In May 1976, in a rather dim New York City hotel room filled with David Frost's cigar smoke, the British television personality put an intriguing proposition to me: leave your leafy academic perch for a year and prepare me for what could be a historic interrogation of Richard Nixon about Watergate.
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This would be the nation's only chance for no holds barred questioning of Nixon on the scandal that drove him to resign the presidency in 1974. Pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, Nixon could never be brought into the dock. Frost had secured the exclusive rights to interview him. Thus the prosecution of Richard Nixon would be left to a television interview by a foreigner.
I took the job.
The resulting Frost-Nixon interviews— one in particular—indeed proved historic. On May 4, 1977, forty-five million Americans watched Frost elicit a sorrowful admission from Nixon about his part in the scandal: "I let down my friends," the ex-president conceded. "I let down the country. I let down our system of government, and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but now think it too corrupt....I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me the rest of my life."
If that interview made both political and broadcast history, it was all but forgotten two years ago, when the Nixon interviews were radically transformed into a piece of entertainment, first as the play Frost/Nixon, and now as a Hollywood film of the same title. For that televised interview in 1977, four hours of interrogation had been boiled down to 90 minutes. For the stage and screen, this history has been compressed a great deal more, into something resembling comedic tragedy. Having participated in the original event as Frost's Watergate researcher, and having had a ringside seat at its transformation, I've been thinking a lot lately about what is gained and what is lost when history is turned into entertainment.
I had accepted Frost's offer with some reservations. Nixon was a skilled lawyer who had denied Watergate complicity for two years. He had seethed in exile. For him, the Frost interviews were a chance to persuade the American people that he had been done an epic injustice—and to make upwards of $1 million for the privilege. And in David Frost, who had no discernible political philosophy and a reputation as a soft-soap interviewer, Nixon seemed to have found the perfect instrument for his rehabilitation.
Although Nixon's active role in the coverup had been documented in a succession of official forums, the absence of a judicial prosecution had left the country with a feeling of unfinished business. To hear Nixon admit to high crimes and misdemeanors could provide a national catharsis, a closing of the books on a depressing episode of American history.
For all my reservations, I took on the assignment with gusto. I had worked on the first Watergate book to advocate impeachment. I had taken a year off from teaching creative writing at the University of North Carolina to witness the Ervin Committee hearings of 1973, from which most Americans' understanding of Watergate came, because I regarded the scandal as the greatest political drama of our time. My passion lay in my opposition to the Vietnam War, which I felt Nixon had needlessly prolonged for six bloody years; in my sympathy for Vietnam War resisters, who had been pilloried by the Nixonians; and in my horror over Watergate itself. But I was also driven by my desire for engagement and, I like to think, a novelist's sense of the dramatic.
To master the canon of Watergate was a daunting task, for the volumes of evidence from the Senate, the House and various courts would fill a small closet. Over many months I combed through the archives, and I came across new evidence of Nixon's collusion with his aide Charles Colson in the coverup—evidence that I was certain would surprise Nixon and perhaps jar him out of his studied defenses. But mastering the record was only the beginning. There had to be a strategy for compressing two years of history into 90 minutes of television. To this end, I wrote a 96-page interrogation strategy memo for Frost.
In the broadcast, the interviewer's victory seemed quick, and Nixon's admission seemed to come seamlessly. In reality, it was painfully extracted from a slow, grinding process over two days.