Interview With The Interviewer

David Frost.
David Frost. (Helayne Seidman - Helayne Seidman Ftwp)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007

NEW YORK -- The voice of David Frost is a 90-proof concoction of politesse and bonhomie, an irresistibly genial instrument that has flattered, lulled and gently barbecued countless entertainers and politicians. It has made Frost a force in British broadcasting for decades, and at the moment it is wilting the hostess of a midtown restaurant.

The place won't be open for another half hour on this weekday afternoon, but Frost is looking for a nook for a private conversation, and he isn't easily deterred.

"Would you mind terribly if we just came in and sat down?" he says, the perfect if somewhat pushy British gentleman. "We just need a nice quiet place for a chat." A minute later Frost is perched at the table of his choice, sipping Pellegrino.

"Wonderful," he says, settling in.

The man is a master at coaxing out answers he wants to hear, and he is in town because of the most famous answer he ever coaxed from anyone: the mea culpa offered by Richard Nixon during a showdown-slash-confession broadcast in May 1977, culminating with a now-famous admission, "I let down the country."

It was close to an apology and the furthest Nixon had gone in admitting his role in the Watergate coverup, and it provided an overdue moment of national catharsis. Now that moment is being relived, night after night, on Broadway, where it provides the dramatic climax of "Frost/Nixon," a new play by Peter Morgan.

The show opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on April 22, to strong reviews, and never one to miss a toast in his honor, Frost flew in for the event. He'd seen the production in London, where it debuted, but watching the 38-year-old version of himself onstage struck him as mildly bizarre all over again.

"It takes about 20 minutes," he says, "before I stop thinking of that guy as me and start thinking of him as the Frost character."

"Frost/Nixon" recounts the story behind what was called the most-watched news interview show in broadcast history. More than 45 million viewers caught the first of four 90-minute broadcasts, an audience that the New York Times speculated, with no apparent irony, might be "on a par with 'Happy Days,' the top-rated series in the Nielsen listings."

We already know how the tale ends -- with Nixon slightly slumped, grudgingly admitting after hours of cut and thrust: "I let down our system of government, and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but who now will think it's all too corrupt and the rest."

In the era of Dr. Phil, this hardly registers as a blubbery reckoning, and there were those who thought Nixon surrendered little that he hadn't given up before. ("He went no further than he did in his resignation speech two and a half years ago," this newspaper reported, in a story co-written by Bob Woodward.) But for anyone who wanted some hint of contrition from history's most famous unindicted co-conspirator, it would suffice.

The surprise of the tale told in "Frost/Nixon" isn't the ending, which is well known, but the beginning and middle. The success of these interviews was far from ordained, and in hindsight the nerve it took to pull it off seems monumental. Frost, then best known in the United States for a talk show that had been canceled, had locked up the rights to interview Nixon by promising him $600,000 plus a share of any profits from the shows.

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