Watergate Didn't Reveal Nixon's Demons—David Frost Did

Forty years ago, an exchange raised issues that are salient now—about abuses of power, impeachment and a White House view of the media that was “crack ‘em right in the puss.”

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The president knows exactly where his enemies are:

“Let’s talk about power. I think it is very significant. The greatest concentration of power in the United States today is not in the White House; it isn’t in the Congress and it isn’t in the Supreme Court. It’s in the media. And it’s too much…it’s too much power and it’s power that the Founding Fathers would have been very concerned about.

“Because the Founding Fathers balanced the power. The presidency balances the Congress, balances the Supreme Court. And when you have balanced power, you have checks, each on the other. There is no check on the networks. There is no check on the newspapers.

“And my point is, let’s just not have all this sanctimonious business about the poor repressed press. I went through it all the years I’ve been in public life and they have never been repressed as far as I am concerned…believe me, when they take me on, or when they take any public figure on, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, I think the public figure ought to come back and crack ‘em right in the puss.”

In short, the media are enemies of the people, with excessive power that should be curbed.

This is verbatim Richard Nixon, classic Richard Nixon, from the legendary television interrogation of Nixon by David Frost, broadcast 40 years ago in May 1977. (Frost died in 2013 at the age of 74. The Nixon interviews formed the basis of a play by Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon, a Broadway hit in 2007, adapted into a movie by Ron Howard and released in 2008.)

Clips of those interviews have been resurfacing as the current White House occupant exhibits a range of Nixonian traits—not so much Nixon’s intellect, where Nixon was vastly superior, but his paranoia and his blindness to abuses of power.

The clips give the appearance of a relentlessly focused Frost closing in on his prey. But clips are by nature usually a lot more cogent than the full conversation that they spring from. That is more than ever true in this case because they are drawn from the long and fraught product of 28 hours of taping.

So it’s worth reviewing the whole thing again to see how, in a striking way, the Nixon pathology, as it is slowly revealed, is suddenly relevant, like a ghost that returns to find a familiar landscape: same story, just different characters.

There is no more striking example of this than the moment when Nixon says something that now seems quintessentially Trumpian—about the absolute nature of presidential power, a version of Trump’s “I can go out into Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and nothing would happen.”

This astounding revelation suddenly broke free from what had started as an unpromising and digressive discussion about presidential powers. Nixon is talking about measures he had wanted to take to curb street crime and he complains that law enforcement authorities would have been far more effective if they had the right of warrantless entry.

Frost knew that he was moving into potentially explosive territory, where the dynamite was in something called the Huston Plan, named for Tom Charles Huston, a conservative lawyer and former intelligence official.

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Produced in 1970, the Huston Plan was a covert agreement involving the CIA and FBI, to permit surveillance and surreptitious or warrantless entry to private premises in order to obtain information. Nixon approved the plan over the objections of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director. It first broke into public view during the Watergate hearings when it was believed that it had never actually been activated. However, tapes released by the National Archive in 2013 suggested that that was not true, that the methods recommended in the Huston Plan had leached into the national security apparatus, and remain, at least in part, classified to this day.

Frost suggests to Nixon that, surely, it would have been better to combat crime legally, rather than adding another crime.

“But basically the proposition you’ve just stated in theory is perfect,” Nixon said. “In practice, it just won’t work.”

And, to Frost’s amazement, Nixon doubles down on his argument by saying that following legal procedures would have been self-defeating because “to get the specific legislation to have warrantless entries for the purpose of obtaining information and the rest would not only have raised an outcry, but it would have made it terribly difficult to move in on these organizations because basically they would be put on notice by the very fact that legislation was on the books, that they’d be potential targets. An action’s either going to be covert or not.”

After a few more minutes of argument, Frost pounces.

“So what in a sense you are saying is that there are certain situations in the Huston Plan, or that part of it was one of them, where the President can decide that it’s in the best interest of the nation or something and do something illegal…?”

“Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal,” Nixon said.

That was an electrifying statement to have drawn from the President. But frequently, in the earlier hours of the taping, Frost’s team of journalists and editorial advisers had worried that his lines of questioning were meandering and that Nixon felt he was under no threat at all.

That was deceptive. I had a long experience of working with Frost (though not on these interviews), first as an editorial advisor and then as his executive producer, always on live shows, not recorded ones. I knew very well that it could, indeed, be a scary experience to watch from the control room, thinking that he was being too oblique in how he began interviews and that he might never nail the story.

I learned patience. Frost seldom kept to a prepared plan. That was a strength. He listened to answers and abandoned preconceptions when a reply to a question called for a new line of pursuit. The Nixon interviews demonstrated that same Frost forensic technique but in slow motion. When he appears to be off subject he is really involved in an extended tour of Nixon’s psyche, indulging him, flattering him, coaxing him.

In fact, after a number of off-set conversations between them, Nixon felt relaxed enough to attempt some small talk – not, as Frost knew, one of Nixon’s strong points. Nixon had observed that Frost had an attractive girlfriend in attendance and this provokes a startling question from Nixon, just before taping resumes after a weekend break:

“Well,” says Nixon, “did you do any fornicating this weekend?”

Taken aback, Frost replies, “No comment. I never discuss my private life.”

Nixon’s maladroit attempt to be one of the boys indicates an important advance that shows up in the taping. Frost gets Nixon to relax and make the intended mistake of underestimating him. Then, in the final stretch, after testing different lines of inquiry, he breaks through Nixon’s defenses far beyond what anyone in the team saw coming.

Frost begins to press Nixon on his personal role in (and responsibility for) the real crime of Watergate, not the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters, but the cover-up.

“Did you do some covering up?” Frost asks. “We’re not talking legalistically…there were a series of times when, maybe overwhelmed by your loyalties or whatever else…you were, to put it at its most simple, a part of a cover-up?”

In June, 1972, Nixon ordered his chief of staff, H.R. Halderman, to get the CIA to order the FBI director, L. Patrick Gray, to back off their investigation of the Watergate conspiracy, as revealed in the so-called “smoking gun” tape recording this conversation. A score of FBI agents on the case threatened to resign if Gray yielded to the pressure, and the investigation, along with others, continued.

“I did not,” Nixon began, “in the first place, commit a – the crime of obstruction of justice. Because I did not have the motive required for the commission of that crime.”

“We’ve had our discussion on that, and we disagree on that…” Frost replied.

“The lawyers can argue on that,” Nixon continued. “I did not commit, in my view, an impeachable offense. Ah, now, the House has rule overwhelmingly that I did. Of course, that was only an indictment and would have to be tried in the Senate. I might have won: I might have lost. But, even if I’d won in the Senate by a vote or two, I would have been crippled…for six months the country couldn’t afford having the President in the dock in the United States Senate. And there can never be an impeachment in the future of this country without a President voluntarily impeaching himself. I have impeached myself. That speaks for itself.”

“How do you mean, ‘I have impeached myself?’” Frost asked.

“By resigning. That was a voluntary impeachment,” Nixon said.

This in itself is riveting television, but there is one final and emotionally wrenching admission to come – could Frost get Nixon to apologize to the American people?

Nixon recalls his last night in the White House, telling his staff “I just hope I haven’t let you down.” And then, although his face is in full close-up Nixon seems suddenly not to be fighting any more, to surrender and find some sort of catharsis:

“I had. I let down my friends.

“I let down the country.

“I let down the system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government, but think it’s all too corrupt…”

The close-up remains unrelenting as he adds: “Yep, I…..I, I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life. My political life is over. “

Who could have known that, forty years on from that historic and anguished encounter, another White House would be testing the republic in the same way?