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John W. Dean

The History Behind the Film and Play 'Frost/Nixon': How David Frost Really Convinced Richard Nixon to Talk


Friday, Feb. 20, 2009

Among this year's Academy Award nominees, director Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, which focuses on the 1977 interviews of former president Nixon by British television personality David Frost, has received five nominations. Only because of scheduling problems, I have not yet seen the movie, which is based on a successful Broadway play by the same name. I did not see the play either. Both were written by British screenwriter Peter Morgan (who has also written The Last King of Scotland and The Queen). But I know a bit about the underlying events.

Friends who have seen either the Frost/Nixon film or the play, and in a few instances both, and many of whom are very aware of these original Frost interviews, have all been struck by the dramatic license that Peter Morgan employed – first, in the play, and then, with steroids, in the movie. Washington writer Elizabeth Drew, who is no Nixon apologist, nicely summed up the take of most of those with whom I have spoken when she explained in the Huffington Post, "The film's plot is a contrivance; its telling is so riddled with departures from what actually happened as to be fundamentally dishonest; and its climactic moment is purely and simply a lie."

However, while Ron Howard's film made be bad history, I am told it is wonderful theater. In addition, by bringing this historical event back to light, it has raised a couple of long dormant but important questions: How did Frost get Nixon to go as far as he did in admitting his role in Watergate? And, looking back now, how much did Nixon really admit during the interviews? To answer the first question, and to understand how Nixon was nudged, I turned to a friend who was involved in that process; indeed, he provided David Frost with the key to getting Nixon to talk. In turn, I myself can cover the issue of how much or little, in fact, Nixon actually conceded to Frost and the American public.

A little historical context will help, and it all may offer more understanding to viewers of Ron Howard's latest work.

Preparing To Convict Nixon on National Television

In 1978, David Frost published his account of his dealings with Nixon in "I Gave Them A Sword": Behind the Scenes of the Nixon Frost Interviews. There, he explained how he negotiated the deal with Nixon for his "television memoirs" for a payment of $600,000 plus 20 percent of the profits from the interview's airing. When the American networks refused to pay for the four-part program of ninety-minute shows, Frost had to assemble his own network and find sponsors. To make it work, Frost had to crack Nixon's I-didn't-do-anything-other-presidents-hadn't-done defense. It was a high-risk venture that succeeded.

To prepare for the interviews themselves -- some eleven two-hour-plus sessions, from which the edited programs would be taken -- Frost assembled a small team of researcher assistants, principally journalist Robert Zelnick and the son of prominent journalist Scotty Reston, James Reston Jr., who would focus on Watergate. Frost asked his staff for confidentiality. Accordingly, Zelnick never wrote about his role, but Reston Jr. did, drafting a book about the experience that was not published until three decades later, after he had given a copy of his manuscript to Peter Morgan, who used it as the basis his dramatizations. (Having read Reston Jr.'s The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews, I believe it is very possible that Reston Jr. could not find a publisher for it, since it added little to the story that Frost himself had told in his book.)

When Reston joined the Frost research staff, he had a good working knowledge of Watergate, because he had worked with Frank Mankiewicz, an attorney-turned-journalist who served as Robert Kennedy's press secretary, a syndicated columnist, and national political director of George McGovern's 1972 presidential bid. Mankiewicz had published two books on Nixon, with Reston Jr. researching and writing significant portions of the Watergate material in both.

There is great irony in Reston Jr.'s Watergate muckraking. His father, Scotty Reston, who had been the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, held muckraking in low esteem, and Scotty had imbued the Washington bureau of the Times with his thinking. Scotty was writing a column for the Times when Watergate occurred, and both he and the New York Times would totally miss the biggest Washington story of the last half of the Twentieth Century. Following Watergate, the gentlemanly journalism of the Scotty Reston model disappeared, with muckraking becoming the new norm.

I talked to Reston Jr. in 1976 when he was preparing material for David Frost to interview Nixon, and later met with Frost as well. More importantly, Eli Chesen, with whom I have discussed Nixon over many years because of his 1974 book, President Nixon's Psychiatric Profile, had a number of off-the-record conversations with Reston Jr., which appear to me to have provided David Frost with a key to pressing Nixon to actually provide something of value during the interviews. I was curious about Eli's take on Frost/Nixon film. Moreover, knowing of Eli's extensive off-the-record dealings with Reston, I was interested in his feelings about Reston's emerging as a central character in the film and play. I was surprised by several of his responses – which are reproduced below.

Questions and Answers with Eli Chesen

Dr. Eli Chesen, M.D., practices psychiatry and neurology, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Given his profession, I am never surprised by his keen perception of others. He is politically- and culturally-sophisticated, and smart as a whip. I have assembled a Q and A based on our exchanges about Frost/Nixon. Usually, we talk off-the-record, but Eli is now willing to acknowledge his behind-the-scenes role in puncturing Nixon's stonewalling. Several people who had seen the film had asked me about the portrayal of Reston Jr., whom David Frost had cast in his book as a minor player, while Peter Morgan had made a big deal of Reston Jr. So I asked Eli about Reston Jr. as well, since he had spent far more time with him than I had.

QUESTION: You have seen Ron Howard's film "Frost/Nixon." What did you think of it as theater?

ANSWER: As theater, I thought the film was beautifully rendered and I offer kudos to Frank Langella for capturing Nixon's persona with so much nuance. While Howard and the playwright took moderate dramatic license with roughly equal parts fact and fiction, I loved the dramatic, middle-of-the-night phone call scene.

QUESTION: Was the Nixon character sympathetic?

ANSWER: The amalgam of Howard and Langella's Nixon was sympathetic, reflecting Nixon's joyless existence on one hand and his not having suffered fools readily on the other.

QUESTION: Tell me about the character James Reston Jr. How would you describe this character in the film?

ANSWER: The Reston character was the film's moral conscience or, in Freudian terms, the film's superego. The film-Reston was a highly fictionalized, self-serving, Joan-of-Arc-in tennis-shoes kind of person. I see Reston as having been a cinemagraphic used car salesman vis-à-vis his narcissistic self-portrayal. While I have no way of knowing whether or not Reston objected to his sacrosanct movie paragon, he certainly fell short of objecting to the euphemistic treatment of his soul.

QUESTION: As a professional, and someone who has studied (and written about) Richard Nixon's psychology, was this film a psychological portrayal of Nixon?

ANSWER: Yes. I believe the film effort captured the Nixon whom I felt I had captured over three decades earlier: A brilliant, socially phobic, cumbersome, omniscient loner.

QUESTION: On October 6, 1976 James Reston Jr. sent you a letter regarding "any possible help you might give in the forthcoming Nixon interviews." Reston added, "I want to repeat my hope that you will find it possible to talk in absolute confidence about your impressions…. And, I'll be prepared to abide by rules you will set forth." Was it you, or was it Reston, who was seeking confidentiality? And why?

ANSWER: Quite honestly, I did, at the time, ask Reston to keep my role confidential. I had already caught heat from the book, for in 1974, I was a Major in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at The Nellis Air Force Base Hospital, Nevada, while Nixon was my Commander-in-Chief.

QUESTION: In a January 13, 2009 note (to me) you explained the essence of your advice to Reston. You reduced "an estimated 8 to 10 phone conversations with Reston" to the following key points: (1)"I essentially advised that the questions [for Nixon] should be framed so as to accept guilt as a given; (2) I advised to start with questions having to do with foreign policy to enhance Nixon's baseline comfort levels, and (3) I advised to then switch over to personal and personal-legal issues, again, always assuming guilt as a part of the basis of any given question." It appears that Reston and Frost followed your advice. Why was it important to proceed in this fashion?

ANSWER: I felt that Nixon had a compulsive personality. His style of thinking was very ruminative, over-organized and repetitive. People with compulsive personalities tend to think and re-think in logical lists and outlines. This leads to unspontaneity as per the touching scene, from Frost-Nixon, in which Nixon ineffectively tries to relate to a dog. In the event that Frost's questions might have been orderly, systematized and predictable, the late president would likely have seized on a familiar psychological-conversational rhythm to his own advantage. Nixon thought and functioned with endless algorithms. Changing the order of questions and abruptly shifting the mood in a dour direction, out of order, would, I told Reston, catch Nixon off guard, perhaps throwing him into the uttering of non sequiturs.

Moreover, I advised Reston that, given the propensities for compulsives to wallow in guilt, when possible, Frost should frame questions with the pre-suggestion of guilt. Nixon, to the very end, saw himself as the under-appreciated underdog; the martyr. It would have been "Checkers" II and Pat's "Republican cloth coat" all over again had Nixon been given the chance. I believe Nixon could have taken the psychological ball and run with it, covering himself in sackcloth with the notion that, ‘I do and I do and I do and this is the thanks I get.'"

Ironically, I would opine that the technique for the successful cross-examination of a typical criminal defendant would be, in many ways, the antithesis of interviewing Nixon in that I believe Nixon had a stringent conscience and felt remorse, characteristics, which are anathema to sociopathic, common criminals…Nixon was the most uncommon of criminals.

QUESTION: Given the date of your note, I assume you were not aware that Reston had written in an article for the Smithsonian Magazine (published online February 4, 2009) explaining that: "At my [Reston's] suggestion, Frost posed his questions with an assumption of guilt." Apparently, this key recommendation was in the ninety-six page interrogation plan he outlined for Frost in a memorandum. Did Reston come to you with this idea, or did it strike you at the time – as best you can recall all these years later – that you were giving him an approach he had not thought about?

ANSWER: That was my idea.

Did Frost – And Reston – Publicly Convict Nixon?

Clearly, Chesen's was one of the more important ideas about how to deal with Nixon, for Nixon was more forthcoming than he no doubt wished to be. Reston describes these interviews as the "conviction" of Richard Nixon. My American Heritage dictionary defines conviction as "the act or process of finding or proving guilt." Under this definition, Reston is correct. My Black's Law Dictionary, however, defines conviction as the result of a criminal proceeding "which ends in a judgment or sentence that the accused is guilty as charged." In this meaning of the word, Nixon was not convicted of anything, for the former president went to his grave claiming he had never committed any crime or crimes – just as he did throughout the Frost interviews.

Nonetheless, the Frost/Nixon film, which I look forward to viewing, embodies the historical consensus: Nixon was, in fact, guilty and only he, and his apologists, are able to deny this reality.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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