The literary equivalent of Washington: Behind Closed Doors is Full Disclosure by William Safire. Each has a cracking good story, but it takes a near-frustrating amount of time to get there, moreso with Behind Closed Doors. That’s Safire and Behind Closed Doors creator David W. Rintels way of creating suspense, I know, but it’s quite a roundabout way, particularly when Behind Closed Doors is stretched so thin between characters that we never get a real sense of who anyone is, except of course for Richard Monckton (Jason Robards in one of his best performances, in a career that was filled with best performances) and his right-hand man, Frank Flaherty (Robert Vaughn in such a steely, cold, and unsettling performance that it’s also one of the best performances of his career), who becomes his chief of staff when he’s elected president.
Whereas Full Disclosure is about a president blinded in an assassination attempt in Russia and facing a power grab from those in his party because of his sudden condition, Washington: Behind Closed Doors is real life filtered through fiction, changed just enough so as not to get sued, as it is when you’re dealing with historical dynamite.
It’s based on The Company by John Ehrlichman, who created the Plumbers, who were at the center of the Watergate scandal. Whether this novel was, for Ehrlichman, a cleansing of the soul, alleviation of guilty feelings, or pumping the proceeds from the book into his legal fees in order to deflate them, Ehrlichman made it clear who the figures were in his book, no matter that they’re under different names.
Washington: Behind Closed Doors main focus at first is a damning CIA/White House secret called The Primula Report, which details the actions by the late president William Arthur Curry (modeled on John F. Kennedy) to replace the heads of enemy governments with people friendly to the American government. CIA director Bill Martin (Cliff Robertson) carried this out, and now the report is locked away in a vault in the CIA, accessible only to Martin and only able to be read in that vault. Curry’s vice president, Esker Scott Anderson (Andy Griffith, playing the Lyndon Baines Johnson role), who took over after his death, tells Martin to help out his vice president, Eric Gilley (unseen, and is meant to be Hubert Humphrey), giving him all the information he can for his campaign so that he can win instead of Richard Monckton (it’s Nixon, of course). Because if Monckton wins, that means a new CIA director chosen by him, new eyes on the Primula Report, and Monckton will make sure that Curry and those connected to him burn for those assassinations carried out in the white hot heat of a world falling apart, as Martin describes it to Sally Whalen (Stefanie Powers), whom he meets at a party. His wife, Linda (Lois Nettleton) notices this, but it doesn’t matter because she once belonged to Anderson for three years, then Anderson asked Martin to take her off his hands. It doesn’t seem like Anderson could ever be that boorish, just wily in his political maneuverings, but as Nixon has shown, you never know with a president.
Besides the risks of the Primula Report being seen by Monckton, Behind Closed Doors also focuses on members of Monckton’s campaign, who become members of his White House, such as press secretary Bob Bailey (Barry Nelson, whose amusingly rumpled face is always a pleasure to see), who is buddy-buddy with the press, which Monckton and Flaherty can’t stand, since the press was always so heinous to Monckton in the past, and he wants revenge, just like he wants revenge on Curry and his acolytes once he takes office, doing whatever he can to cut them low, just like Nixon set out to do with the Chandlers and tried to do damage to the Kennedys. There’s also Dr. Carl Tessler (Harold Gould), based on Dr. Henry Kissinger, but not played like him, who becomes Monckton’s National Security Advisor, doing so much more than that since foreign policy is run out of the Monckton White House, instead of by the Secretary of State, as it was in the Nixon White House too.
Behind Closed Doors adopts the gloomy, sterile, subdued style that served All the President’s Men so well, but it’s hampered by focusing on so many people that there’s never enough time to grasp anyone else besides Monckton, Flaherty, Martin, and Anderson, which I suppose is the way it must be, since that’s also the way it was historically. The bigger personalities get the most notice, and the smaller figures remain in the inner circle and outside of it. It’s fine for history, but with drama, you’ve got to give a little more to keep the energy crackling, to keep people interested. I was tempted many times to fast-forward through certain slower-than-Congress scenes, and I haven’t even mentioned other figures featured in this, which don’t feel as important as the main focus. Sure the Nixon/Monckton administration affected the personal lives of many, but those stories in the case of Behind Closed Doors don’t work as well. They just feel shoved in to bring in other viewers who might not have so readily tuned in (it turns out to have been this way in the novel too), and in fact, viewers in 1977 didn’t take to it in great numbers since they had only just emerged from the darkness of living it.
The only extra feature on this three-disc DVD set is a “Who Was Who” onscreen text guide, with brief profiles of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and others. Also included is a six-page companion guide drawing the real-life parallels of the miniseries, such as the peace movement, Nixon’s visit to China, and the Watergate break-in. That’s a good enough amount of extras, because if you want to know more, history is always accessible in so many books and documentaries.
My lifetime passion for presidential history pushed me to watch Washington: Behind Closed Doors, eager to see who’s who in these six episodes, connecting the fictional people to the real-life people. But watching Monckton rant and rage against those he hates so much, and watching Flaherty cut off Monckton from the rest of his White House, knowing that Monckton wouldn’t care as long as he’s able to destroy his perceived enemies, I felt so dirty, so slimy, that as soon as I knew I couldn’t take anymore and that I had enough to write all this, I put in Frost/Nixon in order to wash myself off. It doesn’t make what happened in our country in the early ‘70s any easier, but it makes it slightly more bearable. This happened, and it’s still haunting.
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