A Watergate researcher’s story, 30 years later

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Mr. Reston traces his loathing of Nixon to Vietnam, a loathing he facilely transfers to the current president: “Again the nation is in a failing, elective war. A Nixon successor is again charged with abuse of power in covering up and distorting crucial facts as he dragged the country, under false pretenses, into war.”

Mr. Reston draws a line from Nixon to Mr. Bush, and that will no doubt figure heavily in the movie being made from the play that was made from this book — due to be released in 2008, just before the elections.

Of course, in the case of Vietnam, if we were to draw that line, it would be more accurate to begin with John Kennedy, who started it (the Eisenhower administration, of which Nixon was a part, opposed any involvement in Indochina), then down through Lyndon Johnson, who widened it, escalated it and threw the whole mess into Nixon’s lap.

And like it or not, after strenuous and sustained diplomatic effort, Nixon ended it. But no matter. As Mr. Reston puts it, “I was too much a product of my own generation, especially in its horror over Vietnam, to be interested in the mechanics of diplomacy.”

This loathing is endemic, translating into contempt, frequently expressed in snide, nasty characterizations of those whose purity of anti-Nixon thought is suspect. He refers to his fellow Frost strategist and the executive editor of the interviews, Robert Zelnick, now a journalism professor at Boston University, as “Affable Bob” and “Old Zel,” poking fun at his demeanor, his experience and his knowledge of Washington.

He visits Charles Colson, laughs at his appearance and mocks his commitment to Christ. Describing the Nixon staffers involved in the interviews (he calls them “hangers-on”), he is both offensive and careless. “Old Zel’s counterpart was one Ken Khachigian, an unprepossessing Iranian.”

He makes fun of Mr. Khachigian’s appearance (this is something Mr. Reston, a somewhat shambling, aging preppy type, does frequently), casts aspersions on his honesty on the basis of an entry in a Jonathan Schell book and concludes: “I wanted as little to do with Khachigian as possible.”

The feeling was no doubt mutual. For nearly four decades now, Mr. Khachigian has been known among people of both parties as a highly talented political writer and a strategist of unquestioned honesty. Nor is he an “Iranian.” Mr. Khachigian is an Armenian American, and proud of it.

There’s no doubt the Nixon/Frost interviews created high drama. But was it really the drama Mr. Reston imagines? And was Mr. Reston’s role really as significant as he believes it to have been?

His chief contribution — and the deus ex machina of the Morgan play — was the discovery of three taped conversations with Mr. Colson that suggested Nixon had discussed a cover-up earlier than thought.

But as Elizabeth Drew, no friend of Nixon, points out, the Watergate prosecutors thought the tapes insignificant. Nor was Mr. Reston’s discovery — what he proudly calls “the Colson trap” — sufficient to carry the drama in the Morgan play, so that it was finally necessary to invent a drunken phone call from Nixon to Mr. Frost.

Mr. Reston sees a broken Nixon emerging from the interviews. But Robert Zelnick sees a much different man.

“[T]he Frost/Nixon interviews proved cathartic,” Mr. Zelnick wrote in a recent Weekly Standard, “providing Richard Nixon with the opportunity to acknowledge his role in the Watergate coverup … It also gave Americans the opportunity to see him pained, contrite, and unthreatening… . Over a period of 16 years he wrote nine bestsellers, most dealing with profound questions of national security.”

During that period Nixon traveled to more than 30 foreign countries, where his views were solicited by national leaders, and in this country he was consulted by Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush, among others. All in all, as Mr. Zelnick puts it, a “striking return to political grace.”

Mr. Reston would disagree strongly, having written himself into history as the Nixon/Frost interviewer who destroyed Richard Nixon. But Ms. Drew, for one, will have none of it. As she puts it, “the interviews attracted a huge worldwide audience, and Frost’s career and Nixon’s rehabilitation effort were enhanced considerably.”

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