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David Frost: A look back at the Nixon interviews
Sir David Frost, who has died at the age of 74, was one of the legendary figures in world broadcasting, but he also was to become one of the players on that vast stage known as Watergate. Here's a look back at my interview with Sir David in 1994, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation. The Frost intervews with Nixon were both controversial and historic....
They were, quite simply, the TV news sensation of 1977 -- not quite the equivalent of O.J.'s prime-time car tour of L.A., but just a notch below.
Consider the magnificent drama of it all: disgraced former president finally speaks for the record about Watergate, the break-in, his humiliation. Anything Nixon said about these matters was front-page fodder.
But the interviews were also intensely controversial. Frost and his production company paid Nixon $600,000 for 28 3/4 hours of interview time (Nixon had sought $ 1million) -- the highest "pay-for-play" fee ever doled out to a celebrity. Meanwhile "60 Minutes" reported that Nixon's superstar agent, Irving (Swifty) Lazar, had also nailed down a 10 percent stake of the series' commercial revenue gross.
Some network news types -- who didn't participate in the auctioning of his TV rights -- were outraged, but NBC News had reportedly offered $400,000 for just a two-hour documentary. The Frost interviews, which aired on an "independent network" of some 155 stations, went on to earn the highest rating for a news program in history. Commentators marveled that its 45 million viewers on opening night out-distanced "Happy Days."
Last week, Frost -- now Sir David -- recalled that the interviews were the highlight of a long career. "There were going to be 12 two-hour sessions, and I remember when I sat down to the first one, I thought, 'My God, I've never spoken to anybody in a continuous interview for two hours, much less 24.' "
Two-dozen hours with Nixon, as it turned out, were not enough. Nixon, recalls Frost, "tended to go all around the house before coming to the point." He says that "we actually had to ask for an extension of time, but financially we couldn't afford it," and Nixon was reluctant to grant more. So Frost played what he calls his "China card."
He reminded Nixon that they had never talked about China -- his pet subject, of course -- and he readily agreed to the additional hours. The high point of Frost /Nixon was hardly China; it was Watergate (Sunday night's telecast). In his negotiations, Frost insisted that a full quarter of the interview time be spent on Watergate, which Nixon finally agreed to.
Three of the 12 sessions were ultimately devoted to the subject. "Day One of the [Watergate] taping he was stonewalling," says Frost. "It was pretty much a disaster for him, because we knew the tapes as well as he did, [but] the second day he looked like he did at the height of the Watergate crisis" -- pale, nervous, exhausted -- "because the whole thing was being relived. He came prepared to admit something."
Frost now says he didn't know what the admission might be, but he was certainly not going to be shy about helping Nixon to make it. A pensive Nixon asks Frost what words he would use to describe his role in Watergate.
Momentarily startled, Frost regroups and says that he should say three things, among them " 'I apologize.' Unless you say it, you will be haunted the rest of your life."
Nixon, naturally, doesn't blurt out, "Oh gee, America, I'm sooo sorry." He instead begins a long peroration, much of it self-serving. He compares himself to a former British prime minister who said that "the first requirement of a good prime minister is to be a good butcher. I have to admit, I wasn't a very good butcher."
But Nixon does say that he had "of course" let down some of his closest associates. Frost calls the admission a "mea culpa." It is also the high point of Sunday's program. Was this mea culpa -- and indeed the entire series -- a crafty device by Nixon to reclaim his stature in public life? Was Frost simply being used? Frost now says, "I think he probably regretted [the interviews] afterwards, but as it turns out, the mea culpa he so reluctantly gave did eventually enable him to resurface in American life two or three years later.
It did act as a catharsis. "So, what did the master interviewer really think of the master politician? Frost says he was rather perturbed by some commentators at Nixon's funeral who said that Watergate was a mere blip in an otherwise brilliant career. "You've got to realize," he says, "that it was not one isolated instance. It was part of a pattern that was scarcely serving our democracy well. It was typical rather than isolated."