Richard M. Nixon faces another crisis this week, one of his own making and one from which he profits personally. He returns to public view Wednesday night in the first of a series of televised interviews with David Frost and answers carefully plotted questions about his Watergate role.
Frost's clear strategy, as shown in internal memoranda and preliminary scripts of the Watergate show obtained by The Washington Post, was deliberately to confront Nixon with new and damaging information. The program is designed to lead Nixon on and trap him into admissions of guilt or at least concessions of error. Nixon is reported to be receiving $650,000 for his interviews.
"We looked upon the Watergate taping as the trial Nixon never had," said Robert Zelnick, editor-in-chief of the Frost production team. "We tried to look at ourselves as senior litigation partners in a law firm. But we knew we could ask questions and draw legal conclusions at times that a prosecutor can't draw in court. We knew we could use certain internal legal analyses and blast him with it. We were in close touch, you know, with many of the people who had prosecuted the Watergate trials."
How well Frost's plan works will not be known until Wednesday. But the way the program was put together belies earlier published reports about it being a "soft" encounter.
There is also nothing soft about the merchandising of the Nixon program. It's hard-sell all the way. As Nixon prepares to enter our living rooms via TV for the first time after nearly three years of exile, his appearance already is generating headlines, news leaks and cover stories.
Out in California, Time Magazine has the inside track, but Newsweek magazine is standing close by. One of Time's reporters, John Stacks, has had access to the inner workings of the show. He reportedly is being given advance Nixon material. Newsweek, show sources say, also will get a share of the tidbits. And Mike Wallace of CBS's "60 Minutes" also has been given an inside look, it is said.
As an exercise in media hype, Nixon's emergence from the shadows of San Clemente is a classic in the genre of promotion.
Yet, according to the available evidence and the words of the program principals, the Frost effort has been an intensely serious one - both in strategy and content.
Those working on the program plotted, researched, uncovered new material, delved into his background, explored questions about his sex life, compiled a personal "psychohistory," talked to doctors, psychiatrists, pyschohistorians, and interviewed a host of familiar names from the Watergate period. John Dean and Fred Buzhardt, Bob Woodward and Lawrence Higby were among them.
From that material, and from the lines of questioning suggested by many of those principal Watergate actors, emerged the strategy of trying to trap Nixon.
For instance: Frost's Watergate script draft, obtained by The Post, carefully spells out a series of suggested questions. Frost is urged to pursue a relentless string of questions on subject after subject. On the notorious 18 1/2-minute gap in a critical Watergate tape, the questions flow briskly: Did Nixon erase that tape? Didn't he discuss other criminal activities on that tape? Does he mean that his aides erased the tape? And so on.
But if none of these questions clicits a satisfactory response, the script advises this course for Frost:
"Assuming the worst, that Richard offers no explanation for the 18 1/2 minutes, and that further he maintains that he had no interest this early in a cover-up, David will keep the following as a final back-up: His excerpts from another conversation on June 20, this time with Charles Colson, and these comments have never been made public. It shows Nixon talking about 'stonewalling' for the first time, and about 'leaving this where it is: with the Cubans.'"
The scriptwriter then instructs Frost:
"This is a trap for Nixon, and should be sprung deftly."
The Colson-Nixon conversations were among previously undisclosed transcripts the Frost staff uncovered.
Not the least of the fascination with the way the programs were fashioned concerns the private advice given by a number of Watergate era principals.
All of those interviews by the Frost staff supposedly were to be kept confidential. The staff itself was asked to sign confidentiality clauses. Not surprisingly, that "private" material is leaking.
Some of those interviews offer an ironic commentary. John Dean, for one.
The memo about Dean's interview of last December begins:
"John Dean has the air of a television personally now. He's deeply tanned and well dressed and surrounded by literary agents and television producers."
When Frost's staff asked Dean what he would ask Nixon now, the reply was immediate:
"Dean answered that he would like to be in our shoes. That rather than a friendly chat with Nixon, he would like to be his interrogator."
Last summer, during lunch with two members of the Watergate prosecution staff, Richard Ben Veniste and George Frampton, the Frost researchers were told:
"By way of general advice on Nixon interrogation, Frampton suggested the technique of placing the worst construction on the facts of Watergate as we know them and then devising a line of questioning intended to disclose the truth."
And: "Ben Veniste also noted that a classic lawyer questioning or interrogation technique was to embody insinuations and questions. Example: Mr. Nixon, is there any question in your mind that the money was being used to buy silence? When did you first become aware that the money was being used to buy silence?"
With Philip A. Lacovara, also of the prosecution staff:
"On taxes, he recalled that Nixon said . . . he would voluntarily pay the IRS $400,000 on one year and $300,000 on another (back taxes) and thought it would be interesting to hear what Nixon has to say on why he has not done that."
With Higby, Haldeman's former assistant:
"Higby felt Watergate program was potential for significant journalism if we do not let Nixon talk (he states Nixon is a good talker) but do some interspersing and reporting on goings on at the time in the White House and Congress. He said [House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W.] Rodino was simply the dupe for Phil Burton who was really running the impeachment hearings and Tip O'Neill, and that we should trace motivations."
With Buzhardt, Nixon's former counsel:
"Nixon was a man who always put on a great front, to Buzhardt. While the tapes reveal indecisiveness, vacillation, in other situations, not Watergate-related, he could be decisive and incisive. Not that in his decisive mood he was always admirable. He often put up a hard front but after he lost his temper and came down hard on people, he could be compassionate afterwards."
Among other interviews were those with Dr. David Abrahamsen, author of a book "Nixon vs. Nixon," and Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, who had treated Nixon off and on begining in 1952, and Fawn Brodie, the writer now working on a psychobiography of Nixon.
Abrahamsen and Brodie both told the Frost interviewer, James Reston Jr., a program editor, that Nixon was the most complicated man they had studied. Brodie helped form suggested questions for the show.
"Any material that David could induce on the wellsprings of this man," her interview account reads, "his father and mother, his daughters, and particularly the early crises during Nixon's life such as the death of his two brothers would be enormously valuable to all future biographies of Nixon."
The description of Dr. Abrahamsen's advice says:
"When we delve into the enemies list, Abrahamsen suggests that you ask the question:
"'Mr. President, who in your life do you feel was your greatest enemy?'
"And that we have in our own mind that the answer is Nixon himself."
From Dr. Hutschnecker came a more circumspect word. Reston's memo of his interview with the doctor says:
"Still in the abstract, Hutschnecker talked of political leaders, at the peak of power, who have 'neurotic ambition,' who have 'no clarity about themselves,' 'no self-worth or self-esteem.' He talked of how power can be a substitute for what is lacking in a political man's personal life."
In preparing for the interviews, Frost and his aides held mock sessions, running through the line of questions, attempting to guess how Nixon himself would answer.
"David would throw the question sequence we had figured out at me," Zelnick recalled, "and I would answer in the way I thought Nixon would - in some cases using the exact sentence and sequence of words I thought he might.
"Sometimes my arguments would be so persuasive that David would say, 'I don't know to respond to that argument,' so we would drop the question. I had done so much work on this project that I could almost think like Nixon."
The preliminary Watergate script itself, drafted by Reston, contains judgments on how Nixon would respond as well as doubts about certain areas.
"It is difficult to predict what Nixon will say in response to questions about the final days," the script says. "It will all be fascinating and, handled properly, it could be poignant.
"This will be the climax of the program and perhaps of the whole series, and David should cherish the opportunity and think about how it can be best handled. In the first 45 minutes, David must be the withering cross-examiner: in the next 45 minutes, a political buff fascinated by political strategy: in the last 30 minutes, he should be a sympathetic camp follower looking for human material."
Whether Frost turns out to be that "withering cross-examiner" and whether Nixon falls into the traps set for him are stories yet to be told. But you can bet we'll be hearing much more about it before Richard Nixon again drops back into obscurity.