Dick Cavett’s Watergate - Remembering the Past

Yoko Ono and John Lennon, from THE U.S. vs. JOHN LENNON

Yoko Ono and John Lennon, from THE U.S. vs. JOHN LENNON

by John Scheinfeld
September, 2014

More than 100 years ago philosopher George Santayana made this observation, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It remains as fresh and powerful an idea today as it was then and it has definitely influenced me as a filmmaker.

Amidst the turmoil and turbulence of the 1960s, millions of young people defied authority and began questioning the entire fabric of American society. Government, civil rights, the Vietnam War, the role of women, schools, places of worship, music, marriage, and sex — nothing was immune from scrutiny. And perhaps the most revolutionary notion of all during this turbo-charged decade was that one person can make a difference in the world.

And as the 60s gave way to the 70s, this upheaval continued. Many people regard the 70s as an eminently forgettable decade – an era of bad clothes, bad hair and bad music impossible to take seriously. The truth, however, is that events that unfolded in the Seventies transformed the social, political and cultural landscape of America just as much as did events in the Sixties.

I explored both decades and their fallout in my films, THE U.S. vs. JOHN LENNON and DICK CAVETT’S WATERGATE. It is truly exciting for me to be able to look at historical events through the prism of what was experienced by iconic figures that were in the eye of the hurricane.

It’s rare to come across a relatively unknown story about someone as famous as John Lennon. Even then, it took seven years to find funding for that film (it was rejected by everyone who heard the pitch). It was only after 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that studio executives finally saw the parallels between Lennon’s story in the 60s and 70s and what was then happening in the world. Although John’s story was rooted firmly in the past so many of the issues he confronted were clear and present in both eras: freedom of speech, government abuse of power, personal courage in the face of uncommon obstacles, and the belief that one person can make a difference.

What Lennon experienced and endured shows the importance of an individual trying to make the world a better place, even at great personal and professional risk. The message of peace and love he put forward with Yoko Ono when the war in Vietnam was still raging was certainly of its time, but in my opinion remains just as necessary and powerful today. With violence and hatred raging in the Middle East…with dictators struggling to hold onto power by any means necessary…with fundamentalist groups attempting to force their deficient manifestos on others…there is much to be learned by heeding what John Lennon wrote in 1971:

“Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”

The lessons to be learned from the Watergate scandal are many and varied as we revealed in DICK CAVETT’S WATERGATE. As was revealed through the many interviews Dick conducted back in the day with key participants in the scandal, it’s clear that we need a free press and that we need a strong congress. It’s not always pretty or effective, but the separation of powers, the struggle among the three branches of government can work magic as it did during the time of Watergate. The system, in fact, worked. It’s also clear that an arrogance of power pervaded the Nixon Administration. The President himself used his constitutional for ill rather than good, engaging in activities that leaders of both parties agreed could not be condoned. And he paid the price. So did we…

This episode in American history made Americans cynical about their government and their Presidents and this attitude has had a negative ripple effect throughout the decades since. Skepticism is fine, but very little productive can come from rampant cynicism.

Some observers like John Dean believe that there’s been little lasting impact of the Watergate scandal, that many of the safeguards and reforms put in place afterward have since been gutted by Congress. In addition, there’s little bi-partisan cooperation between Democrats and Republicans in congress these days. And today, because of corporate ownership of the media, it doesn’t pay to have strong investigative journalism.

The ultimate lesson to be learned from making and watching THE U.S. vs. JOHN LENNON and DICK CAVETT’S WATERGATE is, as Bob Woodward said to me, “Tell the truth.” Imagine how much better off we’d be if we adhere to George Santayana’s admonition and learn to live by that simple precept.