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Tuesday, 4 October 2011

David Frost and Richard Nixon

I watched the Watergate section of the Richard Nixon interview he gave to David Frost in 1977. With his legal training, Nixon did a reasonable job but he found it impossible to convincing rebuke the claim that he was involved in the cover-up. As I watched him twist and turn I wondered why he agreed to give an interview that clearly showed he had been involved in illegal activity that should have meant that he ended up in prison.

To introduce the Frost-Nixon debate, Frost was interviewed by Joan Bakewell. She asked the obvious question: “Why did Nixon agree to do the interview?” Frost replied that Nixon needed the money. Frost was involved in competing with several other news broadcasters. Nixon was trying to get an agreement for an interview that did not involve a discussion of Watergate. Under these terms, the most he was offered was $400,000. Frost offered $600,000 (over $2 million in today’s money) and a 20 percent share of any profits, if he was willing to discuss Watergate. Nixon agreed because he considered Frost a lightweight interviewer who would not know enough about the case.

This was a miscalculation. Frost had been a brilliant student at Cambridge University, who had a deep interest in politics. He also recruited James Reston, Jr. and Bob Zelnick to evaluate the Watergate minutiae prior to the interview.

The interviews began on March 23, 1977 and lasted 12 days. Frost lured Nixon into a false sense of security by interviewing Nixon for 24 hours without mentioning Watergate. In these sessions he gave him an easy time and allowed Nixon to boast about his contribution to world peace. However, in the final six hour session, his questioning revealed details of a previously unknown conversation between Nixon and Charles Colson. This clearly unsettled Nixon and Frost was able to go in for the kill.

The episode on Watergate, broadcast on 4th May, 1977, was watched by 45 million people. A Gallup poll conducted after the interview showed that 69 percent of the public thought that Nixon was still trying to cover up, 72 percent still thought he was guilty of obstruction of justice, and 75 percent thought he deserved no further role in public life.

Frost was asked by Bakewell why he had been willing to take such a dangerous risk by talking on television about Watergate. Frost, once again returned to the subject of money. Frost had been told by Nixon’s chief of staff and confidant, Jack Brennan, that Nixon feared that some of the people who had gone to prison over Watergate, would sue him when they were released. Frost added that this surprisingly did not happen. Of course, it didn’t. Nixon needed the money to stop them from talking. It was not only the burglars who needed “hush money”.

By the way, during the interview he admitted that the break-in might have been botched on purpose. He added that he suspected that the CIA had been behind the operation.