of what our government has been doing?
Let’s hope not.
Let’s hope this President will trust us, and we won’t have to wait a generation to learn the truth. Let’s hope this President will declassify everything, reveal everything, lay all the terrible cards out on the table and let us see what our government has been doing behind closed doors, either for us or — to us.
If you’re too young to remember the Pentagon Papers, or if you doubt the press could ever be trusted, see this film and learn, at one time the press was honest and unfettered, at one time it held the lantern of truth, at one time it was determinedly free and unbiased.
Then demand it become free, unfettered and unbiased again!