He is back among us. And, as always, in a memorable manner, both painful and poignant, sometimes illuminating, usually self-serving. The once too-familiar face of Richard Nixon re-enters the homes of America this week for 90 minutes of dramatic television.
The only U.S. President to be forced from office makes his first extensive accounting of his tumultuous presidency. He does so not in a court of law, as did his highest aides. Nor at a Senate impeachment trial—he resigned to avoid that. Instead, nearly three years after a helicopter lifted him off the White House lawn and into seclusion at his San Clemente retreat, he appears in a four-part TV series, The Nixon Interviews. One obvious reason: he will get $600,000 and a share of the show's worldwide profits. Another reason: his hope that he can change the people's perception of him, perhaps even resume a responsible role in public life.
For David Frost, 38, British show-business celebrity, talk-show host and interviewer, who stands to make at least $ 1 million, the program represents a coup. He outbid a U.S. television network and countless other news organizations to sign the exclusive contract with Nixon, then patched together a network of his own.
Whatever the motives of the fallen President and the enterprising TV showman, the historical perspective is extraordinary. For the first time, Nixon is facing a lone inquisitor who is under no restrictions on what he can ask about those presidential years. A public that may have grown quite weary of Richard Nixon can hardly deny its fearful fascination with, and continuing curiosity about, the man who became and still remains America's antihero.
Confronted with the precise, tough questions on Watergate he had long evaded, would Nixon continue to stonewall? Or would he break under the pressure of so public a forum and the interrogator's grilling? Would he finally do now what he might have done some four years ago: admit with genuine humility that he had conspired with his aides in a vain effort to keep the scandal from destroying his presidency? Or would the politically inexperienced Frost prove a patsy and let Nixon filibuster with those same skillful diversions that always seemed to be answers but never were?
After 20 hours of an agreed-upon 24 hours of taping, from which the four 90-minute shows would be edited, there was real fear among Frost's team of researchers and production experts that Nixon had indeed snowed their man. Those early tapings had ranged across Nixon's tough Viet Nam War policies, his attempts to stifle dissent at home, his pioneering drive to reach out to China, his opening of the long road toward strategic arms limitations with the Soviet Union, his peace initiatives in the Middle East, abuses of power, and Spiro Agnew. Through it all, the resilient Nixon sometimes ate up valuable minutes with long, dull answers. But there were also many astute replies, carrying a ring of self-assurance and authority. Declared one technician on the California TV set after a Nixon performance: "If he keeps talking like that, I may vote for him."