The Post and the perfidy of presidents

Pentagon Papers

Photo by Rory Finneren, published under Creative Commons license.

The Post takes us back to the courage of Daniel Ellsberg and the testing of Katherine Graham and the perfidy of presidents as revealed in the Pentagon Papers. i loved the movie last night, but today I’m thinking harder about what it means. 

I remember the publication of the secret documents—officially, United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense. President Richard Nixon sued the New York Times to stop their publication. While he got a temporary restraining order, his lawsuit was ultimately dismissed as an attack on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press.

The movie shows Nixon’s angry response. He acted as if any resistance against him was an attack on the nation. The newspapers resisted. When the New York Times was ordered by the courts to halt, the Washington Post, defying White House orders, picked up and continued the publication.

We see in Nixon a foreshadowing of Trump. For Nixon, whatever the president does is right. Criticism of the president is an attack on the country, treason.

Like Nixon, Trump shows no respect for constitutional guarantees: due process, free speech, freedom of assembly, free press. Like Nixon, he considers an attack on him as an attack on the country. Earlier this month, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that FBI agents’ criticism of him in private text messages was treasonous. L’etat, c’est moi.

For boomers like me, The Post celebrates a win for the good side battling the powers of evil. That makes it a feel-good movie in a time when very little on the public/political scene feels good. Sometimes feeling good gives the strength to get up in the morning or to put on marching shoes and get back on the streets.

Feeling inspired by heroism of the past generally stays with me at least 24 hours. Then I start having second thoughts.

The Pentagon Papers were about war, not journalism. They recorded in excruciating detail how four U.S. presidents lied to the American people about a war that cost more than a million lives, including some 58,000 U.S. soldiers. That war was wrong, morally and politically and militarily.

Even after the Pentagon Papers detailed the lies and revealed the conclusions of U.S. leaders that this war could not be won. For four more years, the bombing and killing continued.

Much as I’d like just to feel good about the courage of Daniel Ellsberg, the newspapers, and Katherine Graham, my morning-after-the-movie mind turns to today’s wars.

Today we are fighting a losing war in Afghanistan. Today we conduct a war by proxy in Yemen, supporting Saudi Arabia’s bombing and devastation of that small country. Today our drones deal death in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Iraq … the list goes on.

Like the U.S. war on Vietnam, these wars have lasted through multiple presidencies and both political parties. Like that earlier war, they have been lied about, over and over again.

Ending the Nixon presidency took a long time. The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers in June 1971. In September 1971, Nixon’s “Plumbers” broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. In June 1972, the Plumbers broke into the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, and were arrested. By October 1972, the FBI identified them as part of the Nixon re-election campaign. In November 1972, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, carrying 49 out of 50 states.

The Democrats held a majority in both the House and Senate. In May 1973, a Senate committee began hearings on the Watergate affair. On July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee passed one of three articles of impeachment. On August 8, 1974, Nixon resigned.

The Watergate investigation and hearings were an important and necessary response to abuse of presidential power. That abuse was egregious and well-documented and attested to by the FBI. The country still re-elected Nixon and it still took almost three years before he resigned.

U.S. military involvement in Vietnam began in 1954. In the United States, widespread opposition began in the mid-1960s. The war continued until 1975.

In The Post, Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham come to terms with the need to keep a distance from politicians they have counted as friends. They see that these friends, though they may not be evil people, may still be responsible for evil policies. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were responsible for the war, as much as Richard Nixon.

Today, as much as back then, we must speak truth to power. Today, as much as back then, we must oppose evil in government and stop wars waged in our name. As bad as Trump is, the task ahead of us is bigger than one president.


Filed under media, Tracking Trump, war and peace

2 responses to “The Post and the perfidy of presidents

  1. The thing that struck me the most after the film was the fact that both The Post and The Times fell for the same lies in 2002-3 during the run-up and early days of the Iraq War. Yes, the journalists were courageous then but as the media got more corporatized and profit-seeking in the years after Watergate, much of the great investigative journalism of people like Sy Hersh got sidelined . While I still read them, both The Post and The NY Times are too embedded in the power structure to present credible critiques of our failing democracy today.


    • Mary Turck

      And yet, and yet—they do some courageous journalism today, too. The key, I find, is scanning a variety of sources, and including media such as Pro Publica and The Intercept. But NYT and WaPost are still the big dogs, with deeper pockets and more journalists to throw at investigations, so I can’t count them out.


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