I felt like somebody handed me one of those old toy trains, or a vintage 1957 Chevrolet, or a pair of bell bottoms from the 1970s. Forget the story line. I was overwhelmed by nostalgia when I saw “The Post,” the movie about the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which sunk American credibility in Vietnam.
OK. I can’t forget the story line, of course. It’s too serious. As the movie saliently put it, Bob McNamara and other American leaders sent American boys to their deaths in Vietnam while they knew the US could not win the war there.
Nor can I pass over the salient illustration of what newspapers meant at the height of their power, to which I return below.
Still, the nostalgia overwhelmed.
Linotype machines. “Hot type.” Even most people in journalism today have no idea what “hot type” was. You had to have seen the metal scraps all over the floor, their collection for the smelter, the emergence from the smelter of long, solid metal bars, which were hung on the linotype machine, which melted it down into the form of words. I knew this from my work at the old Golden Bell Press on 24th and Curtis Sts. (which I didn’t know was the old Beth Joseph, the old BMH and the old Temple Emanuel).
For a few brief moments, “The Post” showed the big story on the Pentagon Papers being sent to press via . . . these tiny, individually melted, mini-blocks of lead, each one about an inch high, two inches wide, and one-sixteenth of an inch thick. This was “hot type.”
The top of each line of hot type (i.e., the hot lead cooled solid) held words engraved inside out. Imagine writing with your finger on a cold frosted window and then reading what you wrote from the other side of the window. Then imagine that the writing implement is not your finger but a machine with countless levers moving up and down, left and right. The levers of the linotype machine transported small amounts of melted lead, dropping them into the tiny forms of the letters of the alphabet, each letter inside out, duly arranged into words by the linotype operator. As these tiny forms were inked, and as the press impressed newsprint rolling over the forms, the word came out just like you would see them on the front side of the frosted window. Voila! A newspaper.
The linotype operator had to do a lot more than simply tap a letter key to get the hot lead into the letter-form. I am told that there remain a few craft hobbyists who still know how to operate a linotype machine, who want to preserve the old technology. I’m not certain there are more than a few linotype machines still in existence. Tellingly, “The Post” showed neither a lead smelter nor a linotype machine, only the result: the cooled lead, each piece containing not more than a single line of a story.
Each one of the thousands of lines in all of the stories in a single day’s newspaper came into existence as a separate, individually prepared block of lead type, “hot type.”
I loved seeing that again.
What’s amazing is that today, as the technology has evolved in ways unimaginable in 1971, we have actually returned to hot metal, but now it’s not a single line at a time, it’s a whole page at a time. That full-page metal plate gets imprinted not via smelted lead and a linotype machine, but via computers that receive their copy over fiber optic cables. The result is the same: metal, which is inked, over which paper rolls, printing the newspaper.
It is still that product — the newspaper — which makes politicians take notice. Today, it is more than that product that agitates politicians, what with news sites, hashtags, blogs, videos, emails, all produced electronically. But there is still something about that etched metal, printed on low-grade paper, that screams: Credibility!
And there are still newspapers today that have not been taken over by the uber partisanship of our time, that still strive to get the story, to get it right, to get it objectively. The gift of the movie “The Post” is to show how that process works.
And it shows it, warts and all. A good deal of the back-and-forth between the Washington Post’s publisher and editor, between Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee (Meryl Streep and Ton Hanks) is the personal relationships they bring to their profession — which challenge its integrity.
Kay Graham was close to Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense who is portrayed in the movie very much unlike the way he was in real life during the Vietnam years. He was cold, methodical, bureaucratic, supercillious, invulnerable to other opinions, always right — and terribly wrong. That does not come through in “The Post.” Anyway, Kay Graham was very close to McNamara and is sorely tempted to suppress the publication of the Pentagon Papers out of deference to her personal friendship with McNamara.
Ben Bradlee was very close to John and Jacqueline Kennedy and did suppress the publication of the scene as the assassinated president’s bloody body arrived from Dallas to Washington, per Jacqueline Kennedy’s request. As Bradlee presses Graham to publish the Pentagon Papers — to overcome her unprofessional inclinations not to — he is vulnerable to her own ripostes about his own unprofessional inclinations.
Two other pieces of nostalgia prompted by the movie gave me pause, the first about how even a superb attempt at realism falls prey to fiction; the second about the much more important theme of the movie: the immorality of the Vietnam war.
The first piece:
At the height of the Free Speech movement on Dec. 2, 1964, on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California at Berkeley, soon to be occupied and the university brought to a halt, Mario Savio gave a speech. Savio, a 22-year-old graduate student in philosophy, justified the student occupation and closure of the university, saying there’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious that you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, to make the machine stop. I was there. I heard him make the speech. In my mind’s eye I can still picture the scene. In the movie, an extract from his speech is repeated verbatim by a protester on the East Coast. It didn’t happen there, nor would a protester memorize Savio’s words. “The Post,” which tried mightily to replicate history, also took liberties.
The second piece:
The memoir of my late, close friend Richard Gould was recently published posthumously, Refusal to Submit. Gould went to jail rather than to Vietnam.
He did not flee to Canada. He did not seek a fake medical deferment, nor a fake theology deferment. He took a stand. He paid a terrible price, as his memoir of his time in jail makes amply clear. He did not regret it. He thought it far worse that both American and Vietnamese boys die needlessly than that he suffer in jail.
Two points in the movie jolted this piece of nostalgia. One was when a reporter was asked whether he would go to jail, a risk in publishing the top secret Pentagon Papers, in order to stop the killing. He said he would, “in theory.” Dick surpassed theory. He had courage. It was actually more; he saw through the fog of government justification of the war better than most. He wasn’t just “against the killing”; he was not a pacifist. He told me he would have fought in WW II. He was not a knee-jerk opponent of government, as so many in the 1960s were. He was thoughtful. He researched. He came to conclusions based on information as well as moral principle.
And he made a difference. He was part of a very small cadre of American youth who supported each other through the trials of social ostracism and of jail. One particularly pertinent passage in his memoir, which Dick’s brother Alan Gould reminded me of, is Dick’s recounting of how one of his fellow draft resisters inspired Daniel Ellsberg, who decided to expose what became known as the Pentagon Papers. One never knows the impact of a seemingly small, unnoticed, individual act of conscience.
The movie ends with a spooky scene of a couple of cops detecting a burglary at the Watergate, which eventually toppled President Nixon. Why did the movie end this way?
This was a movie about journalists taking the heroic route, about publishing vital information about the Vietnam war under the threat of contempt of court and of jail. This was a movie about the struggles of journalists as they ferreted out the information, faced down their lawyers and their bankers (who warned in dire tones of the ultimate failure of the Washington Post company if it published the Pentagon Papers); mostly, as they faced down their own consciences. This was a movie about a war that was begun not by Richard Nixon, who was president at the time of the publication of the Pentagon Papers and who, in fact, was the president who ended the American presence in Vietnam. Why did this movie end on a post-Pentagon Papers, anti-Nixon note? Does not everyone already know the corruption of Richard Nixon? Does anyone have any doubt about it?
Somehow, the makers of the movie just could not be satisfied with a heroic, historic, life-saving, very human moment in journalism, instead signing off with a negative diversion that was a sign not so much of those times as of our own.
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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