As much as television loves Reagan, that's how much it hated Nixon, but he was always good TV just the same, the way "Dynasty" and wrestling matches are. He was our first camp president. And he's still camping it up tonight in a new 15-minute interview with Barbara Walters to be seen on ABC's "20/20," at 10 on Channel 7.
"You know, I watch a little more television than I used to," Nixon says to Walters. "It's not my favorite medium. (Chuckle, chuckle.) And I'm not their favorite." He goes on to excoriate television journalists for serving up an "orgy" of "hand-wringing about Vietnam," in which viewers saw "these happy Vietnamese women, girls, riding their bicycles through Ho Chi Minh City, and we hear how wonderful it is there, and so forth."
In fact there were reports on all three networks that took pains to point out the high level of poverty and low level of economic development in postwar Vietnam. Nobody seemed to be saying it was a paradise. Nixon forges on, though, calling video impressions of Vietnam "intellectual junk food" and then serving up a plateful himself, that old chestnut about how the television medium "is not one that allows for the kind of, really, consideration and depth that we need."
And so on and so on and blah blah blah, except when Nixon says it, one does feel a puckish inclination to pay attention, and Walters does push the buttons that keep him going. Calling the Bitburg mess "a tragedy of errors," Nixon tells Walters chummily, "Well, I must say, I made my mistakes, as we're quite aware (chortle, chortle), and ones that were much more devastating from a personal standpoint than this is going to be to President Reagan."
Nixon's celebrated (largely by him) expertise on foreign policy matters can get chillingly flippant. "Without the Germans," he says, "there is no way you could hold the line in western Europe. No way. Unless you nuke 'em." Nixon loves to be asked statesmanly questions; he rewards Walters by condescendingly calling her "a very tough questioner."
Noting somewhat churlishly that he and Mrs. Nixon "have not been invited to a social engagement" at the White House since the three living ex-presidents convened there on the way to Sadat's funeral, Nixon quickly adds, "But I don't think it's any affront." Momentarily responding to personal questions, Nixon suggests that his wife's health, despite her two strokes, is not as poor as rumor would have it.
Nixon predicts that Mario Cuomo will be the Democratic nominee in 1988 and says of Teddy Kennedy, "Well, I know that he's slimming down again for a race, but the trouble is, he's running in the wrong direction. He is the last hurrah of the old Democratic establishment. I don't think he's going to make it." Nixon advises Gary Hart to "warm up" -- hey, get him! The spectre of this icy old ghost with something of a credibility problem tossing off that kind of advice really is the ultimate in loco rococo.
And an ominous ghost, too: "I'm afraid this is going to disappoint all of my enemies out there, because I'm afraid I'm going to out-live them." And a self-parodistical ghost: "Let me make one thing clear . . ."
From New York yesterday, Walters called her latest encounter with Nixon "a sort of mellow interview," one that she conducted in Nixon's office "behind an unmarked door" in a lower Broadway building.
"He tries to be friendly," Walters said. "When we were done taping, he called me in to chat for about 15 minutes. He told us a funny joke that had a four-letter word in it. He wants to be friendly. He really does. The last time we did an interview in the studio, he sat around for three-quarters of an hour afterward swapping stories with the stagehands."
Does she think Nixon a male chauvinist? There was a long pause. Then Walters said no, she didn't think he was any more of one than other members of his generation. "He tries to make 'nice,' " she said.
The interview came about because Walters beseeched Nixon, not the other way around, she said. "We tried to get him at the time of the conventions and he said, 'No no no no no.' " After it was set up, Walters agreed to be scooped by her colleague Ted Koppel for a "Nightline" interview last week, on the stipulation that Nixon talk to Koppel only about Vietnam. Koppel gave tonight's Walters interview a generous plug on "Nightline." One thing they know how to do at ABC News is plug ABC News.
"Nixon never seeks to be on television," Walters said yesterday. "He did not pursue us. And he is exciting to have on. We do him every four or five years, and he's never dull." No indeed. Why if the nickname hadn't already been attached to Milton Berle, Richard Nixon would surely have earned it: "Mr. Television." Monsieur Nixon and Madame La Tube make one of the world's most entertaining incompatible marriages.