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Trial by Television

Sunday, July 15, 2007

THE CONVICTION OF RICHARD NIXON

The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews

By James Reston Jr.

Harmony. 207 pp. $22

In 1976, former President Richard Nixon made an arrangement with the British celebrity David Frost: Frost would interview Nixon for more than 20 hours on camera and pay him $1 million. Nixon would make money, possibly build a reputation as a statesman and remind the American people of his presidential achievements. The stakes were just as high for Frost, who wanted to prove himself as a serious interviewer and burnish his celebrity credentials.

James Reston Jr. was teaching creative writing at the University of North Carolina when he was asked to join Frost's team as a Watergate adviser. Reston had served in the Army from 1965-68, but by 1976 he was a self-described "radical." He had waged a campaign to win amnesty for Americans who had avoided being drafted into the military. He abhorred Nixon's Vietnam War policy and viewed Nixon as a contemptible figure who, despite his 1974 resignation, "remained . . . uncontrite and unconvicted."

The Conviction of Richard Nixon is Reston's chronicle of his involvement in Frost's efforts to wrest an apology and an admission of wrongdoing from Nixon on national television. Written in 1977, the book was not published until this year. The unfinished manuscript helped inspire Peter Morgan's award-winning Broadway play, "Frost/Nixon."

Reston's memoir is a compact and gripping behind-the-scenes narrative focused on Frost's struggles to prepare for his encounter with the formidable Nixon. Reston captures Nixon's inner turmoil and myriad moods during the tapings. Nixon wiped his brow, touched his eye, and "his jawline seemed to elongate." He told anecdotes about lessons learned in politics that skated unevenly around Frost's questions. Vindictive and bewildered, angered and bemused, Nixon came across as an angst-ridden ex-president. Reston's portrait of Frost suggests an uninformed show business personality, who Reston initially felt was too lazy to confront a politician of Nixon's caliber.

Reston also conveys his own sense of himself as a partisan eager to impeach the president. Reston recounts how he scoured the archives in search of incriminating evidence and repeatedly urged Frost to go for the jugular. At one point during the taping, Reston yelled at the monitor on which he was watching the interview that Frost should take Nixon "back onto the coals!"

Above all, the book sheds important light on Nixon's failure to rehabilitate his reputation after his 1974 resignation. In the course of his research, Reston discovered undisclosed transcripts of conversations between Nixon and Charles Colson -- one of the Watergate conspirators -- that revealed Nixon's role in the coverup. Frost asked Nixon why he told Colson that "the President's losses got to be cut" and why he ordered his aides to "turn over any cash we got" to buy the Watergate burglars' silence. At another point, Frost tossed his clipboard onto the coffee table and asked whether Nixon was ready to admit his "wrongdoing," acknowledge that "the power of the presidency [had been] abused" and "apologize" to the American people for having dragged them "through two years of agony."

Under this barrage, Nixon finally was forced to admit that he had skirted the law, participated in a coverup, misled the country and "let the American people down." "For all those things" he said he felt "a very deep regret."

Frost used what Reston calls a showman's sense of pitch-perfect timing to ambush Nixon -- causing Reston to conclude that Frost wasn't a lightweight at all but rather a model of journalistic excellence. Frost "knew how to read his lines" and understood that the camera would show Nixon evading Frost's questions. Reston also credits Frost with aggressively using Reston's research; Frost had the kind of "courage" that "no journalist in America" had because he went "far beyond the narrow American definition of 'objective journalism' " to serve as an advocate in zealous pursuit of Nixon. Although Frost later took a job interviewing celebrities on his own talk show, his place in history had been secured.

Even if these interviews had never taken place, it's likely that Nixon's reputation would have remained in poor shape. But as it happened, these sessions wrung from Nixon an admission of wrongdoing and the apology sought by Reston; 45 million viewers got a ringside seat at the spectacle of Nixon impeaching himself. Reston's intelligent, passionate memoir shows how "the most-watched public affairs program" in television history helped prevent a Nixon comeback, as he had most famously achieved in his 1952 Checkers speech. After the interviews aired in 1977, there would be no more comebacks. ยท

-- Matthew Dallek is an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.

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