Broadcast impresario and famed interviewer David Frost, who died suddenly on Saturday, has been justly praised for prodding Richard Nixon into apologizing for the Watergate scandal. It was indeed no easy task to extract those words from an ex-president who had quit in disgrace.
Nevertheless, it’s important to point out, as too few obituaries have done, that Nixon’s admission of error was a rare triumph for Frost in those marathon 1977 interviews. I’m not knocking Frost, whose affable yet assertive interviewing technique was legendary, but as a young journalist I watched those Nixon sessions on public TV back in ’77 (along with 45 million others), and it was quite clear in real time that Nixon in exile was the same character he had always been – a relentlessly defensive combatant, a bitter-end partisan who foreshadowed the politics-as-war ethos that routinely infests us today.
Every Frost eulogy has highlighted the soundbite where Nixon admits that he put “the American people through two years of needless agony….I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.” No other interviewer had gotten that much out of Nixon; heck, no other interviewer during those early exile years had even gotten a sitdown with Nixon, much less 28 hours on camera. Frost was still recounting his experiences decades later. But, in 1977, what Frost mostly got was “the modified limited hangout route” – so named by Nixon and his soon-to-be-jailed aides when their coverup plottings were captured on the White House tapes. In other words, concede a little and stonewall the rest.
It’s largely forgotten, in this ahistorical nation, how far-flung Watergate really was, how it invaded every nook and cranny of the federal criminal justice system in Washington, and how it exposed the blatant lies of a president who claimed there was no scandal or coverup even as he plotted to pay hush money to his underlings. Any ill-informed American can get up to speed with one click. Back then, Frost knew that Nixon would be a great story, no matter what he said on camera (Frost was a canny mix of showman and newsman). And most of the time, on Watergate, Nixon said very little that was new.
He played the victim – just as he had done for decades. He told Frost that he was really a softy who couldn’t even bear “to watch somebody else cry,” a nice guy who didn’t know how to play hardball, an innocent soul who was brought down by “an enormous political attack” orchestrated by “a partisan Senate committee staff, a partisan Special Prosecutor’s staff, we had a partisan media, we had a partisan Judiciary Committee staff.” (He apparently forgot that the Special Prosecutor was a conservative Texan who got the job because Nixon had fired his predecessor for the offense of pursuing the truth; and that most Republicans in both congressional chambers ultimately abanoned him after the White House tapes exposed his public lies.)
Nixon also insisted, repeatedly, that he had merely made “mistakes of the heart,” that he paid hush money not to cover up a metastasizing scandal, but to help the Watergate burglars and their families “for humanitarian reasons.” Occasionally he attacked Frost for having done so much research, for having found 16 Nixon comments favoring hush money payoffs in one meeting alone (“Let me just stop you right there! You are reading out of context, out of order….You have your notes, but I’m doing these shows without notes”), but mostly he hewed to his claim that he had never broken the federal obstruction-of-justice law:
“I did not have a corrupt motive. My motive was pure political containment. And pure political containment is not a corrupt motive.”
Frost tried and failed to interrupt Nixon in the midst of that whopper (if you’re trying to contain an alleged crime for political purposes, bingo, you’re corrupt). The fact is, the federal obstruction-of-justice statute doesn’t even require a corrupt motive, only sufficient evidence that obstruction has occurred regardless of motive. Frost tangled with Nixon over this fundamental fact, and again Nixon conceded nothing. Instead he bobbed and weaved, hilariously so. He said he hadn’t read that statute since his youthful days at Duke Law School…then he apparently remembered that the statute didn’t yet exist when he was in law school…then he said that he had read the statute after all.
Yes, he apologized for disappointing his fellow Americans, but this remark about his enemies was arguably far more revealing – and it’s more relevant today: “I brought myself down. I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in and twisted it with relish. And I guess if I had been in their position, I would’ve done the same thing.” (Italics mine.)
There it was, his us-versus-them mentality. In Nixonworld, American politics was total warfare waged by partisan armies that played dirty and took no prisoners in pursuit of victory. Does that ring a bell? We have David Frost to thank for showing us a man who was decades ahead of his time.
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