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A Watergate researcher’s story, 30 years later

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 And if in 1977 it was thrown into a drawer unpublished, and then forgotten, how did it come to the attention of Peter Morgan, who just happened to be writing a play about the interviews?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

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."

And that, despite Mr. Reston's little book, the play and — who knows? — the movie, is the way it really was.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement," published by Wiley.

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