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The Watergate scandal began with a break-in at the office of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1971, and ended when President Gerald Ford granted Richard M. Nixon a pardon on September 8, 1974, one month after Nixon resigned from office in disgrace. Effectively removed from the reach of prosecutors, Nixon returned to California, uncontrite and unconvicted, convinced that time would exonerate him of any wrongdoing and certain that history would remember his great accomplishments—the opening of China and the winding down of the Vietnam War—and forget his “mistake,” the “pipsqueak thing” called Watergate.
In 1977, three years after his resignation, Nixon agreed to a series of interviews with television personality David Frost. Conducted over twelve days, they resulted in twenty-eight hours of taped material, which were aired on prime-time television and watched by more than 50 million people worldwide. Nixon, a skilled lawyer by training, was paid $1 million for the interviews, confident that this exposure would launch him back into public life. Instead, they sealed his fate as a political pariah.
James Reston, Jr., was David Frost’s Watergate advisor for the interiews, and The Conviction of Richard Nixon is his intimate, behind-the-scenes account of his involvement. Originally written in 1977 and published now for the first time, this book helped inspire Peter Morgan’s hit play Frost/Nixon. Reston doggedly researched the voluminous Watergate record and worked closely with Frost to develop the interrogation strategy. Even at the time, Reston recognized the historical importance of the Frost/Nixon interviews; they would result either in Nixon’s de facto conviction and vindication for the American people, or in his exoneration and public rehabilitation in the hands of a lightweight. Focused, driven, and committed to exposing the truth, Reston worked tirelessly to arm Frost with the information he needed to force Nixon to admit his culpability.
In The Conviction of Richard Nixon, Reston provides a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall account of his involvement in the Nixon interviews as David Frost’s Watergate adviser. Written in 1977 immediately following these celebrated television interviews and published now for the first time, The Conviction of Richard Nixon explains how a British journalist of waning consequence drove the famously wily and formidable Richard Nixon to say, in an apparent personal epiphany, “I have impeached myself.”
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James Reston, Jr., is a critically acclaimed writer and historian whose books include Warriors of God, Dogs of God, The Last Apocalypse, Galileo: A Life, and the memoir Fragile Innocence. He lives with his family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
From the Hardcover edition.
The invitation came in a curious, roundabout fashion. Joseph Kraft, the syndicated Washington columnist who was acting as David Frost's recruiter, encountered my mother at a less-than-intimate Washington party and casually wondered where that son of hers was--whether Richard, James, or Thomas, he was not sure--who had worked with Frank Mankiewicz on a Watergate book several years ago. He was back in North Carolina, she replied, had just finished a book on the Joan Little case, and was teaching creative writing. Do you suppose, Kraft wondered, that he would be interested in working with David Frost on the Nixon interviews? Mom was discreet, as always. She would ask.
David Frost? I knew he was British. I had vaguely pleasant memories of That Was the Week That Was (TW3, I later learned to say), quite brilliant satire and political humor that was my style ("birth control: booby prize of the week" was an example). Hadn't there been an interview show later? I thought I remembered a sensitive interview with Jimmy Webb, one of my favorite singers, after "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," but it might have been Merv Griffin. I couldn't be sure. Clearly, I needed to find out more.
Sure enough, Frost had had an interview show; he had even once offered my father $10,000 to appear on his show for ninety minutes, but Dad had turned the offer down. In 1968 Frost had interviewed all the presidential candidates, including Richard Nixon. From James David Barber, the political scientist at nearby Duke University, I discovered that Frost had asked questions of Nixon like "Are there any essentially American characteristics?" and "For an American today, what can the dream or goal be?" and (perhaps best of all) "This is a vast question, I know, but at root, what would you say that people are on earth for?"
Work with David Frost on the Nixon interviews? He wouldn't need much help to devise questions like those. But Barber cautioned against cynicism. The responses from Nixon to Frost's grandiose offerings had been revealing, both in political and personal terms. Barber had quoted copiously from them in his acclaimed Presidential Character. Frost was, Barber felt, a subtle and clever interviewer, probably better than anyone we had on the American scene to interview a slippery Nixon.
So I headed for New York and Frost's somewhat seedy offices in the Plaza Hotel. I had to wait for a time to see him. When I was ushered in, Frost apologized profusely for the delay; he had finally gotten through to the South of France after trying for four hours. I nodded as if I understood his frustration. At first we discussed his bona fides rather than mine. Expressed in polite language, I had three questions: Why, I asked, could he do any better than, say, Dan Rather or Mike Wallace? In the back of my mind was Wallace's boorish failure in interrogating H. R. Haldeman. It had been one of the outrages of modern television; Haldeman had reportedly received $100,000 for his time, and nothing of interest had come from the interview. What was the argument for paying Nixon so much money? (The scandal sheet The National Enquirer was reporting that week that Nixon would make $650,000 for the interviews. It was much more, I learned later.) And would Frost feel a certain awe or respect in Nixon's presence, so characteristic of American newspeople, or was he prepared to go for the jugular?
Frost was an amiable good sport. We drank warm champagne, and he offered me an expensive cigar in a plastic case. (Later, during the interviews, Nixon would say to me, "David Frost always goes first class. What are you having for lunch today--duck under glass?") He had interviewed many world leaders since 1967, Frost asserted, and had earned his reputation in Britain as a withering interrogator. Playing to my novelist's sensibility, he said he had never written a novel, but he was interested in what made Richard Nixon tick. Nixon was the most interesting man in the world to interview. And Frost did indeed share my sense of historical responsibility: to be the only man who would ever question Nixon at length about his Watergate involvement was a daunting challenge.
Frost's ordinariness and honesty and good humor impressed me. He was slightly plumper than I imagined. His face certainly was not the reason for his success, and he possessed a high-pitched, loud laugh that tended toward grating. He had a curious mannerism of crooking his fingers in front of him when he made a point, as if he were reaching for two safe dials. I was astonished to find out later that only two years separated us in age. He was thirty-eight, but he looked older.
In 1975 he had been nominated to be knighted, but someone within the nominating committee had been so scandalized at the idea of such a middlebrow as a knight of the Queen that he leaked the nominations to the press. It was the first time in history that had ever happened.The uproar over Frost was so intense that his name was withdrawn.
The trip to New York was something of a lark for me. I couldn't imagine that this entertainer was really serious about wanting a first-rate team of researchers and advisers. The interviews had the feel of show business rather than journalism. Whatever Frost's reputation may once upon a time have been in Britain, it had not kept when he crossed the Atlantic. I had already heard the rumors that Frost had been chosen by Nixon because the disgraced president saw the Englishman as a soft touch. From the personal point of view, it was hard to imagine that Frost would meet my demands: I would have to take a leave of absence from the University of North Carolina and move to Washington for six months. My price was high. But to my astonishment, three weeks later I found myself in a plush apartment in Georgetown, the details all worked out, and work on Watergate under way.
Because I come from a journalistic family and know the incestuous, parasitic relationship between Washington newsmen and men of power, I was anxious to get guidance from friends in the academic community about the highest value that the Frost/Nixon interviews might attain, before I immersed myself in the Washington maelstrom. So in early July 1976, the week before I left for Washington, I gathered together an eclectic group of academics to discuss the project. The group included a law dean, a psychiatrist, a philosopher, and a novelist, along with the obligatory political scientist and historian. The participants expressed general skepticism that Nixon would say anything different from his previous utterances on Watergate if the interviews followed traditional lines. They had high regard for Nixon as a master weasel, and if the Watergate interview was treated as the interrogation of a hostile witness, they held little hope for a fruitful exchange. The law dean cited the deposition of Nixon in the Halperin wiretap case, conducted by a friend of his, where Nixon had bested the Halperin lawyers with skill and condescension. At one point in the deposition, Nixon had sounded huffy in the words he spoke for the record, but had winked at his interrogator. To prove Nixon a liar, the group felt, was to prove an a priori proposition. As a lawyer and a politician, he would have a refined sense of how to parry hostile questions. In the position of adversary, he was bound to win--and if the result of a Frost adversarial stance was to elicit nothing new, the American public would be utterly outraged. The higher star to shoot for, said James David Barber, would be an answer to the question: How was it possible that a man like this was able to exploit the American political system as he did, from the Checkers Speech forward? The viewers, Barber felt, should come away with a sense of the vulnerabilities of the American political system. To accomplish this, the shows should aim to expose this complicated and banal and anti-democratic personality who nearly did in the American system.
We should hold the details of Watergate until last, Dr. Barber advised, keeping Nixon on human ground in the beginning, where he was bound to be uncomfortable. We should confront him with human warmth and sympathy and humor, to which he would be unable to respond. Presenting Nixon with human material in an opening gambit would "detoxify" the interviews, the psychiatrist stated. Once into specific substantive areas, the tactics should be to ask general, conceptual questions like "What do you think the role of compromise is in political life?" or "How would you advise a young politician to deal with the press?" We should encourage Nixon to grandstand in his customary fashion. Once a general Nixonism was elicited, Frost could compare it to the specific facts of the Nixon record. Frost should play to Nixon's fascinations and motivations and sensitivities--say his fascination for the technique of politics. Frost might show him clips from his past performances, Checkers or the Farewell Address or a Vietnam speech, and ask him to comment on how well, in retrospect, he thought he had done, or how he might have handled the situation better or differently. And Frost should play to Nixon's sensitivity about how "history" would treat this or that event, remembering the anecdote from the tearful Kissinger session in the final days, in which the president blubbered, "Will history treat me more kindly than my contemporaries?" In psychiatric terms, said the psychiatrist, Nixon now was basically a dead person for whom involvement in politics, his reason for living, was over, and whose only remaining passion was how history would treat him. Fawn Brodie, the biographer of Nixon, later expressed this same thought somewhat differently--of the Nixon Memoirs, and implicitly the Frost electronic memoirs, Brodie wrote to me, "The most he [Nixon] can hope for from the new autobiography is to avoid being described by historians as the worst President in our history."
From this group discussion in Chapel Hill, I arrived in Washington with a strong bias against a facts-and-dates approach to the Nixon interview. This soon got me into considerable hot water, partly from the bias and partly from my own naivete, and nearly resulted in my being fired before we even began.
In early July 1976, the first meeting of the Frost team took place in a style to which I soon became accustomed. David Frost flew in from London on the Concorde for a four-hour meeting, and then flew to New York for the night. He was accompanied by his chosen producer for the Nixon interviews, John Birt. Frost described him as "the most brilliant producer in Britain." John Birt's credentials were impressive. Only thirty-one, he had been a top public-affairs producer for ten years at ITV, the alternative network to the BBC, where he had produced the highly successful potpourri Weekend World. (Later he was appointed the director of the BBC.) A large, fleshy man with round, wire-framed glasses and the classic English cameo complexion, and in his speech, with a clipped, precise Oxfordian delivery, he was gray-haired already. Once I challenged him to a chess game. "I never play chess," he replied. "My whole professional career is a chess game."
We were joined in Birt's suite at the Madison Hotel by C. Robert Zelnick. Affable Bob hailed from the Bronx and had made his way to being bureau chief at National Public Radio by way of law school and the Anchorage Daily News. His tough-guy demeanor seemed cut out of his stint in the Marines, to which he often made reference; in time I learned his hitch had been for six months in the reserves, compared with my three years in the U.S. Army. Zelnick had been hired to handle the foreign policy and domestic policy segments, and was joining Frost after resigning from NPR in a news policy dispute. Zelnick was the made-to-order Washington newsman, in my over-easy construction of that exotic creature: well informed, experienced, and constantly referring to people in high places by their nicknames (Henry this, Jim Schlesinger that). I could see from the beginning that tension would develop between us.
So long had it been since I was employed by someone--in my teaching and writing for eight years I had become accustomed to total independence--I was oblivious to the need for a prudent period of feeling-out. When David asked about possible approaches to the Watergate program, I came forward with the definitive opinions bred of the collaboration with Mankiewicz and nurtured by my Ivory Tower friends. Nobody remembered the important dates of Watergate, I asserted breezily. We must come up with a thematic approach, defining large philosophical themes to be explored in detail. I yawned figuratively when Zelnick talked about interrogating Nixon on revenue sharing or welfare reforms. Unless there was an edge and tension to the entire twenty-four hours of interview taping, the American people would be scandalized, I argued. Frost and Birt listened alertly as I dug myself in deeper and deeper. Zelnick was characteristically yeomanlike in his presentation on topics to be covered in his "areas."
The next day Birt tried to have me fired. He lectured me on what was "journalistic," and I countered that I did not need the lecture. He expressed great interest in Nixon's eco- nomics, calling himself a Keynesian, and I said Nixon's economics were hardly the passion of the American people at this point in history. We matched each other, arrogance to arrogance, my University College to his St. Catherine's (our Oxford colleges), but behind our conflict lay the question of authority. Could I be controlled? Even if I disagreed with the facts-and-dates approach, would I be willing to do this preliminary slogging back over the Watergate terrain? Birt suggested a two-week trial period. Out of the question, I countered. I had already found a replacement for my courses at the university. In an effort to retreat behind legality, I pointed to the verbal contract between David and myself. Soon enough, David made his decision. I would add something special to the team, he told Birt, a little passion perhaps. I would stay.
Birt flew back to London, unhappy that he had not succeeded in sacking me from the team, but confident that he had established his leadership. My suggestion of a thematic approach to Watergate had flopped. I accepted the verdict and began to immerse myself in the debris of the Watergate cover-up. Behind all this was Frost's perception of the show and of himself. He was growing into his role of inquisitor. He was confident in factual questioning but insecure with conceptual matters, and later this was dramatically demonstrated. Thus, given our "star," their emphasis on facts was the right one.
In the two months that followed, the forty-seven volumes of House Impeachment Committee evidence became my primary source, along with the 12,000 pages of testimony in the Watergate cover-up trial.
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