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Indeed, Nixon was so fully in command as the showdown session on Watergate approached that Frost's producer, John Birt, walked up to the partygoing interviewer before Frost's own birthday bash in Los Angeles and declared, "David, I don't think you're up to this." His assessment galvanized Frost. In the days that followed, Frost pored over his briefing books and endured hours of sessions in which a staffer attempted to answer each Frost question the way Nixon might. With his homework properly done, Frost proved that he was indeed a formidable adversary for Nixon. The British charmer turned into an English bulldog.
The result, on 145 U.S. TV stations and 14 foreign outlets this week, is a highly emotional encounter in which the many Nixons are brought to the surface. He is alternately haughty, patronizing, incisive, rambling, peevish—and, finally, subdued. Under Frost's barrage, Richard Nixon's Watergate defenses are shattered.
The showdown comes in a tranquil setting—a large, split-level seaside house in Monarch Bay, some ten miles north of San Clemente. The principals sit in beige easy chairs in front of two large bookcases brought into the living room specially as backdrops for the show. (The books are mostly historical reference works, selected to establish an atmosphere in which Nixon would be comfortable.) Frost is seated to favor his best profile. Heavy curtains obscure the rugged coast and the sunny Pacific. Nixon looks a bit older than in his White House days but surprisingly strong and tanned—a daily round of golf has become part of his routine. He brims over with confidence. He appears far more presidential than in those final weary days in the White House.
Frost begins gently, asking Nixon to characterize his role in Watergate. Assured but wary, Nixon defers. He says he would rather answer Frost's specific questions. They follow rapidly, as Frost turns chilly. What did Nixon really say to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, during the notorious 18½-minute gap on an Oval Office tape recording made on the morning of June 20, 1972? That was only three days after the Watergate burglary, and the vacationing Nixon had just returned to Washington.
Nixon replies calmly that he merely ordered Haldeman to launch "a public relations offensive on what the other side is doing." That same day the Democrats had filed a $1 million lawsuit against Nixon's re-election committee for the raid in the night. Nixon's explanation meshes neatly with a note Haldeman made at the time about the conversation. It said: "What is our counterattack? P.R. offensive to top this."
Frost looks at his clipboard. Why, then, did Nixon tell another high aide, Charles Colson, that very afternoon that "we're just going to leave this where it is—with the Cubans"? That was a reference to the four Cuban-Americans already charged with the burglary. And why did Nixon also admit to Colson, "At times I just stonewall it" on Watergate?