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Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers
By Elyse Sommer
The practice of controlling how a government's handling of critical events will be viewed by future generations didn't begin (or end) with President Richard Nixon. Equivocation which is currently having its New York premiere, revisits the Elizabethan era when King James wrote a revisionist history of The Gunpowder Plot and asked the country's leading playwright William Shakespeare to dramatize (review).
The documents at the heart of the Nixon administrations 1971 battle with the press, specifically The New York Times and The Washington Post coincided with the nation's conflict in Vietnam. Public opinion reflected citizen frustration and rage about a war that was escalating rather than ending. The battle for the Pentagon Papers began four years earlier in 1967 when then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a study that would help the government gain a greater understanding of the origins and decision making process of the war in Vietnam. Two years later, just after Nixon became president, the Defense Department published a strictly limited edition of the 47-volume, 7000-page study which included about 4,000 pages of contemporaneous documents.
If you ever wondered what constitutes a limited edition-- how about 7 copies? Five of the printed copies were held under lock and key within the U.S. government at the departments of state and defense and at the national archives. A sixth copy was in the possession of McNamara who by then was president of the World Bank and the seventh volume was with the RAND Corporation, a think tank specializing in highly sensitive studies for the Department of Defense. Even within this tight little circle, this document wasn't exactly on anyone's must-read list. But one man Daniel Ellsberg, a former pro-war Defense Department employee now at RAND— did read it and became convinced that this was must reading material for Congress and the American people, in order to help them understand the series of mistakes and deceptions that led us to enter and remain in Vietnam and help to make the war's end a possibility.
Ellsberg and a colleague secretly copied the documents. When an effort to stir up Congressional interest in publicizing their contents failed, he gave a copy to Neil Sheehan, a journalist who had covered Vietnam for the Times. Though forewarned about possible illegal actions, the publisher and editors of that paper went forward with a series of front page articles that made heavy use of the documents. The forewarnings proved to be true. An injunction was issued to block further publication. But hold on. There's a thriller aspect to all this, so enter The Washington Post which was't too happy about being scooped and so jumped into the fray. It is the Post's involvement — as the take-over publisher and defendant in a fierce court case— on which Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers focuses.
The above rather lengthy background information and the prospect of having actors stand at microphones with scripts in hand (but not singing, shades of the entertaining Encores! concerts) may sound a bit too much like going to a lecture rather than a play. But while there are indeed more than the usual number of post discussion panels to emphasize the educational aspects of this production, playwright Jeffrey Cowan and his colleague were well aware that no matter how dramatic the content of these Pentagon Papers, to earn its label as a play, even a radio play, their script needed to be structured to work dramatically.
In the interest of that dramatic structure and to expedite the flow and pacing, the events on stage have been consolidated so that this is a Washington Post story which makes for tighter and more dramatic David and Goliath story. While the Post is hardly a midget as newspapers go, it is a David when pitted against the government. The fact that Katharine Graham was still testing the waters as publisher of the Post further validates this allusion and also allows her to be not just the heroine of this piece, but its narrator. And editor Ben Bradlee's glee at getting in on the < scoop by the New York paper makes for a nice micro-battle within the macro battle with the government.
To add show biz muscle to this enterprise, director John Rubinstein has assembled close to a dozen well-credentialed thespians to inhabit the real life role models. As some of these characters have been merged into composites, so all but two of the actors handle several roles.
The two solo players are Kathryn Meisles and Peter Strauss as the play's nominal heroine and hero, publisher Katharine Graham, and editor Ben Bradlee. Meiseles is a charming narrator and Strauss epitomizes the image of a hard-hitting journalist. The element of anticipating that the audience will be a choir is exacerbated by making Nixon and Kissingers (Larry Pine and Peter Van Norden) excessively cartoonish vaillains and ramping up the journalists bravery. While the cast overall is fine and will probably become less reliant on the script after a few more performances, the actor (and character) who just about steals the second act is James Gleason's Judge Martin Peel. He reminded me of James N. Welch the lawyer who during the Joe McCarthy hearings coined a common expression for outrage with his pained "Sir, have you no shame?"
Besides the disturbing continuation of not informing the public about things they should know, this docu-drama heightens the economic struggles that are putting solid news coverage in jeopardy. And with even large newspapers having to tighten their belts, one can't help worrying about how today's publishers would be able to mount expensive battles to retain their first amendment rights.