PAW Goes to the Movies is back, this time to see The Post, Steven Spielberg’s new film about the Pentagon Papers. Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, the film also focuses on Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and the dilemma she faced in deciding whether to publish the explosive exposé. Senior writer Mark F. Bernstein ’83 invited professor Kevin Kruse, who specializes in postwar American history, to see The Post and give his review.
MFB: What did you think?
KK: As a movie, I thought it worked really well. It didn’t have any of the things that normally make me cringe in movies that try to address historical events. The underlying history, the timeline, always seemed right. They made good use of the actual Nixon tapes.
MFB: Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the movie unfairly demonizes Richard Nixon. You disagree?
KK: She’s right that Nixon was not mentioned in the Pentagon Papers at all. In fact, there were some people within the administration who thought that the release of the Pentagon Papers was good for Nixon because it made the hated Democrats look bad.
The reason Nixon saw this as a problem was, one, he was still prosecuting the war and he knew that the Pentagon Papers would undermine public support, and two, he and Henry Kissinger were convinced that the papers had been leaked by someone on the NSA staff, so what were they going to leak next? And of course, as the movie shows at the end, their paranoia with finding the leakers [led to] Watergate.
MFB: Why do you think Spielberg focused on The Washington Post rather than The New York Times, which actually broke the story?
KK: What sets this movie apart from a movie that centered on the Times is the Katherine Graham story. It shows both her growing role as a publisher and her close connections with [former Defense Secretary] Robert McNamara. The arc of her being part of official Washington but then growing to push back against it is something that you wouldn’t have gotten in a movie centered on the Times. It shows that there are dangers when the administration is opposed to the press, but a different set of dangers when the press is too cozy with the administration. Spielberg was able to play up that tension in a way that you couldn’t in, say, All the President’s Men.
MFB: Is Spielberg trying to be Frank Capra here — showing America a truer version of itself in a time of national unrest?
KK: Capra is who I thought of as I watched this movie. There is a real Mr. Smith Goes to Washington feel to it. Ultimately the message is that institutions matter — the press, the Supreme Court, Congress. And the people matter. If you don’t have good people running the institutions, the institutions can’t save you.
MFB: Will the movie get people out of their partisan shells?
KK: Hard-core partisans aren’t moveable. But in terms of extoling the fundamental role of a free press to challenge the government, there is a bloc of the country in the middle I think this will resonate with. Vietnam and Watergate have become such morality tales. No one will watch this movie today and root for Nixon to get away with it.
MFB: You’re big on Twitter. How would social media have handled the Pentagon Papers?
KK: I think it would have skewed it in a lot of ways. In 1971, there were three main networks and a couple of large newspapers, but they were largely all on the same page, so they advanced the same narrative. There was no Hannity, no Breitbart. What would the “fake news” brigade have done about top-secret documents being leaked to The New York Times?
Had social media been around back then, the cynicism would have squashed a lot of this. You would have had a lot of the “LOL, nothing matters” people. “Whatabout”-ism would have been off the charts. “What about what Kennedy did? What about Johnson?”
On the other hand, there would have been a PDF of the Pentagon Papers up on the internet within hours and a million people would have been crowdsourcing the documents, for good or bad, finding new stories or adding new dimensions to the existing stories that the big news outlets had missed.