This Friday, the movie Frost/Nixon — directed by Ron Howard and adapted from a play by Peter Morgan — opens in “selected theaters.” In case you’ve somehow missed all the hype, it’s about the British talk-show host David Frost’s series of interviews with Richard Nixon, which were shown on American television in May 1977. To quote from the film’s website:
More than 45 million viewers hungry for a glimpse into the mind of their disgraced former commander in chief — and anxious for him to acknowledge the abuses of power that led to his resignation — sat transfixed as Nixon and Frost sparred in a riveting verbal boxing match over the course of four evenings. Two men with everything to prove knew only one could come out a winner. Their legendary confrontation would revolutionize the art of the confessional interview, change the face of politics and capture an admission from the former president that startled people all over the world . . . possible even including Nixon himself
All this comes as a surprise to those of us who remember watching the original broadcast of the interviews.
In return for his $600,000 appearance fee, Nixon “admitted” what had already been proven; dodged or rationalized inconvenient facts; acknowledged errors but denied committing any crimes; and ended with a show of contrition and a play for sympathy. Little or no new information was uncovered, and nobody who had followed Nixon’s career was surprised in the least by his manipulations and evasions. The consensus was that the whole thing wound up an overblown bore.
To someone who was around back then, the idea of making a major motion picture about such a notorious fizzle seems bizarre; you might as well write an opera about “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault.” Is this just a case of memory being deceptive? Were the interviews really a landmark of a milestone of a watershed, as the publicists assert? To test this, I looked back at the reception they got in the media of the time.
The show’s producers secured lavish advance coverage by giving virtually everyone with a press card some sort of “leak”: transcripts, unedited video, production notes, briefing materials, correspondence. The week of the broadcast, Nixon was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, in that long-vanished era when those publications were considered influential. In the days leading up to the broadcast, the Washington Post ran several solid pages of Watergate transcripts and analysis, flashing back to the glory days of 1973.
After the airing of the first interview — the only one anybody cared about, since it contained all the Watergate material — there was far less hoopla. The Post’s Bob Woodward, Nixon’s erstwhile tormentor, called it “a much-touted television interview which shed little new light on the scandal.”
Elsewhere in the Post, Haynes Johnson’s analysis dripped with disappointment: “[The former president] proceeded, for the next 90 minutes, to give us all the familiar Nixon responses we have all seen for more than a generation. Those advance reports about Nixon being broken — or shattered — or even shaken by the withering interrogation of David Frost are in error. Nixon is in control throughout. He offers little that is new, and less that is of substance.” Johnson continued: “Last night’s program was billed as a dramatic and historic encounter between Nixon and his opponent, the relentless David Frost. It was nothing of the sort. . . . By the very end of the program, Frost looks as though he’s swept up by the Nixon responses. . . . The tables have been turned. Frost had met his match.”
The New York Times, in a brief, unsigned “Week in Review” item a few days later, echoed the been-there, done-that theme: “The spectacle was a familiar one . . . he portrayed himself, in typically Nixonian terms and gestures, as a victim of circumstance whose errors sprang from good intentions. . . . No important factual information about Watergate emerged from the interview.”
The Los Angeles Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch went with wire-service reports, supplemented with roundups of comments whose general tenor is summed up in a Post-Dispatch headline: nixon interview generates partisan political reactions. These papers, like most others, saw no need for any follow-up after the first day.
The Times of London correspondent agreed that Frost had been outmaneuvered: “It was clear that David Frost let Mr Nixon escape in the interrogation . . . [Frost] finds less adulatory coverage this morning than his advance men expected. . . . [W]henever the matter strayed from his clip-board of notes he was not informed enough to counter some of Mr Nixon’s most brazen revisions. The main mysteries of Watergate are still intact.” The American public was equally unimpressed, as ratings dropped sharply after the first night. One poll showed Americans feeling slightly more sympathetic towards Nixon after the interview than they had before; another showed a small decrease in Nixon’s still-hefty “highly unfavorable” rating.
How did this one-day story suddenly become the most important event since the Civil War? Well, if there’s anything the media loves more than overhyping an anti-Republican story, it’s overhyping its own importance, so when they have a chance to do both at once, it’s no surprise that they get a little too excited.
As I wrote here last year, Frost/Nixon is an attempt to use history, assisted by plenty of dramatic license, to retrospectively turn a loss into a win. By all accounts, Frost/Nixon does a fine job of dramatizing the negotiations and preparation that led up to the interviews. And it’s hard to imagine Frank Langella, who plays a Brezhnev-looking Nixon, giving a bad performance. Still, the movie’s fundamental premise is just plain wrong.
The trailer says: “In 1974 President Nixon resigned to hide the truth. But one man had a few questions.” In fact, Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment; “the truth” was contained in congressional transcripts, court papers, and Oval Office tapes, and the great bulk of it came out before Frost and Nixon sat down for their “historic” clash. Some questions did remain unanswered: Why would anyone bug the DNC? Why didn’t Nixon burn the tapes? Where did the 18-1/2 minute gap come from? But Frost never brought these up.
All that his much-vaunted interviews “revealed” was the unsurprising truth that, even in retirement, Richard Nixon was the same Tricky Dick he had always been.
– Fred Schwarz is an NR deputy managing editor.