Saturday, September 01, 2018

The Post

In the United States, we do not elect kings. The Framers of the Constitution had been living in a monarchy, and they crafted the balance of powers among three branches of government to preclude its return. They did not foresee the advent of Sen. Mitch McConnell -- who does not share their vision -- but they did seem to understand that an additional protection was needed. Thus, in order to check the excesses of the three branches, they included protection of the Fourth Estate -- the press -- in the very First Amendment to their carefully written work. It is the only profession mentioned in the document.

The patriotism of those who put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard or stylus to smartphone) is at least as important to the protection of the republic as are that of those who put on any of the uniforms of the armed services. This is true of local journalists such as those assassinated in Annapolis this summer and those threatened by a terrorist in Boston more recently. Neither man was motivated solely by the current president, but both cited his constant anti-journalist rhetoric. They cited his incitement, as it were. The second perpetrator was released on very low bail, providing some insight into the sincerity of our nation's "war on terror" rhetoric.

All of which makes this a timely time to watch The Post, which celebrates the publication of the Pentagon Papers -- eventually as a book but initially as a blizzard of articles in dozens of newspapers.

The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg with a night patrol in Vietnam. As I watched the inevitable ambush, I said, "Why did anybody think this would work?" Which of course was the entire point of the story. Secretary McNamara knew that the war could not be won, and he was determined to keep this a secret, as was the monarchical Nixon.

Without the courage of the men and women of the Post, the war might still be going on, and Nixon might still be president. (That last bit is hyperbole, especially since he is dead. But he was very crafty.)


The words of three men stood out as I watched the film, though it was the personal and professional courage of publisher Kay Graham (played masterfully by Meryl Streep) that was most pivotal.

When told that the Post might be shut down for publishing the papers, Executive Editor Ben Bradley (as played by Tom Hanks) replied, "If we live in a world where the government can tell us what we can and cannot print, then the Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist."

Writing for the 6-3 majority that ruled in favor of the Post, Associate Justice Hugo Black declared:
"The founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."

Following his defeat, the imperious Nixon  (as played by Curzon Dobell) is heard to say -- just as his operatives are perpetrating a burglary a mile to the west -- "No reporter from the Washington Post is ever to be in the White House again." Clearly he had not taken the words of Justice Black to heart: the press does not serve at his pleasure.

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