In 1977, British journalist David Frost sat down with former President Richard Nixon to conduct a series of television interviews. Over the course of 28 hours spread across several days, Frost elicited from Nixon one of the nation’s most historic presidential apologies: “I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government [and the] dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but who think it’s all too corrupt.”
But the apology did not come before Nixon also reminded the TV audience that he was a master of obfuscation. He complained, for example, that the man interviewing him had an advantage because he had done more homework than the ex-president, and he referred to Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal as a “famous series by some unnamed correspondents.”
Frost and Nixon delved into other issues, as well, such as China, the Vietnam War and domestic concerns. But what made the interviews memorable was Nixon’s cagey willingness to talk at length about Watergate for the first time since his 1974 resignation. Forty million people watched Frost grill Nixon – the biggest viewer total for any program of its kind up to that point.
Now two new movies document those legendary 1977 interviews: Director Ron Howard recreates them in his film, Frost/Nixon, released nationwide on Dec. 25.
But much less hyped – yet mandatory viewing for political junkies – is the documentary Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews, released on DVD on Dec. 2. (The 80-plus minute documentary didn’t appear in theaters before its DVD release. A second DVD of interviews is scheduled for release sometime in 2009.)
In press materials, Sig Sigworth, head of Liberation Entertainment, which distributed the film, noted that the “current political climate in America” made the Frost/Nixon interviews topical. One would hope that President Bush – like Nixon – will eventually have to answer for his administration’s actions: from two protracted wars (one launched on discredited evidence) to torture and abuse in violation of the Geneva Conventions to internal scandals involving lobbyists and top administration officials, the list of egregious errors goes on and on.
During Frost’s November appearance on “The Daily Show,” host Jon Stewart suggested that Frost should try to pry some answers out of Bush. (If Nixon took almost 30 hours to talk about a mishandled break-in, imagine the time Frost might need to talk about Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo, wire-tapping, and other Bush legacies.)
With Nixon, Frost was able to get far more out of the ex-president than any of the investigators, elected officials and scoop-hungry reporters who had dogged him until the end of his abbreviated second term. (Nixon was paid $1 million for the interviews – a substantial incentive for the former president to talk.)
In his Aug. 8, 1974, resignation speech, the closest Nixon came to an apology was when he said, “I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation.”
But by the end of his interviews with Frost, Nixon admits, “I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life. My political life is over.”
Moments like these remind us why Nixon was so famously uncomfortable in front of TV cameras, and Frost’s production crew didn’t try to make him more telegenic. As the dashing Frost was filmed from a distance that framed his casual body language and stylish black suit, Nixon was often captured up-close, his fleshy face and silver hair filling the screen in a way that was at once dour and comical.
In an interview shot for the DVD’s extra footage, Frost says Nixon seemed to have had second thoughts about giving so much of himself.
“Soon afterward, I think he probably did regret having done the interviews, because he had admitted – [he had] gone much further in his mea culpa than he expected to do, or anybody had expected him to do,” Frost says. Moments later, he adds, “But then, later on, he probably realized that he could never have done that, he could have never re-emerged in polite society … without having confronted these issues in a forum which was not biased in his favor.”
By Frost’s telling, he helped Nixon reclaim his humanity. The journalist, meanwhile, walked away with the acclaim of his audience and his peers – and with at least one great, off-camera story. As Frost recalls in the extras, the always awkward Nixon, attempting “to be one of the boys,” turned to the journalist and asked, “Did you do any fornicating this weekend?”
Frost could barely think of a reply to such an oddly phrased question. And for a moment, Nixon was no longer the one on the defensive.
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