12.06.08

Diane Sawyer on Fact vs. Fiction in Frost/Nixon

The GMA host—who worked for Richard Nixon at the time of his interview with David Frost—talks with The Daily Beast about her memories of her ex-boss.

The Good Morning America host—who worked for Richard Nixon at the time of his interview with David Frost—talks with The Daily Beast about her memories of her ex-boss.

Diane Sawyer hasn’t seen Frost/Nixon (the movie). But then she doesn’t have to. She was there—well, not there during the sit-down sessions, but there in the Nixon post-White House, helping the resigned president with his memoirs and, more specifically, helping prepare the research he digested before being questioned by David Frost.

“But I was not present at the interviews,” Sawyer told me at a recent panel on women and the media that I moderated at New York’s University Club.

That didn’t stop the movie producers from inserting her into the scenery. “Are you shocked?” she asked in mock horror. “That entertainment people don’t always remain faithful to the facts?”

Frank Langella did capture the brooding quality, the brooding intelligence which Nixon had.

Sawyer’s doppelganger is actress Kate Jennings Grant, who has only two lines that I counted (plus a sigh or two, and oh yes, that handshake with agent Swifty Lazar, stage-managed by Nixon himself to ridicule the fastidious Lazar). Mostly she’s the blonde presence in the Nixon entourage, staring at the proceedings through oversized eyeglasses. Grant’s strongest reaction is a look that laments, “Oh, Mr. President,” when the boss delivers his self-immolating credo, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

Sawyer did see the play on Broadway a few years back, and was captivated by Frank Langella’s portrayal of the man she knew so well.

“It’s impossible, perhaps, because you’re too close, and you see somebody in too many three-dimensional, complicated facets, for somebody to be who somebody else was,” she said, “but I though he did capture the brooding quality, the brooding intelligence which Nixon had. Frank Langella is just an awesome actor in every possible way.” The ultimate accolade: As she watched him on Broadway, “I just thought—and you know, for me to do this, you know what it means—I forgot it was Nixon. I was just watching him portray someone and it was kind of electrifying to watch.”

So how weird is it to see something you know so well turned into fiction?

“It’s impossible, impossible,” she said. “You know, they should ban people like us from going to see these things. You sit there and go, ‘Didn’t happen. Didn’t happen. Not that way, not like that, it was this way.” For example, Nixon’s ex-Marine aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) who protects his former commander-in-chief with fierce loyalty. “Jack Brennan is portrayed as a stern military guy,” Sawyer recalled, citing both the play and what she’d heard about the film version. “And he’s the funniest guy you ever met in your life, an irreverent, wonderful guy. So there you go. It’s the movies.”

On the other hand, it’s Richard Nixon, whose real-life excesses were stranger than any fiction. Take that closing scene of the movie, where he meets one last time with David Frost, and describes his lifetime nemeses—journalists—as “sons of whores” (replacing his usual “bitches,” he says, to spare the dog-loving sensitivities of his longtime valet, Manolo Sanchez.) I didn’t get a chance to ask Diane Sawyer if Nixon later lumped her, along with the rest of us, in that category.

RELATED: Listen to David Frost's conversation with Frost/Nixon star Michael Sheen and read The Daily Beast's interview with Caroline Cushing Graham, played in the movie by Rebecca Hall.

Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. At ABC’s 20/20 news program, Sherr specialized in women's issues and social change, as well as investigative reports. Her most recent book, a memoir— Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is just out in paperback.