Frost/Nixon: What the NYC Play Gets Wrong (and Right)

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

[Robert Zelnick, professor of journalism at Boston University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, served as executive editor of the original Nixon/Frost interviews.]

With Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan confirms his place as the multi-media master of a strange but engaging genre of fiction. The writer behind such award-season heavyweights as The Queen and The Last King of Scotland--both of which garnered dual Oscar and Golden Globe wins for their respective leading actors--Morgan now tries his hand at a piece of Americana: the Richard Nixon-David Frost interviews of 1977. The play, which opened on Broadway late last month, is a compelling bit of theater. As a work of historical fiction, however, it shows too little allegiance to the facts that inspired it.

Morgan approaches the sessions as a kind of boxing match between two unequal opponents. In one corner, the disgraced though heavily favored former president, buttressed by his chief of staff Col. Jack Brennan and his agent "Swifty" Lazar. In the other corner, British talk-show host David Frost, depicted here as something of a dandy, and his team of researchers. Morgan uses Frost researcher James Reston (Stephen Kunken) and Brennan (Corey Johnson) as narrators, setting the scenes and underlining with commentary the points he wishes to make.

Frost's character is played by Michael Sheen, who has twice done Tony Blair in highly praised interpretations of Morgan's work. Here the collaboration has Frost anguishing over his cancelled American and Australian weekly gigs, and the resulting snub by Sardi's--long a hangout of Broadway celebrities--depriving him of his favorite table. Morgan's Frost is a cheeky playboy, all style and no substance, whose interest in the interviews stems more from ego than intellect.

In contrast, Morgan's Nixon, brought to life by the fine actor Frank Langella, is a lumbering caricature of a man bent and constricted by the weight of personal tragedy. His shoulders sink toward the stage, his "victory" wave is stiff and exaggerated. Under pressure from Frost, the face of Langella's Nixon freezes in an eerie smile, then dissolves into soft clay while a film of saliva glistens on his lower lip. His tortured mien--captured on a wall of TV screens--is a study in humiliation.

So thoroughly does Langella capture the internal life of Richard Nixon that I found myself recalling one point in the original interviews when a damning series of Frost citations of White House transcripts made Nixon's eyelids flutter like the wings of a moth shot through with electric current. Langella does not mimic this Nixon; the physical resemblance between the two is not striking. Instead, Langella finds the essence of the Nixon character and pours it into a physical form which one accepts as Richard Nixon. Even with the final curtain barely down, I had some trouble distinguishing which of my most memorable images of Nixon were those from our sessions 30 years ago versus the creature created by Langella.

In both the real-life interviews and on stage, Frost struggled in his early bouts with Nixon, losing points to long-winded answers and maudlin recollections. But when it came time for Watergate, the underdog came out swinging, piling up points against a Richard Nixon who became more combative and less credible with each blow struck. Did he not join a conspiracy to obstruct justice by ordering aides to approach the CIA about pulling the FBI off the case? No, says Nixon, misstating the law--not if his motive was to keep other embarrassing activities from coming to light.

In the 1977 interviews, Frost pounded this theme for a few minutes and then moved on to other areas of presidential culpability, including the payment of money designed to buy the silence of the Watergate defendants. But in Peter Morgan's re-creation of the confrontation, Nixon offers an additional argument.

Nixon: When you're in office, you have to do a lot of things that are not, in the strictest sense of the law, legal. But you do them because they're in the greater interests of the nation.
Frost: . . . Are you really saying that there are certain situations where the president can decide whether it's in the best interests of the nation and do something illegal?

Nixon: I'm saying that when the president does it, that means it's not illegal.

That response draws a sharp, prolonged laugh from audiences at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on West 45th Street. But in fact, Nixon's assertion of inherent presidential power came not in response to questions about Watergate but three sessions later, when the two were discussing the so-called "second story jobs" briefly authorized by Nixon as part of the Houston Plan to combat attacks on police, banks, campus ROTC facilities, and other targets by groups embracing political violence. Morgan apparently concluded that, transferring Nixon's claim from an area where there was some historical precedent to an area where there was none, would better establish the character of the man he was describing and the underlying political issues as well.

Between sessions, the Frost staff is shown strategizing, bickering, prodding their man to play it hard, not to get pushed around. The Nixon staff--Ken Khachigian, Frank Gannon, and Diane Sawyer (yes, that Diane Sawyer)--is mentioned by name but never shown. That is unfortunate because they, along with speechwriter Ray Price, played a critical role in persuading Nixon that, in order to begin the long climb toward his coveted elder statesman status, he would have to acknowledge his role in the Watergate coverup and apologize to the American people. Morgan not only ignores this community of interest between the two camps but also distorts Jack Brennan's role at a critical moment of the proceedings.

It came as Frost had taken a defensive, nit-picking Nixon and, with skillful questioning, brought him close to accepting responsibility for the Watergate disaster: "I gave them a sword," Nixon acknowledged, "and they stuck it in, and they twisted it with relish, and if I had been in their position I'd have done the same thing." But as Frost remained aggressive, Nixon once more became nit-picky and uncooperative.

Now Morgan has Brennan burst onto the interview set, forcing the startled Frost to take an unscheduled break to "change tape" and allowing Nixon time to confer with Brennan and other aides. The help, however, comes too late. Nixon, according to the narrator, was already like the bull who had "lost the fight, and by implication, the will to live." Within moments he would acknowledge his participation in the Watergate coverup, and apologize to the American people for having let the country down. The event was stamped on Nixon's face, "swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing, and defeat--filling every television screen in the country."

The truth is that Brennan never burst onto the set to stop the interrogation. Instead, he began waving an improvised little placard in Frost's line of vision reading LET HIM TALK. Mistaking the words as LET US TALK Frost called a short halt to the proceedings.

The delay, occasioned by Brennan's effort to get Frost to back off, allowing Nixon time to complete his apologia, wound up working because it gave the Nixon staff time to implore Nixon to go further than he had and for Brennan to urge Frost to be empathetic. The result was one of the most gripping moments in the history of television news, as Nixon finally conceded that he had participated in the coverup and had offered statements from the White House that were, at times, not true.

Yes, said Nixon, "I let the American people down. And I'll have to carry that burden the rest of my life." The pain was stamped on Nixon's face, as Morgan's narrator describes. But the Nixon staff had intervened to help make it happen rather than to block Frost's effort for a full accounting.

Morgan tampers with dates and facts for what appear to be marginal returns. Early in our research, some eight months prior to the interviews, my colleague Jim Reston discovered three previously secret tape transcripts, including a June 20, 1972 meeting between Nixon and his White House political aide, Charles Colson, in which the president describes Howard Hunt and his Cuban Watergate colleagues as "pretty hard-line guys" and says the plan should be "to leave this where it is, with the Cubans"--adding, "At times, I just stonewall it."

A reasonable interpretation of the tape is that it shows Nixon bestowing his blessing on the coverup three days prior to the "smoking gun" conversation with H.R. Haldeman, in which he seeks to have the CIA block the FBI probe. But it most emphatically does not do what Morgan has Frost claim in the fictional play: "You have always maintained that you first learned of the break-in on June the 23rd. This tape clearly shows that to be a falsehood." In fact, Nixon always acknowledged learning of the break-in within hours of its June 17 occurrence while returning with Haldeman from a visit to Key Biscayne. That claim was undisturbed by the new evidence and remains unchallenged to this day.

Further adding to the confusion, in Morgan's fictionalized version of events, the playwright has Reston discovering the new transcripts over Easter, just days before the "last" session on Watergate is scheduled to tape. (In reality, three additional sessions followed the Watergate sessions.) Hovering on the brink of failure, with no relief in sight, Frost is saved by the material, and at the end of the show seems less like a man who rose to meet a challenge than a guy who caught a lucky break.

Having worked with David Frost on the initial interviews, plus two mildly profitable writing ventures over the years, my (perhaps biased) view is that he is easily underestimated--and was certainly underestimated by Richard Nixon. Yes, he could be more selective in his choice of interview subjects; and yes, I was disappointed when, after his long-running Sunday morning interview program was dropped by the BBC, he jumped lovingly into the waiting arms of Al Jazeera. But I have also found him to be well-informed, a voracious reader, a fine writer and editor with a bear-trap memory of past events and conversations. And though charm may have been his weapon of choice in 1977, he was already a skilled interviewer who understood the give-and-take of probing dialogue. Over the years he would report first-hand on mass murder in Bangladesh, starvation in Africa, and the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.

The confession from Nixon--this moment of truth amidst so much subterfuge--was hard fought and hard won. To write Frost out of it is to rewrite history.

Still, Morgan puts the two characters on stunning display, and at times his inventions do elevate not only the drama, but also our understanding of both men. One particularly ingenious creation is a scene where a mildly intoxicated Nixon telephones Frost on the night before their fateful Watergate encounter to lament the inability of either man, despite lives of accomplishment, to win the respect of "them."

And who are "they"? "The smart-asses at college. The high-ups. The well-born," says Nixon. Now they are both down, both seeking the limelight again, brothers under the skin. But, as Frost chirps in, participants in a game only one can win. For the Frost presented by Morgan, the solution to all the world's problems is to have a good day at the office. But to Morgan's Nixon, one's past has already determined one's future, and there is nothing left but hatred, bitterness, hopelessness, self-loathing, rage, and despair, a corruption of the soul so deep as to be beyond redemption.

With Frost having bounced back from some early misadventures to score a decisive triumph, Morgan offers a final political judgment through the lips of Reston: "Despite being buried with full honors in 1994, Richard Nixon never again held public office of any kind, nor achieved the rehabilitation he so desperately craved. Today his name continues to be synonymous with corruption and disgrace, and his most lasting legacy is that any political wrongdoing is immediately given the suffix 'gate.'"

Few political observers in this country would think that assessment tells anywhere near the whole story. Rather, the Frost/Nixon interviews proved cathartic, providing Richard Nixon with the opportunity to acknowledge his role in the Watergate coverup and confess that he had betrayed the trust of the nation. It also gave Americans the opportunity to see him pained, contrite, and unthreatening.

True enough, Nixon never again held public office--hardly a novelty in a nonparliamentary system. But he soon returned from his place of exile in San Clemente and took up residence in the politically brisk environment of New York. Invitations to his dinner parties were cherished. Over a period of 16 years he wrote nine bestsellers, most dealing with profound questions of national security. He spoke to appreciative audiences. His appearances on the prestige network interview programs became routine. He traveled to more than 30 foreign countries. A highly regarded national security think tank in Washington bears his name. His political advice was publicly sought by the likes of Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot, and Bob Dole. His insights on Russia and China were received over lunch at the White House by President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft.

Yes, the term "-gate" is affixed to many a Washington scandal, but often with the help of the Nixonites themselves, a not-entirely-convincing way of treating all executive branch misconduct as no worse than Watergate. Nixon's striking return to public grace eventually encouraged political analysts and scholars to take a fresh look at his presidency--in particular, his moderation on race, his effort to achieve "peace with honor" in Vietnam, the opening to China, and his vital role in converting the South into secure Republican terrain while putting into play white Northern ethnic voters, long a bastion of Democratic strength.

Obstruction of justice and abuse of power still mar the Nixon name and record. But they are far from his complete legacy.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 5/25/2007

Mr. Hughes, the National Archives has among its holdings letters that countless numbers of U.S. citizens sent to President Nixon while he was President. I read (screened) and released to the public many of them when as an archivist, I processed for disclosure the White Central Files (Presidential) Trips document collection. The letters came from communities throughout the nation which the President visited between 1969 and 1974. They provide an interesting look (as yet untapped by historians) into the minds of voters. I saw nothing in those released letters that suggested that any force of the type you describe could have swayed how individual citizens viewed Mr. Nixon or would have changed how they voted. Indeed, I saw some very touching letters of support for the President even during his last year in office. Come to think of it, my sister and I sent him such letters of support. As I've noted elsewhere, I interviewed for a job with the Nixon White House in September 1973.

As to Nixon's aides, their later reactions to what they did during Watergate were not uniform. As I've noted elsewhere, I best know H. R. Haldeman, a man I came to like and respect, although John W. Dean and John D. Ehrlichman also visited us at NARA's Nixon Presidential Materials Project.

I can only speak to the issue of perjury from the perspective of someone who once gave sworn testimony in a lawsuit in my capacity as a federal employee. It never occurred to me to lie. I cannot picture committing perjury in discussing the work I did as an archivist, even when facing tough questions from a President's lawyer, as I did in 1992.

However, I've come to realize that there are many psychological complications that can affect the mission of a nonpartisan, objective Federal agency such as the NARA. That includes how the public views NARA. I saw some of that in public discussions of the Sandy Berger matter. (As it happens, I know the official who worked with Berger when he visited NARA in 2002 and 2003. The woman who worked with Berger and I overlapped by one year in our NARA careers.)

As to public perceptions, Shankar Vedantam runs a column in the Washington Post called the Department of Human Behavior. He recently discussed how psychologists describe the way that people often apply situational or dispositional explanations to actions taken by others. See

Reading such columns helps me to understand why there has been so little informed discussion anywhere, even in professional forums, of why the Berger incident occurred, why it has been difficult to release Nixon's records, and how to help NARA carry out its mission. It is a very hard mission to explain or to gain advocacy for. It's easy for human beings to understand why a person opposes or supports an ideology or a policy or an individual who represents a partisan position. Ask people to consider how to ensure nonpartisan, proper handling of Presidential records and to consider all the human complications that might hinder NARA's ability to carry out its mission and you're likely to draw a blank look. That's one reason I've come to believe that only time can remove the emotions that surround a President and his records while he still is alive.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/25/2007

I think a great disservice is done to many Watergate players by historians who fail to set the Watergate scandal in the context of the 1972 election--which is to say by most of them. It was not an ordinary election because the Democratic challenger was something of a revolutionary and perceived by many of us to be very far out on the left. Nixon had an enormous lead throughout the campaign, but the power of the liberal media could have--with a gigantic feeding frenzy--tipped the victory to McGovern, had the cover-up not been successful. Accordingly, I will always believe that some who perjured themselves in the Watergate affair did so more to save America from George McGovern than to demonstrate loyalty to Dick Nixon.

Maarja Krusten - 5/21/2007

No author of a book or play to date has captured the Richard Nixon whom I know. I spent 14 years as a federal archivist, listening to thousands of hours of his White House tapes to determine what could be released to the public. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released only 63 hours of those tapes during Nixon’s lifetime.

To date, except for a few segments dealing with Watergate, NARA has yet to release portions of tapes covering the period November 1972 to July 1973. To write his recent book, Robert Dallek had to turn to other sources, such as materials from Henry Kissinger and documents at NARA, to give his take on Nixon. I cannot predict how much the Archives will open of those unreleased tapes. That uncertainty is Nixon’s archival legacy.

Revealing what is in a President’s records can humanize him, displaying a more nuanced picture than the cartoonish image often painted by political opponents. Lyndon Johnson’s recorded conversations show how he struggled with tough issues during the Vietnam War. Scholars and history buffs gain from exposure to the human side of the people who occupy the White House. But the disclosure mandate handed to NARA by federal records statutes is so hollow, it is nearly impossible to carry out as written.

I once argued for more independence for the Archives so it could comply with presidential records statutes. During the past year or so I have started wondering whether the Archives can open the records of any President if he opposes release while he is alive. The power imbalance is so great, should it even try?

The creators of records are ill equipped to leave the shelter of loyal aides and to face historical accountability. Many fear disclosures from their archival materials. Fear can lead to what it often leads to -- bullying. Archivists face pressure alone in an insular environment. There is no sunlight and while I once thought otherwise, little chance that a window will be opened on archival processes.

Although it is staffed and managed by historians, the National Archives can tell little of its own story. A former U.S. Archivist once told me, “NARA faces enormous political pressure but it never admits that it does.” People on the outside (scholars, journalists) who might rap on the window, asking that it be opened, seem afraid or reluctant to do so.

Yet historical disclosures should not be affected by fear -- there is too much at stake. The best way to remove fear from the process may be to tell historians, you will have to wait a long time before the release of records. If that means that during their lifetimes, Presidents do what Nixon did, trying to shape their legacies while records remain unreleased, so be it. Better that they explain themselves in TV interviews, write their own books, act as elder statesmen, than fight overmatched and isolated federal archivists.

In 1992, Stanley Kutler sued the National Archives for access to Nixon’s Watergate tapes. Acting on behalf of Dr. Kutler, Public Citizen discovered that my colleagues and I had reviewed all 3,700 hours of Nixon’s conversations. Public Citizen drew on internal NARA documents to demonstrate in a pleading that "The Archives planned to release the Watergate-related tapes in 1989 . . .with the subsequent release of six-month chronological segments in 1991 and each year thereafter through 1995 until all releasable portions of the 4000 hours had been made public."

NARA put the tapes opening on hold as Mr. Nixon sought input into the release schedule. Public Citizen noted that the "Archives appeared willing to accede to Nixon's demands in return for his agreement to establish a Nixon Presidential Library to be administered by the Archives. The Archives shifted course when Nixon sought increasingly longer delays in public release of the tapes and more complete veto authority over particular releases."

Congress had directed NARA to reveal “the full truth” about Watergate at “the earliest reasonable date.” NARA opened only 63 hours of tapes about Watergate during Mr. Nixon’s lifetime. Archives officials admitted to Dr. Kutler that there were 200 unreleased hours of Watergate-related conversations. NARA did not open them until after Nixon died.

John Taylor, Nixon’s last chief of staff during the post-White House period, revealed a great deal in 1998 when he wrote in the American Spectator that

“The explosive release of the last Watergate tapes, with its grossly distorted coverage, was the high-water mark, the Pickett's Charge, in a campaign to lay on Nixon all the iniquities of a troubled era. The scandal- only complexion of the release was a product of the time bomb planted by the Democratic Watergate Congress of 1975-76, which directed the National Archives to release all tapes about Watergate before anything else. This requirement turned archivists into junior prosecutors, listening to the tapes over and over for conversations that seemed to fit the bill. Until six years ago an informal understanding existed between President Nixon and NARA that the "abuse of power" tapes would be defined as the 63 hours used by the Watergate special prosecutor in 1973-74. But then we were told that the Hardy Boys at NARA had kept a little list--201 additional fun-filled hours of their own greatest hits.

. . . At the same time they were listening to tapes, by order of the Supreme Court the archivists were also supposed to be returning to President Nixon all tape segments containing strictly personal conversations. . . .Angered by the archivists' bait-and-switch on the abuse-of-power issue and their refusal to return what he and the courts regarded as his property, the former president countersued, demanding an immediate return of the personal tapes before any more tapes were released.”

I understand why Nixon fought disclosure (I had, after all, worked on his campaign and voted for him). But in shielding himself, Nixon exposed the weakness of federal records statutes. Only by confronting fear and examining why it exists – yes, even among the creators of records -- can we reduce its effect on the study of American Presidents.