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Profile: John Birt
John Birt was a participant or observer in the following events:
Publicity photo for the Frost/Nixon interviews. [Source: London Times]British interviewer and entertainer David Frost makes a deal with former President Richard Nixon to undertake 24 hours of interviews on a wide range of topics, with six hours each on foreign policy, domestic affairs, Watergate, and a loosely defined “Nixon the Man” interview. Frost intends that the centerpiece of the interviews to be the Watergate session. Nixon agrees to a free, unfettered set of interviews in return for over a million dollars in appearance fees. [Reston, 2007, pp. 13-17] (Other sources say that Nixon will be paid $600,000 plus 20% of the profits from the broadcast, which are expected to top $2 million.)
Frost Seen as Unlikely Interviewer - There is also considerable skepticism about the choice of Frost as an interviewer; he is better known as a high-living entertainer who likes to hobnob with celebrities rather than as a tough interrogator. His primary experience with politics is his hosting of the BBC’s celebrated 1960s satirical show That Was the Week That Was. Frost outbid NBC for the rights to interview Nixon, and after all three American television networks refuse to air the shows, Frost has to cobble together an ad hoc group of about 140 television stations to broadcast the interviews. Frost will recall in 2007, “We were told, ‘Half the companies you’re approaching would never have anything to do with Nixon when he was president, and the other half are trying to make people forget that they did.’” [Time, 5/9/1977; Washington Post, 4/30/2007] Interestingly, when the Nixon team began negotiating for the interviews in July 1975, they made a point of not wanting any “real” investigative journalists to conduct the interviews—in fact, they considered offering the interviews to American television talk show host Merv Griffin. [Time, 5/9/1977] The interviews are to be done in segments, three sessions a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for two weeks in the spring of 1977. [National Public Radio, 6/17/2002]
Nixon Team Wants Focus Away from Watergate - While Nixon agrees that six hours of interviews will be on the topic of Watergate, his team wants to define “Watergate” as almost anything and everything negative about the Nixon presidency—not just the burglary and the cover-up, but abuses of power at the IRS, CIA, and FBI, Nixon’s tax problems, the Ellsberg break-in (see September 9, 1971), disputed real estate sales, the sale of ambassadorships (see March-April 1972), the enemies list (see June 27, 1973), and the Huston Plan (see July 14, 1970). The hope is that Frost’s focus will become diluted and fail to focus on the Watergate conspiracy itself. The hope will not be fulfilled (see April 13-15, 1977).
Frost's Investigative Team - Frost begins hiring a team of investigators and experts to prepare him for the interviews, including author and journalist James Reston Jr. [Time, 5/9/1977] , a self-described “radical” who had worked to win amnesty for US citizens who had avoided the draft, and views Nixon as a contemptible figure who, despite his resignation (see August 8, 1974), remains “uncontrite and unconvicted.” [Chicago Sun-Times, 7/22/2007] Other members of Frost’s research team are Washington journalist and lawyer Robert Zelnick, freelance writer Phil Stanford, and London TV news executive John Birt, who will produce the interviews. Zelnick will play Nixon in the briefing sessions, going so far as mimicking Nixon’s mannerisms and hand gestures. For his part, Nixon had almost completed his own meticulous research of his presidency for his upcoming memoirs, and is quite conversant with his facts and defense strategies. Nixon’s team of aides includes his former White House military aide Colonel Jack Brennan, chief researcher Ken Khachigian, former speechwriter Ray Price, former press assistant (and future television reporter) Diane Sawyer, and former aide Richard Moore. [Time, 5/9/1977]
Nixon's Perceived 'Sweetheart Deal' - In his 2007 book on the interviews, The Conviction of Richard Nixon (written largely in 1977 but unpublished for thirty years), Reston will write that Nixon surely “saw the enterprise as a sweetheart deal. He stood to make a lot of money and to rehabilitate his reputation.” Nixon harbors hopes that he can make a political comeback of one sort or another, and apparently intends to use Frost—best known for conducting “softball” interviews with celebrities and world leaders alike—as his “springboard” to re-enter public service. But, as Reston later observes, Nixon will underestimate the researchers’ efforts, and Frost’s own skill as a television interviewer. [Reston, 2007, pp. 13-17, 84] Time will describe Nixon in the interviews as “painful and poignant, sometimes illuminating, usually self-serving.” [Time, 5/9/1977]
Entity Tags: NBC, Phil Stanford, Merv Griffin, Richard Moore, Ray Price, Ken Khachigian, James Reston, Jr, Richard M. Nixon, John Birt, David Frost, Jack Brennan, Robert Zelnick, Diane Sawyer
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]
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