Sun, Jul 22, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Hardcover US: Richard Nixon's unnecessary lies

British broadcaster David Frost interviewed the former US president four years after he fell on his own sword. The results are only now appearing in print

By SCOTT EYMAN  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA

By James Reston Jr
207 pages
Harmony

Richard Nixon stalks through the 20th century like the bizarro Lincoln - instead of the "better angels of our nature," Nixon invariably invoked the worst. In so many ways, he defines and anticipates our present political stew, especially in regard to his prophetic utterance, "If the president does it, that means it's not illegal."

So much for a government of laws.

Yet, nobody ever called Nixon stupid. Paranoid, alcoholic, bitter, anti-Semitic, misanthropic, self-destructive, but never stupid. Except when it came to Watergate.

Four years after his resignation, it was time for Nixon's first try at reconstituting his disastrous identity as the only president to resign his office into that of statesman. Nixon needed the money - more than a million US dollars; David Frost needed the gravitas and the respect. And the two men sat down for a marathon series of interviews.

On the one hand, Nixon wanted to shift the focus from Watergate; on the other, Frost wanted Nixon to admit culpability. Ultimately, the interviews came down to whether Nixon could admit guilt, express contrition and apologize, overcoming his pride and essentially deceitful nature.

James Reston Jr was one of two full-time researchers hired by David Frost to prepare questions for the 24 hours of interviews that were edited down to six hours. This manuscript was written soon after the events it describes - Reston doesn't tell us why he waited 30 years to publish - and playwright Peter Morgan had access to it for his recent play Frost/Nixon.

Reston was a flaming liberal who would have loved to have seen Nixon hanging from a yardarm; Bob Zelnick, at the time a lawyer and later a correspondent for ABC News, was the other researcher, and far more conservative. It was Reston who discovered some transcripts of conversations that Nixon had with Charles Colson that proved Nixon was far more culpable in regard to Watergate far earlier than he had ever let on, and it was those transcripts, which nobody else seemed to be aware of, that provided most of the drama of the Frost/Nixon interviews.

Reston's portrayal of Frost is largely of an overbooked coaster, who sails through most of the interviews, preferring to spend time wining and dining in Hollywood than prepping. Mostly, the interviews fell into a pattern: a general question from Frost; a categorical denial of any wrongdoing from Nixon; another question from Frost with factual evidence showing the denial had no basis in reality.

This pattern became a necessity, because Nixon's capacity for self-justification was astonishing; one answer went on for 23 minutes. "Nixon's anecdotes became Nixon's filibusters, and they often bore no relevance to the questions," writes Reston. As a lawyer himself, skilled in diversionary tactics, Nixon liked to introduce extraneous issues into his responses that clouded the actual question.

Bob Zelnick was furious at Frost. "You sound like two old chums, sitting around a pork barrel, talking about a bowling game, rather than about the incredible divisiveness that Nixon himself deliberately caused."

But Frost buckles down for the Watergate section, in the knowledge that his credibility will stand or fall on that. "If Nixon's guilt and his authoritarian impulses were not clearly demonstrated," Reston writes, "Frost would take an equivalent position in the history of television to that of Nixon in the history of politics."

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