The Post: Impressions
The Steven Spielberg movie, The Post, with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks opened yesterday. We saw it today.
In many respects, the movie — set in 1971 — comes to us from a very different world. People use pay-phones! Every restaurant and office is smoke-filled as people puff away on cigars and cigarettes. Rotary dial phones sit on desks, with push-buttons for a different line. In homes, there is one line with “extensions.”
Women are rare in newspaper offices. Elsewhere their roles are menial. And women, and people of color, are wholly absent in Board rooms and centers of power — except for Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham, publisher of the Post.
Editors edit news articles by hand. Papers are printed on moveable type presses. They are hand-bundled to be dropped off the back of trucks for newsboys to deliver in the pre-dawn hours. (I was one of those newboys — I delivered the Post from 1959 to 1964, ages 11 to 15.)
In other ways, The Post is filled with contemporary resonances, which really provide the juice and occasioned bursts of audience applause. The freedom of the press and a White House that does its damndest to suppress that freedom are front and center. There is a President (Nixon) who is paranoid and vindictive. (Every scene featuring Nixon is shot at night.) And there is a leading woman, Streep/ Graham, who struggles to find her voice and authority in a male-dominated world. But in the end she is the gutsy one, more so that than any of the men.
The incendiary document, the publication of which is in question, is the “Pentagon Papers,” purloined by Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys (The Americans.) What the Papers reveals is that the American people have been lied to about Vietnam for a long, long time. American Presidents and officials — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, McNamara (Secretary of Defense), Kissinger (National Security Advisor) and Nixon — had all lied about Viet Nam. We weren’t winning. There was no prospect of winning. There was no plan to win. And yet we continued to pour blood and treasure into the war — largely to protect our national self-image and the reputation of the various Presidents, none of whom wanted to be the one who, “lost southeast Asia.”
A disturbing question occurred to me as I watched: if all these Presidents knowingly lied, is Donald Trump, a promiscuous and shameless prevaricator, any different really than all the rest? Or are we appalled by Trump only because he is so obvious and crude in his lies, and so willing to flaunt conventions and norms of decency and respectability that others honored in public, if not always in private?
In other words, is Trump in his awfulness really a departure from the norm, or is he simply an extreme and an exaggeration of what has been the case for a long time?
My answer is yes and no. Trump is not sui generis in his lack of morality and his capacity for bullshit. Kennedy was, as a friend puts it, “a horn-dog.” Johnson lied about Viet-Nam. Nixon lied, was willing to violate the Constitution and engage in criminal wrong-doing. Clinton lied and was a sexual abuser.
Trump is not the first President to experience moral failure.
Nevertheless, he is different. How? In what does Trump’s difference, his “beyond-the-pale-ness” lie? He is not simply, as others before him, flawed. He is so deeply self-centered and lacking in self-awareness that he is not immoral but amoral. He doesn’t just violate human decency and moral norms. For him, they seem not to exist.
We are in a different world than that portrayed in The Post. That was a world of moral meaning, a world where true and false, fact and fiction had purchase and meaning, even when such norms were violated. With Trump we are in a world without true or false, right or wrong, reality or unreality. And that new world is a frightening one indeed.