APRIL 28, 1994
At the cost of 200 million taxpayer dollars we, as a nation paused to remember Richard Nixon, ex-president. The national press and electronic media in an incredible confirmation of their tendency towards Alzheimer’s wrote and spoke of a man I did not recognize. It was shocking. In the past few days Nixon has been spoken of as a man of vision, a noble statesman, a beacon of light. He was said to have warm intelligent eyes and a generous smile. ABC called him our “beloved elder statesman” and to CBS, Nixon was a “peacemaker.” Even the Village Voice spoke of Nixon, as “one of us” as if something in his character was representative of all of us.
Why is it that death makes us so polite, so civil? Is this entire nation on Prozac? What honor has Richard Nixon earned? What has he done that deserves this praise? That makes us look at the man with a moral blindness?
Perhaps it is not for the living to judge. In his eulogy, Billy Graham said, “The only thing that matters is what is in the record books of heaven.” Indeed.
So in the days to come Mr. Nixon will meet Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, two of the first Americans subjected to the dirty tricks of Nixon the candidate. A candidate who lied and red-baited his way to Washington, disregarding truth and human dignity in the process. Mr. Nixon will meet the 4 Kent State students whose young lives were terminated by his paranoia and moral vacuity.
Mr. Nixon will meet the tens and hundreds of thousands of dead Americans and Vietnamese whose lives ended as Nixon the peacemaker stood watch. A tragic war which now miraculously, thanks to revisionism, he is credited with ending.
It is no wonder that Bob Dole was weeping yesterday when he left the podium after ending a speech that started with the line, “The second half of the 20th century will be known as the age of Nixon”. At the same ceremony our own prize bull Bill Clinton said, “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less that his entire life and career come to a close.” No Bill, you got it wrong. Let us instead concentrate on the uncomfortable truth and learn from it. Let us remember what the man did so we can educate future generations.
Nixon was said to be an expert on foreign policy. Vietnam? Half a million dead. Nothing achieved. Chile? A CIA sanctioned assassination of Salvatore Allende, the democratically elected leader unsympathetic to U.S business interests. China? Opened trade, a beautiful achievement. Created jobs in Chinese prisons. Created sweatshops for those outside prison. Cheap foreign labor. Net result? More profits for those that have. Less American jobs. Coddled Chinese leaders who oppress democracy and kill dissenters.
When I was young I believed in this country. I believed that there was a principle, purpose and possibility. I saw great men and women marching for civil rights, protesting against the war. My older brothers and sisters took power into their own hands and demanded change. They drove Nixon crazy. Nixon wanted them stopped. He saw what they were doing as anti-American. When dissent came from the press he set the IRS on some of them. His FBI infiltrated organizations of the left, sowed discord, illegally tapped phones and harassed citizens for their political beliefs. Nixon was an abuser of power. He seemed to despise democracy. The death of four students in Ohio spoke volumes to the nation. “Thou shalt not speak out”. Thankfully people did not listen. And what about the word curiously absent from the eulogies yesterday? Watergate.
Richard Nixon single handedly did more to subvert democracy in this country than any other President in our history. In the wake of his resignation he left a deep pervading cynicism about government, leadership and democracy itself. In his wake an entire generation of people viewed their government with disdain. They didn’t seek leadership, they sought cosmetics. They wanted actors not leaders. They became disenfranchised, uninvolved, they checked out.
So where is the dissent? We are living in an age of silence. Those who disagree with the way things are run are labeled politically correct. A sarcastic, condescending term that with the help of just about everybody seems to be the pervading phrase of our time. The defining characteristic of the dissenters. A phrase that sneers at compassion, scoffs at commitment to social causes and discourages our involvement in the democratic process. Where are the defenders of democracy? Where they have always been. Not in the halls of government but in grass roots organizations such as the Human Rights Watch. The dissenters are in front of easels. In garrets. Sitting at pianos and editing bays. Traveling to hot spots around the world with cameras and no budgets, risking their lives to record history the way it really is.
Film is immensely powerful. Film can change thought, can make people see things and understand things that no politician can. And most importantly, film can make you feel and through this emotion perhaps question, perhaps see a clearer truth. The films we celebrate tonight are all deeply committed to purveying truth to their audiences, to telling stories of real heroes, of men and women who fight injustice and who do so in the face of enormous adversity. Stories about people who will not have 200 million dollar funerals but will be remembered in our hearts far longer and whose lives and actions will give us courage to continue fighting for truth in our own lives.
I salute the participants in the festival and this organization for its courage and tenacity. These filmmakers are our true historians. What they make will reach more people, more profoundly than any revisionism in text books or media dumb show