David Frost is a schizophrenic. His creative personality bestrides the Atlantic ocean. When he’s at home in England, Sir David, as he’s known, fronts daytime-television panels and gives splendid summer parties at the country home he shares with his wife, Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard. For many years, he also hosted a Sunday-morning interview hour in which, fortified by a champagne breakfast, he and his guests would regularly slip into not so much a verbal exchange as a warm Jacuzzi of mutual appreciation. Before that, he was both a shareholder and presenter of an early morning television show whose most conspicuous icon was a sock-puppet named Roland Rat. He has been described as one of those “engagingly performing fleas” who add to the jollity of national life. Fifty years ago, of course, Frost began his domestic career as the host of a cutting-edge satirical program and won a deserved reputation for his dressing-down of various members of Britain’s ruling elite, among others. His public demolition of the insurance fraudster Emile Savundra is still regarded as an early benchmark of trial by television. It was therefore not without amusement that the press discovered, as his tastes matured, that, when Frost began to find pleasure in aristocratic society, those who were once the target of his scorn became numbered among his closest friends. At the age of 73, he is today a thoroughly establishment figure, one of those reassuringly familiar landmarks of British life who elicit the same sort of respect as, say, a stately home one might visit because of its historical value, whatever its current state of ruin.
When in the United States, by contrast, Frost has generally avoided game shows and sofas and instead concentrated on dour, worthy projects such as presenting a tribute to the recently assassinated President Kennedy, or staging a gala UNICEF concert at the U.N. General Assembly. (It’s true that in 1976 Frost co-produced a musical retelling of Cinderella called The Slipper and the Rose, and that Vincent Canby of the New York Times deemed this a vehicle for “a whole bunch of forgettable songs” whose stars “are less like characters in a fairy tale than pictures on a jar of peanut butter.” But whether by accident or design, Frost kept a low profile in the film’s promotion.) If he enjoyed an American reputation at all, it was as one of those officially tolerated public intellectuals we sometimes find on either side of the table on The Charlie Rose Show. Frost lectured at U.S. universities, debated politicians, and interviewed Tennessee Williams. He published highbrow articles, traveled, and campaigned for good causes. He interested himself in international affairs, medical research, the environment, and various perceived social injustices. He appeared to be a thoroughly homme serieux. The discrepancy between how Frost was perceived in America and how he was perceived in Britain was not just wide but yawningly so. Perhaps the only time the two competing halves publicly met was when Frost hosted a ten-hour live satellite-TV transmission on the night American astronauts first walked on the moon. His studio guests for the event included the elderly, and trenchantly opinionated, British historian A.J.P. Taylor and Sammy Davis, Jr., the latter heavily bejeweled and deep in his “ring-a-ding” phase. The conversation soon centered less on the specifics of the lunar landing (which Taylor thought had been faked on a Hollywood stage), and more on the overseas military role of the United States in that troubled era. Anyone familiar with the late Andy Kaufman’s penchant for celebrity wrestling has only to think of one of those bouts, metaphorically speaking, with Frost in the role of an increasingly exasperated referee, to get a bit of the flavor. It was a compelling example of live television in a protracted, train-wreck sort of way.
In March 1977, Frost sat down for a series of interviews with Richard Nixon, who had prematurely left the White House two-and-a-half years earlier. Nixon was paid a fee of $600,000 and a 20 percent cut of any future television profits for his time. The material, as edited by Frost, was broadcast in four parts, the first of which drew a whopping 45.2 million American viewers. Thirty years later, the clash of these two titanic figures became first a stage play and then, employing the same principal actors, a Hollywood film. In general, the latter was warmly received, and confirmed certain media perceptions of the 37th president. The following is from New York of November 30, 2008:
Somewhere—perhaps in the netherworld, rats gnawing on his kidneys, awaiting the arrival of his friend Henry—Richard Nixon is smiling at the thought of being played by the grave, sonorous, still-handsome Frank Langella. For all his attempted gravitas, Nixon was a shifty-eyed lightweight and transparent phony, whereas Langella is a born Shakespearean . . . The theme [of the film] is the collision of venerable authority figures and a modern media that (in their view) cheapens and distorts everything that they stand for. Does the camera trivialize—or does it pick up truths the human eye rarely sees as starkly? Did it caricature Nixon, who loathed it, or penetrate to his crooked soul? Resonant questions—but at this point, why should we care that Frost resuscitated a minor TV career by getting the guilty-as-sin Nixon to acknowledge, after hours of prodding for which he was exorbitantly compensated, that he “let the American people down”? . . . When he sat down with Frost, Nixon was already dead in the water—convicted by his own words in White House transcripts to the point that even his Republican allies had long deserted him . . . In Frost/Nixon, Langella’s heavy features move slowly; he seems to be plumbing the depths of his soul and glimpsing, for an instant, the abyss. Alas, the shit that dribbles from Langella’s mouth is still Tricky Dick’s.
Now we may leave New York in order to find out what happened.
In March 1977, David Frost was 37 years old, and a ubiquitous figure on British and American television screens. From 1969 to 1973, he had managed both to produce and host concurrent weekly talk shows on either side of the Atlantic, becoming a much-photographed Concorde commuter in the process. The consensus narrative of his encounter with the disgraced ex-president is the time-honored one of David (Frost) and Goliath (Tricky Dick), but this is perhaps to confuse the respective strength of the two protagonists. Nixon was then 64 (we toasted the centennial of his birth in January) and at rock bottom as a thoroughly humiliated political pariah in exile. He bore more than a passing resemblance to Napoleon following his defeat at Waterloo, with his crumbling San Clemente home, La Casa Pacifica, deputizing for Elba. In October 1974, two months after leaving office, he underwent life-saving surgery for thrombosis in his left leg, a condition I have endured myself and don’t recommend. The Washington Post greeted the news of Nixon’s illness with a cartoon showing him with a cast on the “wrong foot.” As an added indignity, he was nearly broke: Congress had reduced the appropriation for his transition costs from $850,000 to $200,000, out of which he paid the salaries of his small staff. Fifteen pounds lighter, exhausted, and depressed, Nixon wrote in his diary,
So be it. We will see it through. We’ve had tough times before and we can take the tougher ones that we will have to go through now. That is perhaps what we are made for—to be able to take punishment beyond what anyone in this office has had before, particularly after leaving office. This is a test of character and we must not fail the test.
As his congressional funds evaporated, Nixon was obliged to dismiss most of his staff. He was unable to meet his doctors’ and lawyers’ bills. At one point in 1976, it was reported that he had precisely $512 in the bank.
By contrast, Frost’s lifestyle reflected his status as, simultaneously, the enfant terrible and éminence grise (he had already been on our screens for 16 years) of transatlantic television. A fixture of London and New York café society, Frost was often caught by the cameras out and about with a glamorous companion, a boyishly happy leer on his face. His lovers in this period, who in later and less reticent times yielded up a fair number of vivid details, agreed that Frost was a sort of real-life precursor to Austin Powers—a “wine and roses at night, pat on the bum in the morning type,” one of them fondly recalls. Much mirth was later made of Nixon’s inquiry of Frost just before taping began one morning: “Did you do any fornicating last night?” What strikes me is the characteristic awkwardness of the phrase, rather than any inappropriateness of the question. Some years before, the British satirist Peter Cook had publicly coined the title The Bubonic Plagiarist to describe Frost’s early success. More than once, Cook repeated the story of how he had rescued Frost from drowning in a swimming pool, and that his first utterance on being brought to the surface and revived was “Super!” Cook later insisted that making the decision to save Frost was the one sincere regret of his life. Perhaps it was just sour grapes on Cook’s part, but it always got a knowing laugh. Frost, though intelligent and urbane, seemed to have that thin film of superiority between himself and the rest of the human race that apparently comes from hosting a regular prime-time television show. Contrary to prevailing opinion, he came to the Nixon interviews well funded, and with a dedicated research team that included the future ABC-TV correspondent Bob Zelnick; the author and playwright James Reston, Jr. (later scholar-in-residence at the Library of Congress); and John Birt, who went on to be director-general of the BBC. With the best will in the world, it is hard to see how, in 1977, the globally humiliated Nixon, with an opinion-poll rating on par with that of the Nazis, was “Goliath” by comparison.
Nor were the protagonists strangers to each other, as both the play and the film, presumably for their own dramatic purposes, would have us believe. In 1968, Frost had interviewed Nixon in a manner described by Time as “so soft that in 1970 President Nixon ferried Frost and his mother to the White House, where the Englishman was appointed to produce a variety show in celebration of the American Christmas.” The two purported gladiators were thus not only in business together in 1977 but reasonably close friends. Generally speaking, spending even a few minutes with a reporter tended to place unbearable strain on Nixon’s fragile public-relations sense, but Frost thought him “extremely courteous and hospitable,” and lacking only in small talk.
Both the play and the film called Frost/Nixon (note the order) have their redeeming points. Frank Langella’s portrayal of Nixon in the movie captures the ex-president’s essential hangdog weariness, as well as his vulnerability, meanness, self-deprecation, wounded dignity, brilliance, and calculated evasiveness in all their Shakespearean complexity. (Am I alone in feeling nostalgic when comparing him with today’s leaders?) Michael Sheen plays Frost as a simpering people-pleaser, his face typically wreathed in a frozen smile—again, a bravura impersonation. There’s a certain amount of lovingly recreated period detail, with a generous polyester quota, and director Ron Howard choreographs a large supporting cast, including hundreds of cheering or jeering extras, several attractive if glassy female companions of Frost, and a spectacular parade of large-finned cars. Frost/Nixon cuts back and forth between these two stylistic extremes, never quite deciding if it’s Harold Pinter or Busby Berkeley, but in the end confirming Howard’s reputation for artfully manipulated ahistorical drama, casting one wholesomely heroic figure (one thinks of the young Howard himself) against a loathsome villain.
There is no excuse for the lunatic criminal excesses that went under the name of Watergate, but, equally, no understanding of Richard Nixon is possible if one overlooks the spitefulness, self-righteousness, and blatant distortions of some of his critics.
The most dramatic plot twist in the movie comes, for example, when we see Nixon make a slurred late-night phone call to Frost, pouring out his bitterness and self-loathing, and promising that “I shall come at you with everything I’ve got.” Howard uses it rather obviously to mark the turning point in the film. Overnight, Frost is transformed from a hopelessly ineffectual lightweight into the tenacious bulldog who bears down on his despicable prey. It would be a moment to savor but for the fact that the phone call never happened. The whole passage exposing Nixon as a pathetic basket case, ravaged by anger and guilt, his face contorted in a mask of boozy befuddlement, is, from start to finish, an artistic invention by Howard and his scriptwriter. It may well serve the requirement of presenting the Frost-Nixon interviews as a mythic David-and-Goliath-style battle; it has no relation to what happened.
In another pivotal moment in the film, a dewy-eyed Nixon volunteers the opinion that he sees himself as “the last casualty of Vietnam,” clearly a case of psychotic self-delusion if it were true. That never happened, either. The transcript of the interview at that point reads:
Frost: “Perhaps you were the last American casualty of the Vietnam war?”
Nixon: “A case could be made for that, yes . . . It could be said that I was, ah, if I, that I was one of the casualties, or maybe the last casualty in Vietnam. If so, I’m glad I’m the last one.”
Perhaps more importantly, Nixon gave no quarter on Watergate. Contrary to the fictional treatments, Frost never produced a “gotcha” question that resulted in a cathartic admission of guilt. We can debate whether or not one might have been appropriate, but Nixon kept up his self-exculpatory guard right through the 28 hours of questioning. At one archly theatrical moment, Howard shows us Frost leaning forward in his chair to press the perspiring ex-president to admit to more than “mistakes”—to criminal wrongdoing. The script of both the play and the film reads,
Nixon: “I . . . was involved in a ‘cover-up,’ as you call it.”
The ellipsis is rather more important than usual, because what Nixon actually said was, “You’re wanting me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up. No!”
For many people, Nixon is identified with the phrase “I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Nixon did address those words to Frost, but not in the context of Watergate. He was speaking about the discretionary powers traditionally afforded the president at times of national emergency, and he concluded,
In war, a president does have certain extraordinary powers which would make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the nation and the Constitution, which is essential for the rights we’re all talking about.
Not quite the same thing as awarding himself a blanket indemnity against prosecution. Although Nixon never gave an answer to Frost lasting 23 minutes, as the play and the film both suggest, he did keep up a sustained and sometimes agonizingly Bill Clinton-like circumlocutory defense. As depicted, the whole “It’s not illegal” exchange is a contrivance designed to show Frost as the moral conscience of the story, a smarmy psychiatrist urging the repressed old man sitting opposite him to make both him and us feel better by confessing his sin, surely as unattractive as a fictional denouement as it would have been in real life.
Frost never did nail Nixon as depicted in Howard’s script and lovingly retailed by those who get their facts from Hollywood. The film accurately shows that at one point toward the end of the process there was a break in taping, and that during it Nixon’s aide Col. Jack Brennan huddled with Frost’s second, John Birt. What it does not say is that Birt was distraught at the way things had gone so far, and pleaded with Brennan to allow another session. Brennan agreed, feeling that “The President had done his job, [but] should voluntarily convey some sort of apology to the American public.” If this were a political version of Rocky, it would show the champion well ahead on points at the scheduled end of the bout, but still generously consenting to go an extra round against the challenger. Even then, Frost barely laid a glove on his man, until Brennan himself (contrary to his drill-sergeant portrayal by Kevin Bacon, an inveterate charmer) held up a cue card saying, “Let him talk.” Misreading the sign as “Let us talk,” Frost called for a break. During this unplanned time out, Nixon volunteered through Brennan that he might, indeed, be prepared to express regret at what had arisen from Watergate. When the cameras were switched back on, Frost ostentatiously laid aside his clipboard and leaned forward, a kindly smile on his face, for all the world a sympathetic young therapist coaxing a difficult memory out of a patient. After some more circumlocution, Nixon cleared his throat and said, “Yes, I let the American people down. And I’ll have to carry the burden the rest of my life.” It was a qualified apology (note Nixon’s perhaps not undeserved touch of self-pity), but it was not David Frost who extracted it. The president’s self-inflicted blow as the final bell rang was enough to score the fight as a draw. That result may not please hardcore Nixon haters, who speak in excited tones of their foe’s lies and evasions, and, by contrast, of Frost’s silver-tongued subtlety and psychological adroitness, but it was clearly understood by the principals themselves. As Frost’s chief researcher Bob Zelnick described this climactic moment, “It happened because the Nixon staff made it happen.”
When I was a trainee at the BBC 35 years ago, journalists were still by and large like old-fashioned messenger boys: Here was a piece of news, there was the public, and your job was to ensure that the one was delivered to the other in as efficient and courteous a way as possible. The idea of personally imposing yourself on the transaction was unthinkable—to employ diffidence or self-restraint was as mandatory then as, it seems, some degree of cloaca-tongued exhibitionism is today. Of course, our fall from the ideal of Reithian dignity to the likes of Lesley Stahl yelping on 60 Minutes, “She gave up her television career for you. I mean, wow!” can’t entirely be laid on David Frost, a decent man and, as the current presenter of a weekly show for Al Jazeera, a model of endurance in an industry that tends to consume its own in early middle age. But he is certainly a milestone down that particular road. Did Richard Nixon inspire a self-regarding vanity and cynicism among the media, inserted as a result of the events culminating on August 9, 1974? Or were traditional journalistic standards already being undermined by a small number of restless, ratings-savvy types tunneling along their own separate routes from several different directions? It’s a moot point; but whatever the cause, we can all deplore the result.
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