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Frost/Nixon: In Memoriam

In the fine-tuned obituaries of the New York Times, the deed or misdeed of a notable name is almost always enshrined in the first sentence. In the case this week of the 74-year-old David Frost, the British interviewer is remembered for getting Nixon to apologize for Watergate.

The actual sentence in the Times mentions interviews with “historic names like Henry Kissinger and John Lennon,” but the obit makes clear the interview with Nixon was the most important in Frost’s long career.

Frost, who died of a heart attack on Aug. 31 aboard the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth where he was due to give a lecture, had a varied career in television that reflected changes in the medium from the era of black-and-white in the 1960s to the cable news of today.

Frost was not a professional journalist in the strict sense of the word. He was a showman (in the early 1960s he was the host of the satirical “That Was the Week That Was” for a time on the BBC and briefly on NBC) and hosted entertainment specials as well as more intellectual fare. He filled in for Johnny Carson a couple of times in 1968. 

Frost’s affable manner and an impression that he might be a lightweight on matters of state may have had an appeal for Nixon in 1977 when Frost reached out to him. It had been three years since Nixon had been driven from office in the face of almost certain impeachment in the Watergate scandals. 

Money may have figured in his decision to do the interviews. Nixon reportedly got $600,000 for the broadcasts, 28 hours, 45 minutes in five episodes, recorded over four weeks. He also came in for a share of the profits for the broadcasts.

After the two had spoken on camera several times, and were well-acquainted, Frost raised questions about Nixon’s abuses of presidential power. Nixon famously replied, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

“Upon hearing that sentence, I could scarcely believe my ears,” Frost would write in a 2007 book promoting the “Frost/Nixon” movie. On the last day of their many taped interviews for the series, Frost pressed Nixon to acknowledge blunders in Watergate. “Unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life,” coaxed Frost.

Nixon yielded (or maybe it was the out he was looking for). As it happened he offered an apology for putting “the American people through two years of needless agony.” And added, “I let the American people down and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.” Nixon died in 1994. He was 81.

This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.

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