3 novembre 2019

Maximum John - The Judge Who Knocked Out Nixon

       In an infamous Oval Office conversation with senior advisor  Charles Colson and secretly recorded in February 1973, the 37th President of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon, had some harsh words about the Irish, Jews, Mexicans and Blacks. He added that Italians “don’t have their heads screwed on right”. Unfortunately for him, Nixon met an Italian American who did have his head screwed on right: his name was John Sirica, the US District Judge of the Court for the District of Columbia. Judge Sirica is known for having ordered President Nixon to turn over his White House tape recordings to the House Judiciary Committee and to order that a grand jury report on the President be sent to the House Judiciary Committee. For anyone who watched the hearings, Sirica was an American folk hero. How can one forget when he demanded loudly, angrily and repeatedly, through more than two years of trials and hearings, that he and the American people be told the "T.R.U.T.H." as he once spelled it out to the jurors at the cover-up trial. The Watergate Judge was an Immigrant’s Son, a poor boy who made good, a man taking on the larger forces of evil alone.

       Maximum John - The Judge Who Knocked Nixon is the title of a documentary film that tells the story of this historical and significant figure to American audiences.  He was born John Joseph Sirica in 1904 in Waterbury, Connecticut, to Ferdinando (Fred) Sirica, an immigrant from Italy, and Rose (Zinno) Sirica, whose parents were also from Italy. “My father was a barber and my mother, my brother and we lived in the backroom. In those days there were signs that read: No Irish or Italians Need Apply”. In 1918 he moved to Washington, D.C. where he attended Emerson Preparatory School and eventually transferred to Columbia Preparatory School. After graduating from high school, he entered directly in law school, and received a Bachelor of Law in 1926. President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated him on February 25, 1957, to a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. He served as Chief Judge and a member of the Judicial Conference of the United States from 1971 to 1974 and assumed senior status on October 31, 1977. His service terminated on August 14, 1992 when he died of a massive heart attack.

       A liberal Democrat and Nixon's political opponent, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., once said: ”If it had not been for the Washington Post and Judge Sirica, the Watergate scandal would have stopped in front of the presidential privileges." But how did an obscure federal judge challenge the most powerful man in the world? This is how he explained it: "I am a Republican. At the beginning of the trial, I did not believe Nixon could be guilty. Such a thought would have depressed me, humiliated me, since I have always been a Republican and twice I participated in the Nixon campaign. But one thing is politics, one thing is justice and I didn’t wait for a moment to order Nixon to turn out the incriminating tapes." After his conviction, Sirica continued to vote Republican and was nicknamed "Maximum John." This portrait highlights a positive image of an Italian-American on the right side of the law, unlike the traditional image of the Mafia which has tainted Italian-American heritage.

     Trailblazers like John Sirica made a significant contribution to break down ugly stereotypes about Italian-Americans. Much progress has been made but today targets of discrimination have shifted to other ethnic groups, and some groups are still discriminated against. Sirica’s success was founded on exactly the opposite qualities of how Italian-Americans were viewed. The challenge is to remind viewers not to be complacent and to rest on their laurels: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it as the saying goes. The Nixon camp's expert appraiser, Steve Johnson, listened to more than 100 hours of selected Nixon White House tapes that were declassified years later after the Watergate scandal thanks to Justice Department trial attorney Anthony J. Coppolino- another Italian-American. In one of these inflammatory, clear and audible conversations, recorded in the Oval Office on March 8, 1971, after expressing his low expectations vis à vis Mexicans, Nixon added: "That's the problem, finding a Mexican that is honest. And Italians have somewhat the same problem."  Little did Nixon realize that men like Sirica paved the way to break down the stereotypes that he was clearly a victim of.

The Judge Who Knocked Out Nixon

Written, Produced and Narrated  by
Sim Smiley

Edited by
Carla Brandolini

Co-Written and Directed by
Luca Martera

Finalist in the Russo Brothers Italian Film Forum 2019

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