This Friday, the movie Frost/Nixon — directed by Ron Howard and adapted from a play by Peter Morgan — opens in “selected theaters.” In case you’ve somehow missed all the hype, it’s about the British talk-show host David Frost’s series of interviews with Richard Nixon, which were shown on American television in May 1977. To quote from the film’s website:
More than 45 million viewers hungry for a glimpse into the mind of their disgraced former commander in chief — and anxious for him to acknowledge the abuses of power that led to his resignation — sat transfixed as Nixon and Frost sparred in a riveting verbal boxing match over the course of four evenings. Two men with everything to prove knew only one could come out a winner. Their legendary confrontation would revolutionize the art of the confessional interview, change the face of politics and capture an admission from the former president that startled people all over the world . . . possible even including Nixon himself
All this comes as a surprise to those of us who remember watching the original broadcast of the interviews.
In return for his $600,000 appearance fee, Nixon “admitted” what had already been proven; dodged or rationalized inconvenient facts; acknowledged errors but denied committing any crimes; and ended with a show of contrition and a play for sympathy. Little or no new information was uncovered, and nobody who had followed Nixon’s career was surprised in the least by his manipulations and evasions. The consensus was that the whole thing wound up an overblown bore.
To someone who was around back then, the idea of making a major motion picture about such a notorious fizzle seems bizarre; you might as well write an opera about “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault.” Is this just a case of memory being deceptive? Were the interviews really a landmark of a milestone of a watershed, as the publicists assert? To test this, I looked back at the reception they got in the media of the time.
The show’s producers secured lavish advance coverage by giving virtually everyone with a press card some sort of “leak”: transcripts, unedited video, production notes, briefing materials, correspondence. The week of the broadcast, Nixon was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, in that long-vanished era when those publications were considered influential. In the days leading up to the broadcast, the Washington Post ran several solid pages of Watergate transcripts and analysis, flashing back to the glory days of 1973.
After the airing of the first interview — the only one anybody cared about, since it contained all the Watergate material — there was far less hoopla. The Post’s Bob Woodward, Nixon’s erstwhile tormentor, called it “a much-touted television interview which shed little new light on the scandal.”
Elsewhere in the Post, Haynes Johnson’s analysis dripped with disappointment: “[The former president] proceeded, for the next 90 minutes, to give us all the familiar Nixon responses we have all seen for more than a generation. Those advance reports about Nixon being broken — or shattered — or even shaken by the withering interrogation of David Frost are in error. Nixon is in control throughout. He offers little that is new, and less that is of substance.” Johnson continued: “Last night’s program was billed as a dramatic and historic encounter between Nixon and his opponent, the relentless David Frost. It was nothing of the sort. . . . By the very end of the program, Frost looks as though he’s swept up by the Nixon responses. . . . The tables have been turned. Frost had met his match.”
The New York Times, in a brief, unsigned “Week in Review” item a few days later, echoed the been-there, done-that theme: “The spectacle was a familiar one . . . he portrayed himself, in typically Nixonian terms and gestures, as a victim of circumstance whose errors sprang from good intentions. . . . No important factual information about Watergate emerged from the interview.”
The Los Angeles Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch went with wire-service reports, supplemented with roundups of comments whose general tenor is summed up in a Post-Dispatch headline: nixon interview generates partisan political reactions. These papers, like most others, saw no need for any follow-up after the first day.