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Nixon showed up for this meeting 16 minutes late; it was the first time he had not been punctual. He looked tired and drawn. His combativeness had ebbed. "The questions in this session were more philosophical," in a Nixon man's view; Frost was digging at the immorality underlying Watergate.
Some brief crucial moments of this taping have been kept in strictest secrecy by Frost. According to those who have seen the taping, Nixon's responses provide a dramatic high point in the interviews. Frost feels they add a memorable moment to Nixon's long political life. A Nixon aide, however, thinks "the boss" came off well, though the experience was "draining." If by any chance Nixon comes off too well—in terms of either his answers or his dramatic appeal—there will certainly be Watergate authorities more than eager to set his record straight.
However damning to Nixon's never really credible Watergate defenses, the spectacle of such a once proud man being so humbled in public is certain to create sympathy for him. His worst moments in the Frost tapings, paradoxically, could conceivably mark the beginning of Nixon's reincarnation as a public figure whose crimes may be tolerated by millions of forgiving —and forgetful—Americans. Such inclinations may well be strengthened by segments of the remaining three 90-minute interviews, which will be aired on May 12,19 and 25.
Nixon is at his best in the shows that cover the one area in which his presidency is most likely to leave a positive mark on history: foreign affairs. Although it took him four years to disengage from the disastrous war in Viet Nam (14,750 Americans and 107,500 South Vietnamese died in that period), he forcefully defends his punishing prelude to withdrawal. He shows justifiable pride in his overtures to Peking and demonstrates a clarity about SALT that is pertinent to the impending new U.S.-U.S.S.R. negotiations in Geneva.
One fascinating part of the final programs is Nixon's rather paternal attitude toward his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. He describes Kissinger as brilliant but a bit immature, overly concerned about potential power rivals like Texan John Connally, too intrigued by Hollywood and other show-business celebrities. Nixon claims he was not bothered by some indiscreet criticism from Henry. "An odd man ... unpleasant ... very artificial," Kissinger was once heard to say about Nixon at a dinner in Ottawa when he was unaware that his table microphone was on. Nixon tells Frost with good humor: "He didn't remember to turn off the microphone, but on the other hand, I didn't turn it off in the Oval Office either on occasion." However, Nixon adds, the remarks "drove my family up the wall."
Nixon handles the final show on the many ways other than Watergate in which he had abused his office with a hard-line approach—but without pugnacity. He attempts to explain away calmly such charges as his use of the IRS and FBI to harass those on his "enemies lists," his illegal wiretapping of so-called security risks, his vast underpayment of income taxes. Yet his bitterness erupts at times as he lacerates the Washington Post and its Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as well as lawyers on the Watergate special prosecutor's staff.