- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2007

THE CONVICTION OF RICHARD NIXON: THE UNTOLD STORIES OF THE FROST/NIXON INTERVIEWS

By James Reston Jr.

Harmony Books, $22, 207 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN R. COYNE JR.

In 1977, after the Nixon/Frost interviews — 28 hours of taped material edited down to four 90-minute sessions and seen on prime time television by more than 50 million viewers — Bill Buckley wrote: “It is probably inevitable that no matter how often one takes the pledge not to write again on the desolate and sad subject of Richard Nixon, it is bound to happen: again and again and again… . an endless succession of books.”

That was 30 years ago, and with each new release of tapes, books continue to pour out — most of them still by Nixon-loathers like James Reston Jr., son of a famous father, New York Timesman James Reston, who had the distinction of making Nixon’s enemies list. (The elder Reston endeared himself to some of us in 1973 when, just before the tom-toms began to beat in Baltimore, he found in Vice President Spiro Agnew the “personification of the old American verities.”)

Some might say, of course, that this isn’t really a book at all. For one thing, it’s very small, about the size of a quality paperback, with a minimal number of words per page and lots of padding — probably fewer than 100 pages in normal book format.

For another, it apparently wasn’t intended as a book when first written, but rather as a combination of work notes and a narrative summary of Mr. Reston’s experience as David Frost’s Watergate researcher.

Some of the writing is bad, painfully self-aware (“Unpersuaded, I screwed up my face quizzically”); some of it forced, padded with academic assistant-professorish conceits (Nixon as Proteus, Nixon as Aristotelean tragic figure, Richard Nixon as Richard the Third); and some of it just unpleasant (“The breaking of Richard Nixon was indeed pleasurable to me …”).

There might be questions about the provenance of this text. And if in 1977 it was thrown into a drawer unpublished, and then forgotten, how did it come to the attention of Peter Morgan, who just happened to be writing a play about the interviews?

But the most questionable claim is made in the subtitle: “The Untold Story of the Nixon/Frost Interviews.” Actually, Mr. Frost told the whole story, and told it well, in his own book, “I Gave Them a Sword: Behind the Scenes of the Nixon Interviews,” published by Morrow in 1978.

It’s an intelligent, well-written and comprehensive account, and nothing in Mr. Reston’s book adds anything new to it — except for Mr. Reston’s personal view of the importance of his own role in the process. Mr. Reston does not mention Mr. Frost’s book anywhere in his text.

When Mr. Frost hired Mr. Reston as the Watergate researcher for the interviews on the recommendation of Reston family friend Joseph Kraft, he knew what he was getting. Mr. Reston, at the time an instructor at the University of North Carolina, had in Mr. Frost’s words “passion and creativity,” but he lacked “logic and tactical intuition.” His views, wrote Mr. Frost, were “representative of a considerable body of opinion in both the academic and journalistic communities.”

“Jim regarded Nixon as the epitome of evil,” wrote Mr. Frost. “What he seemed to want [for the interviews] was a psychohistory of the Nixon presidency which would at once explain the dark mind of Richard Nixon and the dark forces in American society.”

(This was also the hope of Mr. Reston’s academic mentors, Fawn Brodie and James David Barber, whose own loathing for Nixon bordered on the dark, if not the pathological. During the tapings, Mr. Reston says, he smuggled out copies of the sessions to Barber and Brodie, a firing offense if discovered by Mr. Frost. And that is an untold story.)

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