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Context of 'March 23, 1977: Nixon’s Initial Interview with Frost Full of ‘Bitterness and Schmaltz’'

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The research team for David Frost, in the midst of marathon interviews with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976), has a week to prepare for the upcoming four-hour interview sessions on Watergate (see April 6, 1977).
Countering the 'Other Presidents Did It, Too' Defense - Researcher James Reston Jr. tackles Frost’s possible response to what Reston feels will be Nixon’s last line of defense: that what he did was simply another instance in a long line of presidential misconduct. “Nixon nearly persuaded the American people that political crime was normal,” investigative reporter Jack Anderson had told Nixon biographer Fawn Brodie, a line that haunts Reston. Brodie gives Reston a study commissioned by the House Judiciary Committee (see February 6, 1974) and authored primarily by eminent Yale historian C. Vann Woodward, a study examining the history of presidential misdeeds from George Washington through Nixon. The study was never used. Brodie says that Frost should quote the following from Woodward’s introduction to Nixon: “Heretofore, no president has been proved to be the chief coordinator of the crime and misdemeanor charged against his own administration as a deliberate course of conduct or plan. Heretofore, no president has been held to be the chief personal beneficiary of misconduct in his administration or of measures taken to destroy or cover up evidence of it. Heretofore, the malfeasance and misdemeanor have had no confessed ideological purposes, no constitutionally subversive ends. Heretofore, no president has been accused of extensively subverting and secretly using established government agencies to defame or discredit political opponents and critics, to obstruct justice, to conceal misconduct and protect criminals, or to deprive citizens of their rights and liberties. Heretofore, no president had been accused of creating secret investigative units to engage in covert and unlawful activities against private citizens and their rights.” Frost will ultimately not use the quote, but the quote helps Reston and the other researchers steer their course in preparing Frost’s line of questioning.
Frost Better Prepared - As for Frost, he is much more prepared for his interrogation of Nixon than he has been in earlier sessions, prepped for discussing the details of legalities such as obstruction of justice, corrupt endeavor, and foreseeable consequence. Nixon undoubtedly thwarted justice from being served, and Frost intends to confront him with that charge. Reston worries that the interview will become mired in legalities to the point where only lawyers will gain any substantive information from the session. [Reston, 2007, pp. 112-114]

Entity Tags: James Reston, Jr, Richard M. Nixon, Jack Anderson, Fawn Brodie, C. Vann Woodward, David Frost, House Judiciary Committee

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Time magazine cover from May 9, 1977 touting the Frost/Nixon interviews.Time magazine cover from May 9, 1977 touting the Frost/Nixon interviews. [Source: Time]Former President Richard Nixon meets with his interviewer, David Frost, for the first of several lengthy interviews (see Early 1976). The interviews take place in a private residence in Monarch Bay, California, close to Nixon’s home in San Clemente. One of Frost’s researchers, author James Reston Jr., is worried that Frost is not prepared enough for the interview. The interview is, in Reston’s words, a rather “free-form exercise in bitterness and schmaltz.”
Blaming Associates, Justifying Actions, Telling Lies - Nixon blames then-chief of staff H. R. Haldeman for not destroying the infamous White House tapes (see July 13-16, 1973), recalls weeping with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger over his resignation, and blames his defense counsel for letting him down during his impeachment hearings (see February 6, 1974). His famously crude language is no worse than the barracks-room speech of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he asserts. Frost shows a film of Nixon’s farewell address to the nation (see August 8, 1974), and observes that Nixon must have seen this film many times. Never, Nixon says, and goes on to claim that he has never listened to or watched any of his speeches, and furthermore had never even practiced any of his speeches before delivering them. It is an astonishing claim from a modern politician, one of what Nixon biographer Fawn Brodie calls “Unnecessary Nixon Lies.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 81-91] (In a 1974 article for Harper’s, Geoffrey Stokes wrote that, according to analysis of transcripts of Nixon’s infamous Watergate tape recordings by a Cornell University professor, Nixon spent nearly a third of his time practicing both private and public statements, speeches, and even casual conversations.) [Harper's, 10/1974]
Nixon Too Slippery for Frost? - During the viewing of the tape, Nixon’s commentary reveals what Reston calls Nixon’s “vanity and insecurity, the preoccupation with appearance within a denial of it.” After the viewing, Nixon artfully dodges Frost’s attempt to pin him down on how history will remember him, listing a raft of foreign and domestic achievements and barely mentioning the crimes committed by his administration. “What history will say about this administration will depend on who writes the history,” he says, and recalls British prime minister Winston Churchill’s assertion that history would “treat him well… [b]ecause I intend to write it.”
Reactions - The reactions of the Frost team to the first interview are mixed. Reston is pleased, feeling that Nixon made some telling personal observations and recollections, but others worried that Frost’s soft questioning had allowed Nixon to dominate the session and either evade or filibuster the tougher questions. Frost must assert control of the interviews, team members assert, must learn to cut Nixon off before he can waste time with a pointless anecdote. Frost must rein in Nixon when he goes off on a tangent. As Reston writes, “The solution was to keep the subject close to the nub of fact, leaving him no room for diversion or maneuver.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 81-91]

Entity Tags: Geoffrey Stokes, David Frost, Fawn Brodie, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, James Reston, Jr, Henry A. Kissinger, Richard M. Nixon, H.R. Haldeman

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

After 14 hours (of the allotted 24) of the Nixon/Frost interviews (see Early 1976), most of the Frost research team feels that former President Richard Nixon has gotten the best of interviewer David Frost. Nixon has largely been allowed to expound at length on his many self-proclaimed triumphs in foreign policy until the last few sessions, and except for brief moments where Frost tried to corner Nixon over his Vietnam and Cambodia policies, Nixon has escaped with his reputation not only untarnished, but likely even somewhat burnished.
Frost Enabling Nixon's Resurrection? - After the day’s interview (see April 6, 1977), many on Frost’s research team lambast him for not pressing the point that Nixon’s arguments contravene almost everything the US stands for. (One television technician wisecracks after the first round of interviews, “If he keeps talking like that, I may vote for him.”) Team member Robert Zelnick tells Frost, “You sound like two old chums, sitting around a pork barrel, talking about a bowling game, rather than about the incredible divisiveness that Nixon himself deliberately caused.” Frost defends himself by saying that Nixon “admitted what we wanted him to,” but Zelnick retorts: “But how is the audience to know? You have to state the opposite view.” Frost’s producer John Birt adds: “Sniping at him is not good enough anymore. The absurdity of his position must be underlined. If you don’t respond to the absurdity, then it appears as if you not only accept his view, but endorse it.” Frost’s afternoon session with Nixon is more challenging, and later some observers categorize the Huston Plan interview as, in the words of author James Reston Jr., “the most damaging period in all the Nixon interviews” (see April 6, 1977).
Intensive Preparation - But Frost’s team is not satisfied. With a week’s break before the next interview, the team decides to push Frost to prepare more intensively for the upcoming Watergate interview sessions. Reston will later note that the Watergate sessions “had to be solid gold. Otherwise the series was dead—commercially as well as substantively. Did Frost realize the jeopardy we were in now? Worse than that: if Nixon’s guilt and his authoritarian impulses were not clearly demonstrated, Frost would take an equivalent position in the history of television to that of Nixon in the history of politics. The epitaph would read, He paid $1 million for Nixon’s resurrection.[Time, 5/30/1977; Reston, 2007, pp. 102-105]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, James Reston, Jr, Robert Zelnick, David Frost, John Birt

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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