Now we know Richard Nixon has confessed. He is guilty, not as charged, not as he is so widely believed to be by so many, not as the master conspiration plotting his crimes but as an old friend betrayed. He is guilty of a kind heart.
That, in essence, is what Nixon offered by way of explanation, if not defense, last night. he entered our living rooms again after an absence (not coincidentally) of a thousand days to the accompaniment of drums, literal and figurative - the drums of intense publicity and the sound of drums signaling his return on camera.
Then he proceeded, for the next 90 minutes, to give us all the familiar Nixon responses we have all seen for more than a generation. Those advance reports about Nixon being broken - or shattered or even shaken by the withering interrogation of David Frost are in error. Nixon is in control trhoughout. He offers little that is new, and less that is of substance.
Richard Nixon last night stirred all the old memories, and employed all the old devices. He evoked #99:[WORD ILLEGIBLE] echoes of his Checkers speech, and of countless. Nixon performances over the years since then:
He was tolerant about his enemies those in the press, and the Congress and the country who have hounded him for so long. He understand that there was a "Fifth Column" in his term, out to bring him down. And who knows what the CIA was really doing be wondered aloud.
He was willing to admit mistakes, and more than his share. He wasn't vigilant enough, he hadn't moved aggressively.
But he didn't commit any crimes. He didn't commit any impeachable offenses. He didn't participate in an obstruction of justice. Not in his view at least. What he did was done in the best interests of his friends - and, in the end, of his country.
He had impeached himself, he explained. He had taken that historic step of resigning to spare the nation the agony of having a President in the deck of the Senate for six months.
He had a deep regret about it all. But he wasn't going to blame anybody else. He was going to take it like a man. If "they" wanted him to get down and grovel on the floor - well, that wasn't the way of Richard Nixon. "No," he said as formerally as he could. And then quickly, he added an even stronger "Never."
At the beginning of the TV program, David Frost steps forward with a prologue about Nixon's fall, which he correctly calls the most dramatic in our political history. Then he asks: Why? What went wrong with the Nixon presidency? How did the grand design get mixed-up with domestic abuses, great and petty?"
We don't learn the answers to those questions. But who really thought we would?
What we see instead is something else it is a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] picture that hashes across our TV screens. There is the former President of the United States, parrying questions about criminality with rationalizations almost his real motives, his real intent, and all for the price of what probably will be a million dollar deal
The Nixon we see looks remarkably unchaged. His jowls are more pronounced, his voice tones even deeper than remembered, but he shows scarce evidence of the scars he carries. He comes on somber, seious, a study in blue, but poised and ready. The only traces of changes are in his speaking delivery: he slurs his words at times, he stammers more often. Uh, uh, uh, and ah, ah, ah are heard throughout.
What remains notably the same is Nixon's manner. He plays for sympathy, and he uses all the techniques of his long and stormy past.
Nixon takes us back to Dwight Eisenhower's time, and equates Ike's troubles with Sherman Adams with his over Watergate.
To this viewer, the most fascinating moment in the show comes as Nixon shifts the blame from himself to his most trusted aides, H. R. Hademan and John Ehrlichman. He kills them with kindess and high unction.
"I didn't want to have them sacked as Eisenhowever sacked Adams," he says, after saying how heart-rending that experience was for him personally.
He recalls, with solemn mien, how Henry Petersen, the Justice Department prosecutor, had told him he must fire them. Oh, no, he can't, they've got to have a chance to prove their innocence, they say they're not guilty, Nixon says he replied. And then, approvingly, he tells us that Petersen says that act speaks well for him as a man but not as a President.
"And, in retrospect, I guess he was right," Nixon responds, "So, it took me two weeks to work it out, tortuous long sessions. You've got hours and hours of talks with the, which they resisted. We don't need to go through all that agony."
He recites the subsequent emotion of telling his aides they must go. It's at Camp David, the tulips are out, the tears are flowing.
They agreed to leave. Nixon tells us, and then, in his defense, "so it was late, but I did it. I cut off one arm and then cut off the other arm."
Yet he carefully lets us know that he believes them guilty. In the single most arresting passage of the interview, Nixon says:
"Now, I can be faulted, I recognize it. Maybe I defended them too long; maybe I tried to help them too much, but I was concerned about their families. I felt that they in their hearts felt they were not guilty. I felt they ought to have a chance at least to prove that they were not guilty, and I didn't want to be in the positions of just sawing them off in that way."
Then, his peroration;
"And, I suppose you could sum it all up the way one of your British prime ministers summed it up, Gladstone, when he said that 'the first requirement fro a prime minister is to be a good butcher.' Well, I think the great story as far as summary of Watergate is concerned, I ah, I did some of the big things rather well. I screwed up terribly in what was a little thing, and it became a big thing."
At this point Richard Nixon delivers his own epitaph.
"But I will have to admit," he says, "I wasn't a good butcher."
After all the testimony, all the tapes, all the years of division and scandal and acrimony, that's what Watergate comes down to him. He wasn't a ruthless enough butcher to carve up his friends.
Throughout his first televised interview Nixon comes over as basically at ease. He wears the mantle of the experienced elder stateman, wronged, misunderstood, given to mistakes, but not about to demean himself by descending to the level of his enemies. He does, of course, let us know who those enemies are.
With an air of weary resignation, he confesses to having made some misleading statements. But in the next breath he sticks in his knife:
"Ah, I notice for example, the editor of The Washington Post, the managing edior, Ben Bradlee, wrote a couple a three months ago, something to the effect that, ah, as far as his newspaper was concerned, he said, 'We don't print the truth. We print, ah, what we know. We print what people tell us, ah, ah, and this means that we print lies.'"
The statements he himself made were, he tells us, "on the big issues, true." He concedes really only this: "the statements were misleading in exaggerating (because of the enormous political attack I was under."
Last night's program was billed as a dramatic and historic encounter between Nixon and his opponent, the relentless David Frost. It was nothing of the sort. Frost's manner was laconic and low-keyed throughout. He did ask his questions, but he seemed almost diffident in doing so. And at times Frost seemed caught up in Nixon's own responses, even to the point of unwittingly helping.
Near the end, after Nixon admits to about as much as he will concede - Frost interjects:
"You got caught up in something . . ."
"Yeah." Nixon replies.
". . . and then it snowballed," Frost added.
Richard Nixon picks up that gift without a missing beat.
'It snowballed',' he says.
By the very end of the program, Frost looks as though he's swept up by the Nixon responses. After Nixon describes the maudlin scene where he and the others from Congress vent their emotions on the day he resigns. Frost appears drained emotionally. It's Frost who seems to need the reassurance.
"This has, ah . . .' this has been more -" he begins, fumbling for words.
In the ultimate irony of the evening, it's Richard Nixon who comes to David Frost's defense.
"Been tough for you?" Nixon says, smiling a bit.
Frost, stammering answers: "Well, no, but I was going to say that, ah, I feel we've . . .
Again, Nixon speaks up confidently. "Covered a lot of ground," he says.
". . . Been though life almost, rather an interview," Frost says in tones of awe.
The tables have been turned. Frost had met his match. But then no one ever claimed David Frost had more experience at that sort of thing than Richard Nixon. CAPTION: Picture 1 through 4, no caption, Photos from [WORD ILLEGIBLE]