Obstruction of justice and “The Pelican Brief”

Late the other night I was doing my aimless scrolling through TV channels, not to find anything to watch but to wean myself off the stimulation caused by whatever it is in TVs and digital bluish light that causes stimulation.

As I scrolled, I could feel my innards detach themselves from the glue radiating from the TV screen. Suck, suck, suck…

Until I got to AXS. Which was re-running The Pelican Brief. It had just started.

Let’s not recap why this excellent John Grisham thriller has come to mean so much to me.

In certain ways the film version is better than the book: actors can bring characters to a dimensional life they did not have in a book which essentially deploys them as mechanisms propelled by a terrific plot.

And the cast of The Pelican Brief is super.

Well, so there I was, holding that damn remote and thinking, nah, I really don’t have to watch this again when gee whiz! one of the fingers of my right hand somehow punched the “OK” button and…there I was, viewing what was apparently an uncut version of the film. All sorts of scenes were in there, scenes I hadn’t quite remembered.

Here was one: FBI Director Voyles, played with understated, kindly malice by James Sikking–whom I hadn’t seen since he was in Hill Street Blues–has been summoned to the Oval Office by the president, Robert Culp. Who is so much finer an actor than I’d ever realized.

Here, Culp can be read as George W. Bush. Charming, sort of goofy, much better smile than Bush, sort of dumb, fools around with his dog and his golf club in the Oval Office, and is bossed around by his Brain, a sleazoid named Coal (Tony Goldwyn, infinitely better looking than Karl Rove).

So, Culp has been told by Goldwyn that this little paper called The Pelican Brief–which the FBI is rumored to be investigating–could damn his presidency just as he’s about to enter a re-election campaign.

Sikking and Culp are alone in the Oval Office (except for Culp’s dog), when Culp initiates a dialogue about the Pelican Brief. (I’ll excerpt the book here, since I don’t have immediate reference to the much terser and more dramatic film script.)

The President slowly sipped from his coffee and pondered what to say next. Voyles was not known for his conversation.

“I need a favor.”

Voyles stared with rigid and unblinking eyes. “Yes, sir.”

“I need the scoop on this pelican thing. It’s a wild idea but, hell, it mentions me, sort of. How serious are you taking it?I don’t have to tell  you, Denton, how much this nonsense could hurt if the press found out.”

“We don’t consult the press when we investigate.”

“I know. Let’s not get into that. I just wish you would back off this thing. I mean, what the hell, it’s absurd, and I could really get burned. Know what I’m saying?”

Voyles was brutal. “Are you asking me to ignore a suspect, Mr. President?”…

The President shifted and recrossed his legs at the knees. “Come on, Denton, you know what I’m saying. There are bigger fish in the pond. The press is watching this investigation, just dying to find out who’s a suspect. You know how they are. I don’t have to tell you that I have no friends with the press. Even my own press secretary dislikes me. Ha, ha, ha. Forget about it for a while. Back off and chase the real suspects. This thing is a joke, but it could embarrass the hell out of me.”

“So you’re asking me to back off?”

The President leaned forward and stared fiercely at Voyles. “I’m not asking, Denton. I’m telling you to leave it alone. Ignore it for a couple of weeks. Spend your time elsewhere. If it flares up again, take another look. I’m still the boss around here, remember?”

In the movie the above scene is followed immediately with Voyles in his car telling one of his associates what happened, and the associate saying, “That’s obstruction of justice.”

Yeah. During the Oval Office scene, I sat up straight and said, “Jesus! Grisham could have been bugging our current Oval Office person”–if you could bug the future. And then, because he’s a lawyer, Grisham laid “obstruction of justice” in there. Just in case we didn’t know.

Or an alternate possibility: Did one of those masters of apocalyptic destruction in the White House absorb The Pelican Brief and feed this entire conversation to Trump? Make him memorize it and regurgitate it with Comey?

If Grisham has read Comey’s written presentation to the Senate Intelligence Committee for tomorrow’s hearing–which I’m absolutely sure he has–he must be grinning bigger than Robert Culp.

And let’s hail AXS TV for that wickedly timed re-run.



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