WASHINGTON -- Being fair and balanced is, evidently, a 24-hour-a-day kind of gig.
At a special screening Monday of "Frost/Nixon," Ron Howard's film treatment of the award-winning play, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace decided to take on the liberal Hollywood elite as only one of Fox News's own can. The screening, sponsored by Universal Pictures and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, drew a crowd of political reporters and operatives (invitations were handled by the Glover Park Group, a big Democratic consulting firm). After the movie, Howard, playwright Peter Morgan, writer James Reston, Jr. (who's a character in the film) and historian Robert Dallek had a panel discussion about Richard Nixon.
Howard -- who isn't exactly shy about his own political beliefs -- made some glib remark about how he thought the generation that lived through Watergate would never allow such abuses of power to happen again on their watch. "So that led to some frustrations that I've experienced over the last few years," he said.
A few similar remarks later, it was time for an audience q-and-a. Reston said something about how he was hoping this movie would show younger viewers how bad Nixon's crimes were, because "the younger generation" feels Nixon was "railroaded" out of office for offenses far less outrageous than those of George W. Bush. Wallace, apparently, thought Reston agreed with those hypothetical younger viewers, and he decided he'd heard enough.
"Yeah, I respectfully would like to disagree with that," Wallace said, taking the mic like any other member of the audience. (All the quotes are courtesy of a write-up by Jon Ward of the Washington Times, who -- unlike me -- thought to pull out a tape recorder for the panel discussion.) "It trivializes Nixon's crimes and completely misrepresents what George W. Bush did. Whatever George W. Bush did was after the savage attack of 9/11, in which 3,000 Americans were killed, it was done in service of trying to protect this country. I'm not saying that you have to agree with everything he did, but it was all done in the service of trying to protect this country and keep us safe. And the fact is that we sit here so comfortably, and the country has not been attacked again since 9/11."
Dallek cut in, saying historians would want to see some of the documents produced by Bush's White House before they could render a verdict on why he made the decisions he did. And Wallace pushed back, which took the whole thing past a simple misunderstanding of Reston's point -- which was, after all, that some people incorrectly think Bush abused power far more than Nixon did -- and into new territory altogether. (A few rows behind him, Ben Bradlee sat quietly, watching the whole exchange with a poker face.)
"The point isn't whether or not he used power," Wallace said. "First of all you're simply making suppositions based on no facts whatsoever... All I'm saying is I see no personal political gain in what George W. Bush did after 2001. I see a great deal of personal political gain in everything that Richard Nixon did."
And with the president's honor defended, Wallace packed up his coat and left shortly afterwards (as did much of the crowd, including me -- it was getting late). Sticking up for George W. Bush is a tough job; for the White House's sake, it's a good thing Wallace is up for the task.