The Price of Arrogance
AT THE HEIGHT of his glory, with Richard Nixon a political four letter word and investigative the only proper prefix to reporting, Bob Woodward, the reporter, became readily interchangeable with Bob Redford, the actor cum social activist who portrayed our hero in All the President's Men. Running from interview to interview, rendezvousing with "deep throat" in D.C. parking garages, Bob Woodward Redford seemed like a hyped-up, race car driver in some charity benefit for the good old public right-to-know.
But as plans go on to bring Woodward's ugly biography of the late John Belushi to the screen, it looks like Woodward will be lucky to get some ABC. After School Special co-star to fill the Wood-ward-Redford role. If Woodward's last race seemed like a charity racing event, his role now seems more like just another competitor in a journalistic Death Race 2000, racking up points by busting lives and memories with only an incidental distinction between duly-elected renegade politicians and drug-crazed pop superstars.
"I mean," Tim Kazurinsky told Rolling Stone, "there were some sleazy motherfuckers who ripped John off when he was alive, but Bob Woodward's the only bastard low enough to pick his bones." The whole mess that has seen even terminally kind Steven Spielberg attack. Woodward stems from Woodward's wholly unsympathetic treatment of Belushi in Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. As a creative enterprise, the book reads like a narrative version of the film Reefer Madness with Belushi playing all the parts.
Applying what the New York Times called the "magnifying-glass-to-credit-card-receipt approach" to Belushi's life, Woodward churns out scarce a single page without some reference to Belushi's seemingly insatiable passion for drugs. And under the weight of the criticism from the Jack Nicholson and Dan Acykroyd glitterati set, Woodward has accused his critics of "adopting the Nixonian style of dealing with reality."
Yet the more Woodward clings to the fringes of his departing glory as Nixon's nemesis, the further he travels from any commendable conception of his role of a reporter and the more he dangerously confuses the public's right to participate in national governance with an animal instinct for voyeurism and gossip of every sort. "When a man accepts the public trust." Jefferson said, "he becomes like a public property." Yet however much Nixon and Belushi may be "public figures" in the eyes of the court, the moral quality of the grouping is disingenuous. As an elected official possessing the actual power to obliterate all our world and representing our nation to other nations. Richard Nixon possessed a responsibility that John Belushi never approached as a Samurai Baker. After all, were Richard Nixon, as President of the United States to walk out of the Rose Garden and shoot the Soviet Leader of the Month dead, the resultant high speed missiles would have implications more intense than anything that everybody's favorite fraternity brother could do by overdosing on hard drugs. That Woodward could so shamelessly liken his critics to Richard Nixon seems particularly offensive given that The Great Conspirator's most troublesome crimes entailed the extralegal violation of other's privacy: a Variety style list of enemies, illegal wiretapping and bugging, and other similar abuses.
EVEN AS many of us may fondly recall Belushi's memory and frown at his unpeaceful rest, the Bob Woodwards of the world still can play to our sublimated envy.
"Envy knows not its own happiness," wrote Samuel Johnson, "but through the misery of others."
We can mouth the proper sympathies, but Belushi's tragedy provides a welcome reassurance that celebrity and riches sometimes becomes a bad trip. Asked by Barbara Walters why many fashioned the super-rich an unhappy lot, the wife of Gordon Getty, America's richest man, replied, "People like to think you can't have everything. Well, you can."
Somehow, though, it remains appealing to imagine that celebrities must, rightfully, pay for their success. After all, any celebrity who still passes through the supermaket line even once a year must see the (purported) personal lives of their comrades-in-popularity spelled out in bold print. However, just where the public garnered their right to know and just where the Enquirer-Star set aquired their duty to print it remains another logical step blithely assumed.
From one perspective, teeny-bopper pleasure units like Matt Dillon and Rob Lowe look silly smiling and chatting with Teen Beat magazine one day in order to cultivate the idolotrous fans, and then complaining about invasions of their privacy when the reporters delve beyond their favorite color. "A lot of people in films," the late James Stewart said, "say that they never sign autographs... (But) if you have the attitude 'my job is acting on the screen, and my private life is my own,' then you are treating the audience as customers and you should never have gone into the business."
Partly in return for that sort of "partnership with his audience." Stewart became a perenial star and retained a relatively untarnished memory, but those "in this business" should be able to retain the right to some privacy and still make their careers in film. That celebrities may, as some courts have characterized it, invite speculation into their private lives does not endow every fan to exchange their ticket stub and the price of some rag for a detailed account of someone's private life.
If we are to follow our least sympathetic instincts, then John Belushi was but a reckless driver who drove his racecar of a career and of a life straight into the wall of public scrutiny. If his memory is tarnished or even warped then it should nonetheless come as no surprise. Unfortunately for Bob Woodward, he, the man who has so callously recorded Belushi's memory, is not an inanimate wall. It was Bob Woodward, and not John Belushi or some amorphous public right to know, that catalogued for 423 pages the worse and the worst of Belushi's life In defending his own work, Bob Woodward becomes a sort of transplanted Sgt. Joe Friday, interested only in the facts ma'am, rattling off his list of sources and interviews like a boasting drunken fraternity brother counting his collegiate conquests.
HOW DOES journalism's wonder boy react to the pain he has inflicted on Belushi's widow, Judy Jacklin? "I showed Judy the ending. And that's what this is all about. I showed Judy the ending. It's that simple and that complicated."
And so from the reporter who once said he couldn't imagine where compassion ranked on a list of ten qualities in journalism--"it get's factored in every time," but might not make the list--comes such deep philosophy.
Try as he might, Woodward has yet to show us the end. While uncovering what may be remembered as one of America's gravest political crises, Woodward and his investigative-reporting-as-war style of journalism seemed appropriate enough for helping drive Nixon from the White House. Applied as it is now, it takes on a new macabre element. In his own race through journalism, he has racked up enough points for the wrecked lives in his wake, but he's yet to fully explain just where he is going. It will remain for some more imaginative journalist than Woodward to define just what the end of this whole journalistic race is all about.