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DVD Review: Washington – Behind Closed Doors

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Washington: Behind Closed Doors, the award winning 1977 TV miniseries based on Nixon aide John Ehrlichman’s roman à clef about the events leading up to the Watergate break in, is now available on a three-disc DVD set from Acorn Media Group. Running a bit short of 600 minutes, the series is divided into six episodes, covering the period from the end of what would have been the Johnson administration and the election of Nixon to the invitation to visit China and the break-in just prior to the campaign for reelection. Names of course have been changed and characters tweaked, but the identities of all the major players and even some of the lesser figures are made abundantly clear.

The series paints a devastating picture of government and politics. Washington is described as a place where morality takes a back seat to expediency, and partisan political persuasion seems not to make any difference. It is a world where power is everything, and if the Nixon surrogate, Richard Monckton, comes off even worse than some of the other figures, it is more because of his own particular personality tics than it is because of his political views. As played by Jason Robards, his paranoia is maniacal. His vision is warped and he is supported in his paranoia by the inside power brokers around him.

The Lyndon Johnson figure, Esker Anderson, played by Andy Griffith, is perhaps less manic, but clearly a Machiavellian manipulator more concerned with his own image than he is with the general health of the country. Democrats, Republicans—party affiliations, though manifestly clear, are never directly indicated, and really make little difference. Both parties are offenders. Washington politics as portrayed in this series will go a long way to reinforce contemporary disaffection with current government failures from both sides of the political aisle. Liberals and conservatives will find much here to support their own particular critiques.

Appended to the Watergate scandal is a storyline involving the Director of the CIA, played sometimes almost somnambulistically by Cliff Robertson, worried about his position in the transition between administrations and haunted by domestic problems. Robertson does a lot of staring out into space and his overly laid back performance contrasts with Robards’ over the top scenery chewing and Griffith’s artificial homey twinkle. Lois Nettleton plays his wife and Stefanie Powers steps in as a new romantic interest. On the whole the romantic plot line is poorly motivated and little more than a distraction.

The rest of the cast continues an all star line up. Robert Vaughn does a nice turn as the top Monckton advisor. He is ruthlessness personified. John Houseman of “we make money the old fashioned way” fame does his patented wasp scion as a chief fund raiser. Tony Bill is believable as perhaps the lone idealist in politics. Barry Nelson is an affable press secretary who can’t last in a Monckton administration despite his long ties to the candidate. Harold Gould is around as a Henry Kissinger clone without the accent. Among the lesser knowns, Nicholas Pryor plays a bumbling ineffectual press secretary in over his head, and David Selby a self centered power operative whose disjointed love life adds another romantic sub plot.

The new DVD set includes a little pamphlet that summarizes most of the basic historical information about Watergate and the Nixon presidency that someone unfamiliar with the period would need to understand the climate. It outlines the similarities between the Nixon and Monckton administrations. It discusses the war in Indochina and the peace movement in America, and talks about the actual break in at the Watergate and the outreach to China.

At a time when politics is dividing the country as bitterly as it is currently, Washington: Behind Closed Doors is a reminder that this kind of bitter division is not something we haven’t seen before. Perhaps as the song says: “same as it ever was,” is the most applicable mantra for politics in America. On the other hand, one would hope that there is something to be learned from the past.

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About Jack Goodstein