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Through much of the early taping, which went far better for Nixon than he could have expected, he was relaxed and affable. When a television light explodes loudly over Frost's head, the interviewer is startled. Frost thinks it could have been a gunshot. Nixon laughs. "With all these Secret Service men around, don't worry about it," he assures Frost. "One of these days I'll give you a lecture on security." After two hours of one session, Frost suggests that Nixon might want a break. Nixon looks at the technicians, and jokes: "Those guys look pretty well fed to me. They can hold out for another hour." The taping resumes. Nixon is described by one adviser as "ebullient" at his ability to handle the questions. Adds one intimate: "It sounds odd to put it this way, but in a sense he enjoyed it. He rose to the demands."
Nixon had one advantage. By the time the tapings began late in March, he had long been at work on his memoirs, minutely scouring his presidential records with the aid of his personal research staff. Frost assembled his own research group, which amassed an imposing quantity of material. He hired Robert Zelnick, 36, a Washington journalist and lawyer, to head the team. James Reston Jr., 36, co-author with Frank Mankiewicz of Perfectly Clear: Nixon from Whittier to Watergate and son of the New York Times editor, was assigned to concentrate on Watergate, and Washington Freelance Writer Phil Stanford to focus on abuses of power. John Birt, 32, a London TV news executive, produced and directed the overall production.
It was Zelnick who played Nixon's role in briefing sessions, to the point of using Nixon mannerisms and hand gestures. There was only one Nixon answer for which the briefing staff had not prepared Frost, says Zelnick. It came when Nixon blamed Congress for having failed to resupply the South Vietnamese, and thus causing the fall of Saigon. Says Zelnick: "I didn't think he'd have the balls to say that."
The original plan to do all of the taping in Nixon's San Clemente study had to be abandoned: a test showed that radio signals from the Coast Guard's neighboring navigational-aid transmitters interfered with the TV gear. The seaside home owned by Mr. and Mrs. Harold H. Smith, longtime Nixon supporters, was rented part time for one month at $6,000. The taping sessions were held three times a week.
For each session, a vigorous Nixon, showing no signs of the phlebitis he suffered in 1974, swept grandly onto the property near Laguna Beach in his Lincoln Continental. His escorting Secret Service agents scoured the house for hidden microphones and made certain that Smith's collection of some 100 rifles and shotguns were all unloaded. Nixon was usually accompanied by the key members of his team: Colonel Jack Brennan, his former White House military aide; Chief Researcher Ken Khachigian; former Speechwriter Ray Price; former Press Assistant Diane Sawyer; and Richard Moore, the former White House aide who was a sympathetic figure in the Senate Watergate hearings. Nixon's people were told what topics would be covered, but never the questions to be asked.