When Richard Nixon boarded the helicopter on the White House lawn 40 years ago this month, his removal from the presidency was supposed to herald a new era in American politics. Disgraced for his proven, though belatedly admitted, knowledge of what had transpired in the affair known as Watergate, Nixon was caught in a lie and had to go. From here on in, Washington was going to tell the truth.
Did anyone really believe that? Certainly Nixon, who had built his confoundingly durable political career on deception and situational opportunism, didn't. If anything, he regarded his impeachment of proof that he was an especially persecuted case, a guy who got nailed for doing what just about every previous president had likely done, and what his two predecessors – John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson – had, as far as Nixon was concerned, definitely done. For Nixon, lying was simply politics by a nastier name, and he was being punished only because the whole world was out to get him. The lying, to the inveterate liar, was incidental.
How fascinating, then, that in the very week marking the 40th anniversary of his disgraced exit from office, two movies appeared that look skeptically at the role of hoodwinkery in show business, and from opposite sides of the ethical canyon.
In Woody Allen's latest, Magic in the Moonlight, Colin Firth plays a stuffed-shirt doubter charged with exposing the fraudulence of a clairvoyant (Emma Stone), only to fall for the woman because his hardened heart needs the magic as much as it does her. His redemption is a matter of believing the lie.
In the documentary An Honest Liar, a real-life, hard-core skeptic known as The Amazing Randi is seen devoting his life to debunking the claims of faith-healers and psychics who prey on the same people who willfully surrender to the fraud that Magic in the Moonlight casts as a condition of true love. But as we learn, Randi himself is a bearer of secrets and artfully concealed truths, a man whose crusade for transparency might well be a function of his own conflicted relationship with the lies he's been compelled to live.
But where both movies concur is on the power of deception. It's something that is either romantically irresistible or practically inevitable. It's deeper than any moral defences we might marshal against it, and it might well be a defining factor of the human condition.
I doubt that Nixon would have disagreed, and one can't help but be struck by Allen's conviction that there's nothing sweeter than an act that pulls itself off as the truth. (After all, whose veracity – in showbiz anyway – has been more closely scrutinized and questioned this past year than his?) But before we ourselves surrender to such artfully articulated moral relativism, let's consider the contexts. Despite claims to universal principle on both sides, neither politics nor show business operate in the real world at all times, and both have a deeply vested interests in convincing us that the deceptions necessary to their survival are simply endemic to human nature. It's part self-deception, part self-promotion, and all b.s.
Hollywood, clearly, is a case study in industrial artifice. It was developed on the West Coast just after the western frontier became America's primary source of history-flaunting mythology. And it built its empire on a foundation of flagrant boondoggle. It was invented by people who rewrote personal histories, and it still is populated by refugees from reality: people seeking to re-invent themselves in accordance with popular demand, flesh-and-blood average folk rebranded as mythical archetypes.
In Hollywood, one changes one's name, effaces one's personal history and gets famous by the very act of pretense. On both sides of the camera, the only truth that matters is that which clicks with public desire, which "sells." Morality adjusts with market demand, history becomes the pliant raw material of fiction, and box-office revenue is the final court of appeal on any charges of chicanery.
At the risk of waxing too cynical, it might be suggested that Nixon's most self-defeating and exceptional crime wasn't lying, but lying badly. The 37th presidency would be tarnished by his poor performance, and it would be tough going for presidents 38 and 39.
But waiting in the wings was number 40, and he'd make things right. He'd restore the presidency, and America, to their rightful glory, and he'd triumph by selling an image of the nation that was movie-like, replete with heroes, evil empires, gunfights, romance and happy endings. His name, of course, was Ronald Reagan, and he learned everything he knew about politics in Hollywood.