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Repent and Be Forgiven

Is David Frost the guy who nailed Nixon or the guy who let America let him off the hook?



FROST/NIXON sss Directed by Ron Howard Written by Peter Morgan, from his play With Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, and Toby Jones

The cable news pundits have been talking up Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard's drama about the TV interviews David Frost conducted with Richard Nixon in 1977, and I've heard more than one commentator mistakenly refer to it as "Nixon/Frost." The inversion is natural enough: 14 years after his death, 34 years after he was driven from office, Nixon and his unpunished crimes are still firmly lodged in the national psyche. Frank Langella, reprising his role from the 2006 source play by Peter Morgan (screenwriter of The Queen and The Last King of Scotland), gives a fascinating performance as the angry exiled statesman. And Nixon's fearsome vision of an imperial presidency—"When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal," he blurted out to Frost in one segment—couldn't be more relevant now, in the waning days of an administration whose chief executive took those words to heart.

But when drawing lessons from this punchy political entertainment, we may have more to learn from David Frost. When the venerable British broadcaster granted Morgan the rights to his story, he magnanimously relinquished any editorial control—just as Nixon had with the original interviews—and the result is less flattering to Frost than his own published accounts, I Gave Them a Sword (1978) and Frost/Nixon (2007). As Morgan makes clear, Frost in 1977 was widely regarded as a showman, not a newsman; his interrogating Richard Nixon would be analogous to Conan O'Brien interrogating Dick Cheney. In the early sessions, which focused on Vietnam, China, and the USSR, Nixon ran circles around him. The standard legend is that Frost, humbled by this, became a real journalist: he buckled down, did his homework, and nailed Nixon on the Watergate scandal. Frost/Nixon offers a more complicated assessment: that Frost may have succeeded not in spite of his showmanship but because of it.

The Frost-Nixon interviews are highly regarded now, but as the movie reminds us, they seemed fairly suspect when Frost was pulling them together. They were Nixon's first nationwide TV appearances since he'd resigned the presidency in August 1974, and for many they were tainted by the fact that Frost was paying Nixon $600,000 to sit for them. None of the American TV networks would go near the project, so Frost arranged his own sponsorship and syndication for the four 90-minute programs. To prepare himself for the taping, he assembled a team of investigators that included NPR reporter Bob Zelnick (later of ABC News) and writer James Reston Jr. (son of the famed New York Times columnist).

In the movie, when Zelnick and Reston learn from a 60 Minutes story that Frost is also paying Nixon a percentage of the profits, even they begin to wonder if the project is legitimate. You can see why they're worried. When his producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), asks him why he's so eager to interview Nixon, Frost (Michael Sheen) tells him he wants to be able to get a good table at Sardi's. The night before the first taping, while Zelnick and Reston (Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell, both typically fine) sweat it out at the hotel, Frost enjoys himself at a movie premiere. Several days later, with the project foundering, he sails off to a lavish birthday party for himself, where Sammy Cahn serenades him to the tune of "Love and Marriage": "Frost and Nixon, Frost and Nixon / There's an act that's gonna take some fixin'." Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), the ravishing brunette Frost picks up on a transatlantic flight, sums it up nicely when she repeats something she heard about Frost on TV: "What made you exceptional, they said, was that you seemed to have achieved great fame without possessing any discernible quality."

Frost's dubious character is hardly lost on Nixon, who agrees to the interviews partly out of greed but mostly because he knows from an earlier interview with the Englishman, during his 1968 presidential run, that he's dealing with a lightweight. Colonel Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), the ex-president's chief of staff, considers the interviews a potential media coup. "If this went well, sir, if enough people saw it and revised their opinions, you could move back east," he advises his boss. "Way earlier than we'd expected." The movie shows Nixon cramming for the interviews while Frost is gadding about, and on the set he proves adept at throwing Frost off his game with backhanded insults. "Those shoes—they're Italian, aren't they?" he observes as a technician is counting down. "You don't find them too effeminate?" Again and again he brings up his own well-known difficulty with TV cameras, and one can't miss the insinuation that Frost is all style and he's all substance.

Morgan is no less a showman than Frost, and he's taken liberties with the record to pump up the suspense and position Frost as the underdog. His most extravagant invention is a drunken late-night phone call Nixon makes to Frost three days before their Watergate showdown, which shakes Frost to the core and motivates him to hit the books. Another is Reston's last-minute discovery of an unpublished transcript from the White House tapes that shows Nixon explicitly plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in; in fact, Reston had found the transcript eight months earlier, and Frost had been keeping it under wraps since then. Nixon wasn't ready for this material, and the Frost team had carefully structured the interview as a hostile cross-examination on the narrow question of whether he'd obstructed justice. Cornered by the facts and trapped in a close-up, Nixon finally ran out of answers. As Reston explains in a voice-over, Frost managed to get what no journalist or prosecutor had gotten: "Richard Nixon's face, swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing, and defeat—filling every television screen in the country."

Reston makes an even more trenchant point in his account of the interviews, which he allowed Morgan to use as source material and later published as The Conviction of Richard Nixon: Frost held an edge over straight journalists because he wasn't afraid to show his bias. Questioning Nixon about the infamous "smoking gun" tape from June 23, 1972, he baldly accused the president of joining the cover-up effort: "I would have said that you joined a conspiracy which you thereafter never left." To Reston's assessment one might add that Frost went farther than any journalist would have dared when, tossing aside his clipboard, he urged Nixon to confess and apologize for his crimes: "I know how difficult it is for anyone, and most of all you, but I think that people need to hear it, and I think, unless you say it, you're going to be haunted for the rest of your life." Nixon's ensuing admission that he'd "let the American people down" was the closest he'd ever come to an admission of guilt and is widely viewed now as a moment of national catharsis.

All this makes for great entertainment on the big screen, though the real legacy of the Nixon interviews is more vexing than Morgan would have us understand. Watched by some 400 million people worldwide, they helped establish the ritual of the prime-time video confession now routinely used by celebrity malefactors to worm their way back into public life. Polls taken after the series showed that while few people changed their minds about Nixon's conduct, more of them felt sorry for him, and by the end of his life he was an honored guest on the nation's public-affairs shows, sought out for his opinions on foreign policy. He never spent a day in the dock for his illegal surveillance and harassment of his political enemies or his personal direction of a criminal conspiracy. Three decades later, when the current president has only enlarged on Nixon's secrecy and abuses of power, we're supposed to be satisfied with emotional catharsis. Seeing Nixon in a tortured close-up was nice, but seeing him in jail would have been nicer.v

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