The thirty seventh president of United states being put on trial by television by a visitor from across Atlantic and the only President to have resigned in US history accepting his guilt in the course of the interview is an emotional, social, and historical trigger for many individuals across the globe. A hugely successful Broadway stage adaptation and now a movie version await this watershed interview which decisively connected Watergate to Nixon.
On the Historic day, it is impossible to believe that any of the two parties involved had any inkling of the interest their small tryst (followed by some more) would generate for the historians and the future generations alike.
Nixon was several things which people before and after him have never been able to manage in a single life time. He was twice the Vice President of the United States and he was elected twice to the Presidency Of the USA as well. In the mid term he also managed to lose a Presidential election to the most charismatic President of USA of recent times, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was also the only President to have resigned the Presidency. He was also one of the first Presidents to have gone within dangerous proximity to impeachment. He was the First US president to have required to be given the Presidential pardon. He was the first US President to have born, served and died in the same order, the 37th.
To bring out the steepest and the most suppressed truths about himself in a manner that till date is considered a benchmark in the career of any Media personality a person of Frost’s vivaciousness and originality were required. Although Frost has been plagued during his own time and by his contemporaries to be a plagiarist of ideas and a cloner of persona, it is undoubtedly his ability to network and to take the television to a the next obvious level in the public consciousness that offered him the stature on that particular evening to make Nixon feel comfortable enough to speak out his deepest fears and desires.
In 1977 Foster held a series of interviews with the by then ousted President Nixon, and was alter revealed that he was paid a fortune of $600,000. Certainly for some observers, the revelations puts an altogether new twist to the enigmatic former president’s confessions.
The quotes form the interview are by any journalistic standards, a dream offering considering Nixon’s stature and the conditions under which, arguably the most powerful man in the world had to resign his office. A controversial pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford, was looked at as a quid pro quo for Ford’s ascension to the Presidency.
In this series of interviews, Nixon side played his usual gustiness in the face of adversity and opposition, but the laidback manner of Frost, or more than usual bonhomie, the transatlantic cousins (Americans and the British) enjoy, made him open up and the grand finale was a subtle confession that what the world considered all along and Nixon refuted all those intermittent years- the Watergate, Cambodia, etc were all, in retrospect, colossal mistakes.
In a vein to deny it, yet inexplicably, Nixon brings up the topic of Suicidal tendencies in the aftermath of his resignation. He says in answer to if resignation was worst “I didn’t feel it in terms that the popular mythologists …. Resignation was so terrible ……I wasn’t about to take a gun and shoot myself and this or that… I never think of in such terms, suicide, death wish and all that….. I feel that a life without purpose, about what he thinks he ought to do, that life then becomes almost unbearable. Resignation meant life without purpose… Resignation meant that I would be in apposition of not having anything to live for…. That it can be a very very shattering experience, which it has been”. This statement, though very brave, yet it is an admission of vulnerability in the man so popularly vilified and may be to a certain extent deified in the use of his executive powers (Americans were ready to believe at a point in time that a President like Nixon could do and get away with what ever it was that he pleased).
But through out the interview, there were glimpses of the original Nixon, who had survived the odds for all his political life. A person who had the uncanny ability to turn potential disasters into proven victory theorems. A man who had the zeal left in him to come back and fight a presidential elections after having served two terms as the vice president and then lost to the dream American president John. F. Kennedy. Nixon, ( It is not sure whether he believed these words himself) often stuck to the beliefs he had always espoused in public. The following one liners were certainly reinforcements of the stands he had taken on the career shaping historic in his contemporary History.
About Water gate scandal and his active involvement in the cover up which was later exposed by the Pulitzer prize winning journalists (who, as can be predicted, spawned a series of musicals, plays and movies)
“I didn’t think of it as a cover-up. I didn’t intend it a cover-up. Let me say, if I intended the cover-up, believe me, I would have done it.”
On his impeachment proposal tabled in the House.
“I did not commit, in my view, an impeachable offense.”
About the Hush money angle to his corruption
“Because at that point I had nothing, no knowledge of the fact that it was going to be paid.”
But it should be attributed to Frost’s famous trial by television style that he could get out this regretful confession out of Nixon
“I let the American people down.”
In the greatest traditions of personalized face to face interviews with influential people, Frost had the chutzpah to make Nixon feel at home and at the same time to stay on tenterhooks. Trials by televisions have given rise to History in the making moments which have not only televised the unraveling history, but also have been instrumental in Public figures trying to follow strict adherence to ethical and moral practices. The increased televisation of the current events has increased answerability and image consciousness in the politicians across the globe that even cover ups are both masterfully planned and executed or not at all.
In a reconstruction of the famous interview and the controversial tapes of Watergate scandal, Larry King conducted a program on CNN whose transcripts have the following observations by Sir. Robert Frost, which shows the psychological probing that Frost had to indulge in in forcing Nixon to at the least weigh his deeds on the scales of popular perceptions.
“KING: Was he open with you, David, all the way through this?
FROST: Well, I think, particularly for someone who, as we were hearing, was so interestingly there (ph) from Bob and Ben, was so odd in many ways. He was incredibly open in the end in this way.
I mean, he was — in the end, when he came to his mea culpa, finally, after the interrogation about Watergate, which failed for him on the first day because we knew the tapes as well as he did. But then on the second day he came prepared to volunteer something and then more. And then finally we were able to push him to the point of saying, I let down the country, I let down our whole system of government, and I have to live with that for the rest of my life.
And so in the end he was not spilling his guts out exactly but, I mean, he was sharing the most intimate facts of his inner life. And I think what you were saying about his attitude to other people, I think the paranoia word came up more than once in these conversations. And at one point he said, you may call it paranoia, but paranoia for peace is no bad thing.
And I think that was part of it; that sort of suspicion of other people. It wasn’t so much that he hated them, but he was suspicious of them. He thought they were ganging up against him, and so on.”
There were to mention the least four important thrusts in the interview with Nixon. Those were
1. Vietnam War
2. Super Power Diplomacy
3. Water gate
4. Last days in the White House.
In what can be noted as his most candid confessions on the interview, Nixon dispelled the popular myth that Kissinger and he were like alter egos. In a very casual and even mildly funny way Nixon mentions that Kissinger used to come up to him and say “Mr.President, considering and evaluating all the social and educational resources at our disposal , I think we should not have done what we have done etc.,” and to this Nixon, allegedly used to answer by quoting from The Bible “that what is done is done”. Vietnam war being a mistake ( in his words not mistakes of the head, but mistakes of heart – meaning the intentions were always noble.
The foreign policy which started the trade link with China and several other countries were pragmatic in their approach and visionary in their zeal. To this day, Nixon is fondly remembered for bringing the world’s two large economies together onto the Trading Table. There had been frequent barbed arguments post Nixon’s resignation whether Kissinger or Nixon had the most focal role in these path breaking initiatives. From the way Frost gets Nixon to become so gesticulating, animated and full of energy by speaking about his contributions in this area, it can be safely believed that Nixon did passionately believe in bringing together of USA and China. His vivid recollections of Mao, Chou and his admiration for a society and a set of statesmen who had to build from scratch come forward so clearly, when like an excited child, Nixon recollects his meetings and conversations with Mao.
The thaw he brought about in the cold war rivals USA and USSR is a direct fallout of his impromptu and highly efficient sideline meetings with his Russian counterpart. Even this topic brings the sparkle back to Nixon’s eyes.
The often discussed Watergate brought out the most dogged and persistent defense from Nixon but ht ease which Frost created in the atmosphere of the interview as cited in his own word made Nixon confess towards the end of the interview aired on19 May, 1977.
On the topic of his impeachment, however, Nixon till the very end maintained he had not done anything that might have warranted acute measures like his impeachment. He always believed, as most statesmen who have done what they think is right, in the comfort of their power, and are later accused for wrong doing do, that his actions were noble in intention though their execution methodologies might have been questionable in retrospect.
The body language of both the interviewed and the interviewer suggest a sense of comfort around each other which is the aspiration of every interviewer.
For a President who had the unprecedented misfortune of having to resign his office amidst furor of his questionable political practices, Nixon was a “tough guy”. But to get him to tell that in a televised interview in so many words and actually diagnose his down fall and bravely attribute it to his own mishandling in very crisp words is one of the greatest success of the audio-visual medium and the new-age Oral tradition in History building.
A journalist’s dream quotes
“I’m a pretty tough guy. I’m a pretty tough guy. In fact, perhaps I’m criticized a bit more for being tough than for being soft. But when it comes to people, you know, I feel for them. When it comes to people, I feel for them. And when you let your feelings, your heart get in the way of your head when you’re president, that’s when you make mistakes. And that’s what I did.”
“I don’t go with the idea that there — that what brought me down was a coup, a conspiracy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I brought myself down. I gave them the sword, and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish.
And I guess if I had been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.”
This water shed interview about the Watergate scandal and its aftermath with the key constituent of the scandal and a very controversial international figure to have shaped recent History is till date an eternal favorite with artists of various discipline, be it Theater or Cinema. An Oscar award winner, Ron Howard also lists on his dream projects, an opportunity to make a film based on these interviews. What this interview succeeded in doing was to register for all posterity the apology and a strong view point of Richard M Nixon and consolidate the reputation of Sir Frost as one of the greatest proponents of Oral tradition of History building.
Frost, David. 1978. “I Gave Them A sword”:behind the scenes of the Nixon interviews
London : Macmillan
CNN Larry King Live aired on June 20, 2002. “Frost, Schieffer, Bradlee Discuss Extensive Nixon Interview” retrieved on July, 25 2007