Three More Weeks

The First Nixon-Frost Interview Wednesday, May 4, 1977

IT GOT OFF to an inauspicious start, the event Newsweek called "a rare combination of journalism, history, and live teledrama." There was David Frost speaking to millions of Americans coast-to-coast--or rather, his lips were moving, but no sound was coming out. For a moment we froze, remembering the silence that marked the first Carter-Ford debate last fall, and other gaps in other tapes. But at last the audio portion of our program was restored to us; Frost saying,"...had no control over anything. Richard Nixon and Watergate in a moment."

That's the way the interview with the former president began, Nixon and Frost sitting in a house owned by one of Nixon's friends, 12 miles up the beach from San Clemente, both in dark suits, jets droning over every few minutes. Frost led with the real question--were you ever part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice? What was on the 18-minute gap on the June 20, 1972 tape conversation with H.R. Haldeman? Nixon answered the gap contained only his and Haldeman's discussion of the political ramifications of Watergate; that their main concern was "whether or not the other side was bugging us." And his motive for keeping the thing secret? No cover-up, just that "in everything I was saying, or certainly thinking at the time, was but...to sure that as far as any slip-over, or should I say "slop-over" I think would be a better word. Any slop-over in a way that would damage innocent people, or blow it into political proportions...it was that that I certainly wanted to avoid."

Frost tried to press Nixon on the obstruction of justice issue; the former president squirmed and slipped, the old Nixon we knew and hated, lapsing into condescension and obfuscation, and his knowledge of the law.

Obstruction...well, of, I'm sorry, of course you probably have read it. But possibly you might have missed it, because when I read it many years ago in, perhaps when I was studying law, although the statute didn't even exist then, because it's a relatively new statute, as you know.

And on it went, Nixon defending a strategy of "political containment," which, he claimed, is not a corrupt motive. This is the heart of the Nixon story of Watergate--we did it for political reasons, it was hardball politics as usual, and therefore, it was perfectly legitimate, if perhaps not entirely legal. Frost bored in again, telling Nixon "you were part of a conspiracy after the June 23 conversation." Nixon answers only, "You would say that. I would disagree."

Frost did a tough job on Nixon. The prevailing rumor had been that Frost got the nod because of his American reputation for skillfully playing the buffoon to celebrities and near-celebrities on talk show programs. But this was the Frost of the old BBC "That Was the Week That Was," and obviously he had done a lot of homework and he did his best to nail Nixon. But he didn't have to. Nixon nailed himself.

Frost began to read a rollcall of Nixon's transcript statements about the money to be paid E. Howard Hunt for concealing the role of CREEP in the Watergate burglary--"One. 'You could get a million dollars and you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten' Two. 'Your major guy to keep under control is Hunt?'" And so on, up to number 14: "Would you agree that this is a buy-time thing? You'd better damn well get that thing done, but fast' 15: 'Now who's going to talk to him, Colson?' 16: 'We have no choice.'"--and Nixon twisting that jowly face of his, looking more and more like what we always though he was best-suited for in life--an insurance agent, or maybe a successful ad account executive for someone like J. Walter Thompson as so many of his assistants were, pushing Colgate and Pringles and J-Wax Kit. That was perhaps the one thing Nixon understood, at least after 1962--that what counted was to sell yourself, to make yourself appear sincere so that it didn't matter what you said or did. Only under tremendous pressure did the mind beneath show through, the kind of pressure that mounted in the summer of 1974 and was mounting here, and Nixon denied it all, it's all out of context, he claimed, finally exploding, "let me stop you right there." Apparently, they stopped him right there; as James Reston, Jr., co-producer of the show with Frost related in last week's Times, Nixon's people stopped the taping at that point so Nixon could regain control of himself.

That was the high point of the first hour. During the last part of the interview Frost let Nixon slip away, like a large fish he just could not land, and Nixon broke the line and went skipping off into the blue Pacific. The last half hour was pure Nixon, corny maybe, but the Nixon who sold like Pringles to all those people in 1968, and to many more in '72--never mind those additives that give you cancer. Nixon on finally firing Haldeman and John Ehrlichman:

Ehrlichman then came in. I knew that Ehrlichman was bitter because he felt very strongly he shouldn't resign. Although, he'd indicated that Haldeman should go and maybe he should stay. And I took Ehrlichman out on the porch at Aspen--you've never been to Aspen I suppose.

That's the Presidential Cabin at Camp David, and it was springtime. The tulips had just come out, I'll never forget, we looked out across--it was one of those georgeous days when no clouds were on the mountain. And I was pretty emotionally wrought up, and I remember that I could just hardly bring myself to tell Ehrlichman that he had to go because I knew he was going to resist it.

I said, "You know John, when I went to bed last night..." He said, "I hoped."

I said, "I hoped, I almost prayed I wouldn't wake up this morning."

Well, it was an emotional moment. I think their were tears in our eyes, both of us.

Then Nixon went on to say that he had botched some things terribly, but foremost...and then he quoted Gladstone, to the effect that a good Prime Minister had to be a good butcher. "I," he related, his voice low, "was not a good butcher." And Nixon, the man with the sense of destiny, who wanted to be remembered, had no sense of the irony of his statement--a statement made, insanely, inconceivably, on the seventh anniversary of the Kent State murders.

FROST GETS high marks for his interviewing. Nixon got $600,000 plus a lot more, when all the rights are in. More important he got a chance to try to exonerate himself, or at least present himself as a tragic figure, a modern-day Caligula. "I brought myself down. I gave 'em a sword. And they stuck it in, and twisted it with relish." So even if he is guilty--and Nixon never admitted that for an instant--at least, he claims, he's a hero. But Nixon's analogy is faulty: Caligula was trapped by life and a personal moral vision. That's something Richard Nixon conspicuously lacks.

In this sense, perhaps Nixon was the first truly modern chief executive--not a man without morals, but a man above them, purely amoral. A man who saw life as a giant game, to be played according to rules that insure victory. Certainly the people he gathered around him, foremost among them Henry A. Kissinger '50, thought this way--not in terms of good and evil but in terms of success.

This is why we should hate Richard Nixon--not for Watergate, although that is reason enough--but for what he represents to us, for his whole twisted way of thinking. For Kent State, for Chile, for the Christmas bombing and Bach Mai Hospital, for Cambodia, for the cynical Southern strategy and the emasculation of civil rights legislation--for all this, and much more.

In the next sessions with Frost he'll talk about his foreign policy triumphs, and try to establish his legacy, his attempt, as he put it, "to build a generation of peace." But Nixon was a hack, not a statesman. He was the ultimate mediocrity, the ad account executive, the ward heeler raised to high office. The only emotion that the interview generates is not pity--Nixon is too warped and amoral for that--but hatred. Let him go east, like Cain, into the land of Nod. In the end, perhaps the best thing that can be said of the interviews is that yes, America--we do have Dick Nixon to hate again.

Three more weeks.