The Nixon I Knew
Michael Korda writes that in the new movie Frost/Nixon, Frank Langella captures Richard Nixon as he was—down to the hunched shoulders, the unnerving leer, and his masterful use of television.
Anybody who knew Richard M. Nixon well (I was his editor for several books) will have the creepy feeling that he is back, alive and well, while listening to Frank Langella’s voice in Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s new film, based on Peter Morgan’s play. To say it is riveting so long as the camera is pointed at Frank Langella is putting it mildly, though it’s hard to believe it will fill the theaters at Christmastime with moviegoers under sixty. It is definitely a movie for those who have a NIXON’S THE ONE button in their sock drawer, or even an I LIKE IKE button hidden away.
Frost was no match for Nixon—far from being an intrepid and challenging interviewer, he was a pushover for the great and the famous, always deeply impressed with the fact that here he was, David Frost, putting questions to—Richard Nixon!
In it, let me say at once, David Frost (played with stunningly appropriate unctuousness by Michael Sheen) is outwitted by the wily disgraced former president, just as he was in real life. Nobody understood how to use television for his own purposes better than Nixon, despite his poor showing against John F. Kennedy in the televised presidential debate. It wasn’t so much Nixon’s refusal to wear make-up that cost him the election. It was his inner rage about Kennedy’s easy self-assurance, inherited wealth, good looks and charm that undid Nixon on camera—after all Nixon had pulled off a great political Hail Mary pass with his “Checkers Speech” to keep his place on the Eisenhower ticket in 1951. Unlike most of our presidents since then (exception made for President Reagan), most of whom seem somehow diminished by television (think of President George W. Bush, who seems dying to scurry away from the camera as fast as he can, and appears on screen to be much smaller than he is in real life), Nixon relished television, and was good at it. He was also very good company one-to-one. It was small gatherings or mid-size groups that he seemed to dislike, and that made him seem stiff, awkward and slightly remote.
Nixon learned from his mistakes, always, and certainly when it came to television. When my friend and author John Ehrlichman first joined the Nixon presidential campaign in 1967, he did the unthinkable. Nobody was ever supposed to sit in the seat next to Nixon on the campaign plane, including Mrs. Nixon. But John walked up the aisle and boldly plumped himself down next to Nixon in the empty seat beside the candidate on their way to some campaign stop, ignoring Nixon’s alarm and the fact that he was pressed hard against the side of the cabin, trying to put as much space between himself and John as he could. John boldly told the president that he had a great idea. Instead of walking down the steps alone when they arrived at the next stop, with Mrs. Nixon left standing in the door of the plane, why didn’t Nixon walk down the steps hand in hand with Mrs. Nixon? It would make for much better television. Nixon thought this over for some time, then he turned to John, and in his deep, rumbling voice he said, “Mrs. Nixon and I don’t do that.”
And of course he was right, John later concluded—Nixon knew that a false sentimental gesture would look bad on television. Jack Kennedy could get away with that kind of thing. Nixon couldn’t, and he knew it. Television was always on his mind, with the result that when Henry Kissinger went to Beijing to negotiate the President’s state visit to China he was under strict orders to make sure above all that Nixon’s arrival in Beijing took place live in prime time on American television. Chou en Lai and Mao were expecting difficulties over Taiwan, but were baffled by the fact that item number one, the big non-negotiable point on the American diplomatic agenda, was the President’s arrival time instead.
Nixon knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish in his four interviews with David Frost, quite apart from having his agent Irving Paul Lazar negotiate a terrific deal for him, with cash up front. Frost was no match for Nixon. Far from being an intrepid and challenging interviewer, he was a pushover for the great and the famous, always deeply impressed with the fact that here he was, David Frost, putting questions to—Richard Nixon! “Look, Ma, I’m dancing!” might have been the motto on his coat of arms, had he been awarded a peerage. Michael Sheen captures very well the self-congratulatory quality of Frost’s infatuation with himself, much as he captured the same character traits in Tony Blair in The Queen, though he makes Frost more of a wide-eyed innocent than he really was. Still, Sheen gets very precisely the degree to which Frost sees himself as a celebrity dealing as an equal with his fellow celebrities and happy to be in that charmed circle, rather than as a crusading telejournalist, if such a thing exists. Even the hardest questions he puts to Nixon are couched in tones of awe, respect and false humility.
Langella is simply beyond praise. He has Nixon’s surprising height and bulk—Nixon was a big man, with a huge head. He captures perfectly the slight stoop, the hunched shoulders, and the splay-footed walk, as well as the occasional cutting, sardonic bursts of knife-edged black humor that was Nixon’s way of cutting people down to size, as when he asks if Frost isn’t worried that his Gucci loafers might seem a bit effeminate, causing Frost to look down at his own feet in alarm; or when he asks Frost, just before camera is turned on, whether he fornicated the night before, with a sudden, deeply inappropriate and unnerving, man-to-man leer. Nixon had just that ability to throw people off balance with a single question or remark that seemed to emerge from nowhere, and again and again he throws Frost off balance, just at the point where Frost think he has him. Even the ending, the big moment when Nixon talks frankly about his own disgrace, is in the film, as it was in real life, a triumph for Nixon, a brilliant piece of acting out humility and apology for the camera, which, once it is turned off, is immediately cancelled as Nixon regains control of himself and returns to his motorcade.
It might have been better if the story had not been expanded from that of the play to let the camera rove free around Frost’s life, trying to show him as a good-natured fellow who loves his crew, presumably to provide a contrast with Nixon. In real life, as dedicated careerists addicted to success and the limelight, they had more in common than not. Of course it allows Kevin Bacon to play Nixon’s aide (though with none of the tough mindedness that Nixon required from those who worked for him), and it is always a pleasure to see Kevin Bacon; and it gives a cameo appearance to Irving Lazar (who was in real life smaller, sharper, tougher, weirder, and cruder than he is made out to be here, and showed no deference to anyone, including Nixon). All of this could have been left out altogether, or at least made much funnier, but either way it takes up time that would have better devoted to Nixon’s one-on-one match to emerge triumphant from Frost’s tapes. Indeed, every moment when the camera isn’t on Langella is a moment wasted.
Bigger than life he captures the scowl, the dark, intense stare, the bullying manner designed to hide a deep insecurity, the undisguised envy of those who are able to enjoy the good things of life—a pretty girl, Gucci loafers, spontaneous fun. He captures too the essential toughness of the man, his moments of rage—shown here in a late night, drunken telephone call to Frost. He captures his refusal to accept pity from anybody or to show self-pity, and his brilliant, well-planned and ultimately successful attempt, of which the Frost interviews were the first, canny step, to rebuild his image, step by step, and emerge from exile in California to a place in New York City as a respected elder statesman.
From that point of view, I expect the film would have pleased him—he is still around, if only on film, we are still obsessed by him—and the sight of Frank Langella playing him would, I think, have given him one of those dark, deep, sardonic, mocking chuckles that were a Nixon trademark.
New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Dutchess County, New York.