Discover more from Reflections of a Boston Lawyer
On Television, Politics, and a SCOTUS Surprise
Today I thought I’d share a few unrelated observations from the past few days.
All I Am Saying is Give These a Chance
My wife and I have been watching the latest season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” one of our favorite television shows these last few years. The gap between the last season and the current season was so long that I had trouble getting interested in the show again, and the first episode did little to motivate me to continue. Also, the show began jumping around chronologically, which not only was confusing but also began to reveal future developments in a way that removed some of the suspense.
But then something happened. I began to see the creativity of the way the story was unfolding, not to mention the sheer craftsmanship of the production. The writers had found unusually inventive ways to tell a story, and if the viewer willingly goes along for the ride, the story is just as compelling as it always was. We’ll see how I feel after we watch the final three episodes, but for now I’m glad I gave the season a chance.
Sometimes, there are shows that I know I will like and my wife will not, so I’ll watch them on my iPad while I work out on the nifty NordicTrack stationary bike we bought at the beginning of the pandemic. (We used to have a wonderful NordicTrack cross-country ski machine which lasted many years and provided an excellent workout, but we abandoned it when we sold our suburban home.)
This week I started to watch HBO’s “White House Plumbers” while riding the bike. As with the current season of “Maisel,” my first reaction was negative. The dark comedy was more dark than funny, and Woody Harrelson’s adoption of a gravelly voice and odd facial expressions to portray Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt was hard to take. But after completing two episodes, I am getting a little hooked on the show.
To enjoy it, you have to embrace what 19th Century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as “the willing suspension of disbelief.” The show is a comedy, after all, and acknowledges that it presents a fictionalized account of the “dirty tricks” gang that unintentionally brought down the Nixon White House. It had to be fictionalized to make it entertaining, but also because it presents personal behind-the-scenes depictions of the two main characters and their exploits – former CIA officer Hunt, and G. Gordon Liddy, the former FBI agent who concocted the ill-fated plot to break into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters.
The show portrays Hunt as an over-the-top communist hater who is more than willing to execute illegal plots to steal information, though there are certain lines (e.g., murder) he will not cross. Liddy is portrayed as a Nazi sympathizer who has no such limits. He is depicted as prepared and all-too-willing to kill anyone who gets in the way of his mission to save America from communist influences, an intensity he demonstrates to new acquaintances by placing the palm of his hand unflinchingly into a candle’s flame long enough to burn (something Liddy reportedly liked to do in real life). Both men team up to plot and oversee a series of ultimately bungled burglaries (remember Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and the break-in of his psychiatrist’s office?) designed to discredit anyone critical of the President or his causes. The goal, of course, was to help secure Nixon’s re-election.
Anyone familiar with the facts of Watergate will recognize Hunt and Liddy as the two men at the center of the illegal schemes, and to that extent the story rings true. What troubled me, though, was the writers’ portrayal of John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel. They present him, at least in these early episodes, as actively encouraging Hunt’s and Liddy’s clandestine activities, although he is a minor character so far. As someone who watched portions of the Watergate hearings as they unfolded and has read a few books on the subject, I don’t remember Dean playing any role in planning or condoning break-ins. He may not have been totally removed from the operations, though, and ultimately pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for his role in the post-burglary cover-up. But if not for Dean’s cooperation with the Senate Watergate Committee and federal prosecutors, we might never have learned about the sordid goings-on of the Nixon White House, and that crooked President might have managed to complete his second term.
Despite the darkly comic and heavily fictionalized nature of the show, I find the characters compelling, and the general outlines of the plot have enough historical accuracy to keep me interested. Whether I am committed enough to stick with it to the end remains to be seen. It doesn’t hurt that it has a stellar cast, including Harrelson as well as Justin Theroux (of “The Leftovers” fame), Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones”), and Kathleen Turner (movie star of an earlier era). I didn’t recognize Theroux until the second episode, recognized Headey only after I had checked to see who was in the cast, and recognized Turner only by her voice, but they all contribute to a not-great but good-enough production related to a subject that I had witnessed in real time and that has always held my interest. And it probably doesn’t hurt that I attended a college that Dean had attended a few years before me, and I later worked with the lawyer who argued the Watergate tapes case to the Supreme Court as Nixon’s counsel.
So, I recommend the show, but with only guarded enthusiasm. If you would like something a little higher brow, I’d suggest checking out Shakespeare’s “Richard II.” I remember reading it in college around the time that Nixon resigned and being impressed by the parallels between the two men’s stories besides just their names.
Speaking of Disgraced Former Presidents . . .
I try not to write too often about current political events in Washington and Florida, but a piece of a report in yesterday’s NY Times caught my eye. In discussing former President 45’s possible motives in holding onto classified documents after leaving the White House (as detailed in the indictment that issued against him and an aide last week), Maggie Haberman and Alan Feuer write this:
In other instances in the indictment, an aide to Mr. Trump describes the materials he was carting around with him in the boxes as “his papers,” something he did while he was president, suggesting he was not ready to let go of the perks of holding the highest office in the country.
While this was written in the context of a criminal indictment, it also speaks to a higher truth – the importance of letting go.
“Letting go” is a concept that has become more and more familiar to me as I continue to transition from an active law practice to new ways of finding fulfillment later in life. In my recent post, “Dwelling on the Threshold,” I wrote about the in-between time when a person is in the midst of a transition and still clinging to familiar elements of the past, while increasingly grabbing hold of an uncertain and unfamiliar future. Since that post, I’ve experienced “letting go” in a new way.
For the first time since retiring from law firm practice, I was presented with the opportunity to help a company with a common type of litigation matter similar to those I’ve handled many times before. At first, I was tempted to take it on. After all, I hadn’t completely ruled out taking new cases, it would be an additional way I could stay engaged and connected to the legal community, and it would provide a welcome supplement to my retirement income.
But as I got closer to a decision, I realized that taking the case would be a step backward, while I needed to keep moving forward, enjoying my new, more relaxed status while engaging only in those forms of meaningful but less stressful work that I find most fulfilling (mediating, legal consulting, teaching, writing, podcasting, and participating in bar activities). Sure, I might be willing to re-enter the fray if the right case or cases came along, but they would have to be something truly special. Short of that, I knew I needed to stick to my plan of just letting go.
Letting go is especially important, and especially difficult, for people in power. Here we are, approaching three years since the last Presidential election, and the proven loser had to have his premises searched to get him to let go of highly sensitive, classified documents that, according to the Times reporters, he viewed as some of the perks of office. And he still hasn’t let go of the lie that he won the 2020 election. Bad as Nixon was, at least he ultimately had the good sense to let go when the inevitability of impeachment loomed. And how many lives would have been saved, and how much freedom preserved, if the Russian President would let go of Ukraine, or of the office he has held onto for far too long?
History is replete with tragedies that would have been avoided if certain actors weren’t hell-bent on grasping onto power, wealth or fame, instead of letting go and moving on with their lives (and letting the rest of us move on with ours). I guess, like the pitiful creature who can’t bring himself to let go of the ring of power in Tolkien’s trilogy, they are just too far gone to understand that letting go is one of the keys to inner peace.
And, on a legal note . . .
This is “Reflections of a Boston Lawyer,” after all, so I will occasionally comment on the law. This past week, the conservative Supreme Court surprised many people by striking down an Alabama redistricting map that they found likely violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of Black voters. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh joined the three liberal justices in establishing the 5-4 majority. True confession, I haven’t read the decision yet, but it is being celebrated as an indication that the Voting Rights Act still has teeth despite the Court’s dramatic weakening of it in recent years.
While the decision is good news for us supporters of civil rights, I fear what else it might mean. The Court has yet to issue its decisions in the Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions cases. Many believe that those decisions will weaken, if not eliminate, the ability of colleges and universities to consider diversity in shaping their incoming classes. While discrimination on the basis of race should generally be avoided, many institutions of higher education believe that there is a strong educational benefit in admitting diverse classes so that students from a variety of societal backgrounds can learn not only from their professors but also from each other. As a former board chair of a private college, I agree with that assessment.
My fear is that Justices Roberts and Kavanaugh may have gone along with the liberal Justices in the voting rights case as a preemptive way of lessening the sting when a conservative majority drops the hammer on affirmative action in the college admissions cases. I hope I’m wrong, but such positioning would be consistent with the Chief Justice’s interest in balancing his own philosophical conservatism with his even stronger interest in protecting the institutional credibility of the Court. It won’t be long before we get a decision in the admissions cases and a better read on the future for diversity on college campuses.
Thanks for reading Reflections of a Boston Lawyer! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.