David Frost's NBC interview raises hackles but not ratings
A good journalist approaches an interview subject as he would a safe, spinning from cajolery to intimidation to sympathy, hoping to hit upon the right combination. In May 1977, David Frost unlocked Richard Nixon as no inquisitor ever had, eliciting candid admissions, remorse, even a glint of tears. Dismissed beforehand as a frothy talk-show host, Frost won journalistic plaudits for his painstaking preparation and expert technique. In short, he was an obvious network choice to interview Henry Kissinger on the occasion of the publication of the first volume of his memoirs.
Aired last week on NBC, Frost's encounter with Kissinger produced a lot of journalistic fuss, but little fresh information. The flash point came at the first taping session, devoted almost entirely to Kissinger's part in the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. Frost set the tone by summarizing the position of Kissinger critics, a position he plainly shared: "Your policy engulfed Cambodia in the war . . . and it set in train a course of events that was to destroy the country."
Leaning heavily on material in William Shawcross's highly critical book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, Frost disputed Kissinger's contentions that Prince Sihanouk tacitly supported the bombing of North Vietnamese "sanctuaries," that there was no danger of civilian casualties, and that the U.S. had not violated Cambodian neutrality. Replied Kissinger: "It is an absurdity. . . to say that a country [North Viet Nam] can occupy part of another country, kill your people and that then you are violating its neutrality when you respond against the foreign troops that are on that 'neutral' territory."
At the conclusion of the contentious 45-minute session, Kissinger complained to network executives that Frost had distorted the record, and reportedly insisted on a chance to elaborate on his answers. The NBC brass were sympathetic. "This program wasn't supposed to be David Frost vs. Henry Kissinger," said William Small, president of NBC News. "It was supposed to be an interview with Henry Kissinger." Indeed, the unedited transcript reveals that the Interviewer talked more than the interviewee, always a bad sign. But Frost had felt all along that this verbal tactic would be essential. Said he: "To set up a detailed discussion of a subject like Cambodia, you have to start with a long question and then come back with sustained follow-ups."
Frost and his staff were at first elated by the results of the initial meeting. Their spirits plunged when reports filtered back that Kissinger would be allowed a period of rebuttal to "clarify" his comments. They suspected that the network was kowtowing to the former Secretary of State because he is a powerful man and has a fiveyear, $1 million contract with NBC as a consultant and commentator. Behind-the-scenes negotiations over ground rules turned the next day's taping into a pressure cooker, but Frost believed that the integrity of the project was still intact.