- - Sunday, September 1, 2013

It was supposed to be a gross mismatch: Richard Nixon, America’s only living former president, the keen debater and master of realpolitik, widely credited with having orchestrated the Watergate cover-up, versus David Frost, a Briton.

Memories of one of the greatest televised confrontations of the 1970s flooded the American consciousness one more time at the weekend, as the news broke that the 74-year-old British journalist and showman had died late Saturday night from a heart attack while sailing aboard another Britannic symbol — the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship.

First off, what in the devil’s name would Mr. Frost — known chiefly for breezy interviews with such celebrities as the Beatles, Maria Callas and Muhammad Ali — know about Cambodia and Kent State and the smoking-gun tape? The whole thing portended another Nixon trick: choosing a lightweight as the interrogator for his first interview since resigning the presidency.

PHOTOS: David Frost, the interviewer who cracked Nixon's shell, leaves a historic legacy

Then there was the money — another outrage. What business had Mr. Frost paying the unindicted and pardoned co-conspirator $600,000 ($2.3 million in current figures) for his recollections about obstruction of justice? The whole enterprise carried its own whiff of scandal.

The critics underestimated both men. “The David Frost Show” welcomed plenty of political figures — including Nixon and some of the president’s men — and none of them had eaten the breezy Briton’s lunch.

David Frost's volumes of interviews from notables such as the Beatles, Maria Callas, Muhammad Ali and Vladimir Putin contain a wealth of history.
David Frost’s volumes of interviews from notables such as the Beatles, Maria ... more >

In April 1971, Attorney General John Mitchell — later imprisoned for his role in Watergate — jovially strolled out to Frost’s couch, as big-band music played and Carol Channing waited backstage, only to be hit with: “Which, in general, is easier to do as attorney general: hide [a mistake] or change it?” “Well,” Mitchell answered, with prescience he couldn’t have imagined, “over the long haul, it’s probably easier to change it. In the short haul, it’s probably easier to hide it.”

Both Nixon and Mr. Frost sensed the stakes were big. The former president had Diane Sawyer and other refugees from the ruins of the Nixon White House reviewing the known body of Watergate tape transcripts, compiling binders of likely questions and answers. Just like the old days, when Patrick J. Buchanan prepared the binders for the news conferences: We’ll skate through this.

Mr. Frost tapped James Reston Jr., Bob Zelnick and other top-notch journalists to go one step further. They scoured the prosecution exhibits from U.S. v. Mitchell in search of new evidence — and found it: Watergate tapes never introduced at trial, sure to stun Nixon. Mr. Frost almost felt sorry about it. Nixon, he would later write, “was a polite, sometimes almost cordial, man with whom a conversation was about to take place in which the dictates of simple courtesy or good manners and the dictates of nailing the truth might be totally at odds.”

Broadcast in three installments in May 1977, the Nixon-Frost interviews drew sensational ratings — a testament to the unique grip Nixon continued to exercise, even in retirement, on the American psyche — and marked the only sustained cross-examination of the former president.

The first program covered Watergate and the second, foreign policy. The third was a grab bag from across the 28 hours the two men recorded the previous March, in 12 sessions on a book-lined set in Monarch Bay, Calif.

In the end, Mr. Frost’s foreignness proved an asset. Like many other Americans, Nixon fancied the British accent, was willing to accord its speaker a measure of credibility, even nobility — even in the posing of unwelcome questions — that he never would have granted an American interviewer. Mr. Frost’s outsider status lent his questions a certain sensibility, a reasonableness, that made it more difficult for Nixon to parry them.

“I just think,” Mr. Frost said at one point, exasperated by Nixon’s semantics, “that one has to go contrary to the normal usage of language of almost 10,000 gangster movies to interpret ‘This tremendous investigation rests unless one of the seven begins to talk. That’s the problem’ as anything other than some sort of conspiracy.” Gangster movies who but a Brit would invoke a classic American genre like that?

Yes, the sessions elicited Nixon’s infamous statement, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” The question that provoked that answer, however, was not focused on Watergate.

Rather, Mr. Frost had asked about the extralegal measures that a young White House aide named Tom Charles Huston proposed, and which Nixon temporarily approved, at the height of the Vietnam War, for use against violent radical groups such as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. “Would you say,” Mr. Frost asked, almost philosophically, “that there are certain situations — and the Huston Plan was one of them — where the president can decide that it’s in the best interests of the nation, and do something illegal?”

That Nixon’s terse answer should be what echoes down the ages does a disservice to both men: to Nixon, because elsewhere in the interviews he exhibited true contrition over Watergate; to Mr. Frost, because he alone elicited it. The most historically significant utterance by Nixon to Mr. Frost was the ex-president’s effective acknowledgment of having taken part in the cover-up: something he did nowhere else.

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