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Richard Nixon: 37th President of the United States. Searingly intelligent, shy, aloof. Led by not only a desire for power but, all in, a desire to stabilize the world theater in a time of war, and utlimately the only American President to ever resign office.
David Frost: young British journalist, satirist and television presence, alumnus of the Footlights Club alongside performers such as Peter Cook, host of ground-breaking programme That Was The Week That Was and instantly recogniseable voice on British television from the 1960’s to the present day.
Two people from utterly different worlds. What happened when they came together to thrash out the truth in 1977? Find out after the jump.
Richard Nixon was elected President in 1969, and was embroiled straight away into a mess of civil unrest and worldwide tension. The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and tensions with China all made for a rocky Presidency at best. Nixon always stated that his greatest desire on coming to power was to try to ease these tensions, to do good and bring peace to a troubled world. Under his auspices the Vietnam war drew to an end, the national draft was ceased, and better relationships began to form between the U.S. and both Russia and China. Nixon’s term started to see a thawing of the Cold War, although a true end would not come till much, much later.
Nixon was also driven to the power of the office. Many have described him as sharp and intelligent, detached, and with an odd, almost out-of-place air. Some have likened his personality to that of someone “occasionally appearing compassionate but, in reality, merely doing what is necessary to appear compassionate, but all without actually having a lack of compassion.” In his early political years, he was often seen as focussed only on moving up the hallways of power with no true concern for the minutiae. Many of his early political allies have expressed that, whilst they would not have chosen to befriend such an awkward and aloof-seeming man in everyday life, they certainly knew that unlike ayone else he knew how to get stuff done, and was a powerful ally.
Nixon’s Presidency ended disastrously in 1974 when he became the first President of the United States to resign from office, ahead of a highly probable impeachment hearing – jumping beore he was pushed. The cards had started to fall with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters, based in the Watergate Office Complex in Washington D.C. in 1972. The “burglars” were apprehended on scene, and from then it started to become apparent that this was no ordinary burglary. This was in fact an attempt to snoop what the Democrats were up to, their campaign strategies, and to see what dirt they had on the Republican re-election committee’s campaign. What transpired was the exposure of a raft of illegal activities carried out with the knowledge and authorization of a number of Nixon’s Whitehouse staff: tax fraud, blackmail, political fraud, wiretapping, political espionage and sabotage, as well as the creation of a slush fund to pay for not only these illicit activities but also to cover hush money costs for those involved. Key to these illegal activities’ exposure were investigations by the CIA, FBI, Senate and House committes and, famously, the Washington Post, where journalists Woodward and Bernstein uncovered many of the connections that linked the burglary to the Whitehouse, thanks in part to a trail of breadcrumbs placed for them by a mysterious informant from somewhere within the administration known to them only as Deep Throat. Woodward and Bernstein’s story is told in the outstanding film All The President’s Men.
Finally, after being forced to release what many saw as damning audio recordings of conversations within the Oval Office, and with an impeachment hearing highly likely, Nixon resigned his Presidency on 9th August 1974. Though Whitehouse staff were eventually jailed for their part in the conspiracy, Nixon himself was never charged or tried, and to his death protested that he never knowingly or consciously carrried out any illegal or corrupt acts. He never pointed the finger of blame directly, but also never denied that he had “failed his friends, failed his country, and failed the people of the United States of America”, stating that “this is a burden I will have to carry for the rest of my life”.
Nixon only ever publicly spoke of the Watergate affair once. In an amazing journalistic coup, David Frost, a British jounalist, managed to secure a set of exclusive interviews with the former President in 1977, secured over the wants of the American news networks by a guarantee of six hours of broadcast time – far more than others were offering. Although always uncomfortable speaking in public and very shy, this appealed to Nixon’ s ego and he accepted.
The interviews covered a wide range of topics – China, foreign policy, Vietnam, and much more. But the most impressive and memorable was the interview that dealt with the hot potato subject: Watergate. Filmed over two sessions, we see Nixon counter-point Frosts’ impeccable research. There was no bias, no hiding away from the hard questions. And an immovable condition that safeguarded the integrity of the interviews was that Nixon would see no questions in advance, and would not be allowed to see the recorded material at all until they aired on PBS, when everyone would see them. The full set of interviews would prove to be one of the most powerful and important political interviews of the 20th Century.
I was lucky enough to see all the interviews a couple of years ago when they were aired on TV, but now sadly it seems only the Watergate interview is available online. Watergate started the drip-feed of distrust in government that racks America – and much of the rest of the world – today. And although it showed that the tools created by government – the CIA, the FBI, the political establishment itself – can destroy as much as aid and abet corruption, it also proved that it is possible for those in power to not be on the up and up to start with.
Before you go to see Frost/Nixon, the madly successful Broadway play starring Michael Sheen and Frank Langella which has been released as a movie (out January 23rd here in the UK), watch the source material below. You have never, and most likely will never again see such a powerful interview with such a powerful figure, laid bare for public examination. And the strange thing is, when I watch all the interviews, I don’t come away seeing Nixon as a corrupt politician. I come away with a sense that he was a shy, uncomfortable and out-of-place man, driven by a desire to to great good, but so out of touch with those around him that he strayed here and there until everything went horribly wrong.
But we will never know the truth for sure.
[EDIT 07/09/2010: seems the Google video of the inteview has been pulled. I’m not keen to post ten youtube links, and I refuse to send my readers to unscrupulous Russian sites of no pedigree. Until I can vodpod an alternative, I guess you’ll have to scour the intertubes. Sorry.]