When Nixon Got Frosted: Capturing History

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Ralph Nelson / Universal Pictures / AP

Frank Langella portrays Richard Nixon, left, and Michael Sheen portrays David Frost in a scene from the film, Frost/Nixon.

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Amazing, isn't it, how many career politicians who run for President seem uncomfortable in their own skin. Thirty years in public life didn't help Bob Dole, Al Gore or John Kerry sell themselves to the American people. They came across as cranky or boring or stiff, and voters chose the man (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush) who could convincingly play the good ol' boy with southern or Southwest charm. John McCain, who'd been so funny and sunny with his press gang on the Straight Talk Express, turned crotchety in the general campaign and lost to another Harvard smoothie. McCain-Obama was Nixon-Kennedy all over again.

Nixon looked especially awkward losing to John F. Kennedy in 1960, and then following him as president eight years later. His White House was no Camelot; Pat Nixon, of the "good old Republican cloth coat," couldn't match Jackie Kennedy, the movie princess swathed in Cassini couture; and Milhous was, in media terms, a throwback. As Kennedy was the first TV president, Nixon was the last Chief Executive of radio. (See pictures of TIME's JFK covers.)

Before television, few would have noticed Nixon's perspiration problem, or his basset-hound jowls, whose stubble shadow always read five o'clock. He had a pitchman's handsome baritone voice, and relied on it to counterfeit intimacy, but his oily modulations couldn't erase the public's suspicion of phoniness; a salesman can't close the deal if his prospective customers know what they're hearing is just a pitch. On TV, his stabs at an intimate geniality showed the effort more than the effect, as if invisible wires were pulling his mouth into a smile. This was the Nixon so easily caricatured by political cartoonists and comedy impressionists; Langella gets all these elements but adds a certain poignant grandeur.

Some people believe they are loved for what they are; others think they are accepted for what they do. Nixon, the classic grind, was in the second category, and that's part of the continuing fascination with him. His National Security Advisor, then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, said of Nixon: "Can you imagine what this man would have been had somebody loved him?" Who knows whether he was loved? The important thing is that he thought he wasn't. He turned his hurt into pugnacity and focused his considerable intelligence on getting back at the swells, the Eastern establishment, the California glamorati — beginning with his first, red-baiting Congressional campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, a former movie actress (She) and the wife of star Melvyn Douglas.

Nixon's life was defined by a me-vs.-them resentment. In his mind, the 1960 presidential campaign was the battle of a Quaker poor boy, son of a grocer, against a Catholic rich kid, son of the whiskey merchant, and little Whittier College against mighty Harvard. (Yet after that very close election, which Kennedy won with some questionable vote counts in the crucial state of Illinois, Nixon overruled his aides' urging that he contest the result, saying that any delay in naming a new president would tear the country apart.) He felt scarred by outsider status even when he became the most powerful man in the world. His notorious Enemies List became a badge of honor for liberals like Paul Newman and Daniel Schorr, though being declared presidential pariahs couldn't have been funny at the time. White House tapes released just this week have Nixon muttering that he'd never let Ivy Leaguers in the building.

Any president, even one so rich in inner conflict, is more than the sum of his psychological profile. What he was is less important than what he did in office. And for that, many Democrats hated him. The Vietnam War lasted longer under him than under Johnson; indeed, by the time of the fall of Saigon, he was out of office. The incursions into Cambodia and Laos cost thousands of lives — millions, when Pol Pot turned Cambodia into a nationwide graveyard. His CIA bore responsibility for the killing of Chile's socialist leader Salvador Allende, on Sept. 11, 1973. And his hounding of political opponents like Daniel Ellsberg was, at the least, ingracious. (See pictures of men at war.)

But some revisionist lefties have pushed a different view: that Nixon was, in Noam Chomsky's words, "in many respects the last liberal president." He cinched an arms control deal with the Soviets and established detente with China. Nixon's domestic achievements, as Temple University political science professor Kevin Arceneaux has outlined, include "his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupation Safety and Health Administration, and support for the clean water act, school desegregation, and affirmative action." You could say that the conservative agenda of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations was to revoke, not FDR's New Deal, but Richard Nixon's liberal legacy.

Nixon's Frost

The President and his interviewer were made for each other. The son of a Methodist minister in Kent, Frost worked worked worked himself up from the middle-class to be a top boy at Cambridge and, by 24, the host of the BBC satirical show That Was the Week That Was. Like Nixon, Frost could look false on TV — not being a host but doing one, as if relaxing in public was a test he'd crammed for. Neither Frost nor Nixon possessed a huggable personality. They rose to the top of their fields by a triumph of their will to succeed, and by the application of intellect and hard work to get there.

A producer and celebrity more than a wit, Frost quickly antagonized some of the major funnymen of his generation. Peter Cook, of the Beyond the Fringe comedy quartet, called him "the bubonic plagiarist" for performing a similar impression of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan similar to Cook's at Cambridge. Many of the Monty Python troupe had worked for Frost on earlier shows, and in the sketch "Timmy Williams Coffee Time" Eric Idle played Frost as a gladhander preening for TV crews while ignoring the plaints of a recently widowed friend. Pythonite John Cleese, on the radio show I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again mocked Frost's standard introduction by braying, "'Hello, good evening and welcome." In Frost/Nixon two people greet him with that phrase. Frost murmurs, "Actually I don't say that."

The movie Frost is deeply indebted to the parodists' image. He's a man who has a smile for every crisis, a glib deflection of every insult. The main character change in the film is when Frost stops trying to seduce Nixon and starts quizzing him like a prosecutor. On the shows he hosted in Britain, the U.S. and Australia, Frost could certainly be toothy and unctuous. But as the actual interviews show, Frost's demeanor was skeptical. He never looks frightened or abashed, just focused on getting the goods. When he lays out the three declarations of guilt he wants Nixon to make on Watergate, he concludes, "And I think unless you say it, you're gonna be haunted for the rest of your life." His tone is not threatening or maudlin, just the matter-of-fact prediction of someone who, in a conversation with a former U.S. president, is totally in command.

The movie revs up to the gotcha moment when Frost traps Nixon into acknowledging his Watergate crimes and apologizing to the country. The reality is a tad more ambiguous. Frost is magnificent when, having pressed Nixon to say he made more than mistakes, Nixon asks him what word he would suggest. He tosses his clipboard aside and presents a three-count indictment — still a thrilling TV frisson. Nixon does say he let the country down, but couches his confession is so many subordinate clauses that he could leave the ring believing Frost's knockout was only technical. If the exchange lacks the score-settling flourish of Morgan's version, it leaves us with our abiding take on Nixon: Tricky Dick to the last.

For closeup conflict and emotional kick, the Frost/Nixon movie tops the play. But neither can match the tension and weird poignancy of the original interviews — reality TV of the highest, queasiest order.

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