The Nixon Interviews
The Nixon Interviews were a series of interviews of former U.S. President Richard Nixon conducted by British journalist David Frost, and produced by John Birt. They were recorded and broadcast on television in four programs in 1977. The interviews later inspired the plot of the Indian political thriller film Mudhalvan (1998) and became the central subject of Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon in 2006.
After his resignation in 1974, Nixon spent more than two years away from public life. In 1977, he granted Frost an exclusive series of interviews. Nixon was already publishing his memoirs at the time; however, his publicist Irving "Swifty" Lazar believed that by using television Nixon could reach a mass audience. In addition, Nixon was going broke. Frost's New York-based talk show had been recently cancelled, leaving him consigned to a career based around the stories covered by the proto-reality show Great Escapes. As Frost had agreed to pay Nixon for the interviews, the American news networks were not interested, regarding them as checkbook journalism. They refused to distribute the program and Frost was forced to fund the project himself while seeking other investors, who eventually bought air time and syndicated the four programs.
Frost recruited James Reston, Jr. and ABC News producer Bob Zelnick to evaluate the Watergate minutiae prior to the interview. Their research allowed Frost to take control of the interview at a key moment, when he revealed details of a previously unknown conversation between Nixon and Charles Colson. Nixon's resulting admissions would support the widespread conclusion that he had obstructed justice. Nixon continued to deny the allegations until his death in 1994, and it was never tested in a court of law because his successor, Gerald Ford, issued a pardon to Nixon one month after his resignation. Nixon's negotiated fee was $600,000 and a 20% share of any profits.
Nixon chief of staff Jack Brennan negotiated the terms of the interview with Frost. Nixon's staff saw the interview as an opportunity for the disgraced president to restore his reputation with the public, and assumed that Frost would be easily outwitted. Previously, in 1968, Frost had interviewed Nixon in a manner described by Time magazine as "so softly that in 1970 President Richard Nixon ferried Frost and Mum to the White House, where the Englishman was appointed to produce a show in celebration of the American Christmas."
The 12 interviews began on March 23, 1977, with three interviews per week over four weeks. They were taped for two hours a day, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, for a total of 28 hours and 45 minutes. The interviews were managed by executive producer Marvin Minoff, who was the president of Frost's David Paradine Productions, and by British current affairs producer John Birt.
Recording took place at a seaside home in Monarch Bay, California, owned by Mr. Harold H. Smith and Mrs. Martha Lea Smith, who were both longtime Nixon supporters. This location was chosen instead of Nixon's San Clemente home, La Casa Pacifica, on account of interference with the television relay equipment by the Coast Guard navigational-aid transmitters near San Clemente. Frost rented the Smith home for $6,000 on a part-time basis.
The interviews were broadcast in the US and some other countries in 1977. They were edited into four programs, each 90 minutes long.
On Sunday evening May 1, 1977, CBS's 60 Minutes broadcast an interview of David Frost by Mike Wallace. This was the same network that Frost had "scooped" (CBS had negotiated to interview Nixon, but unlike the news organization, Frost was willing to pay for the sessions). Frost talked about looking forward to Nixon's "cascade of candor".
The interviews were broadcast in four parts, with a fifth part containing material edited from the earlier parts broadcast months later:
|Part 1||5 May 1977||Watergate|
|Part 2||12 May 1977||Nixon and the world|
|Part 3||19 May 1977||War at home and abroad|
|Part 4||26 May 1977||Nixon, the man|
|Part 5||10 September 1977||additional material from parts 1–4|
The premiere episode drew 45 million viewers, the largest television audience for a political interview in history — a record that still stands today.
In part 3, Frost asked Nixon about the legality of the president's actions. In the context of American national security, Nixon replied: "Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."
A Gallup poll conducted after the interviews aired showed that 69 percent of the public thought that Nixon was still trying to cover up, 72 percent still thought he was guilty of obstruction of justice, and 75 percent thought he deserved no further role in public life. Frost was expected to make $1 million from the interviews.
There have been several releases on DVD featuring different edited presentations of the Interviews, the first of which is generally focused on clips from the first segment on Watergate with additional commentary, whereas the extended release features the "complete" interviews in the original four (and the later fifth) segments just as they were broadcast in 1977. However, it is still unclear whether or not the (more than 20 hours of) tape cut from all the publicly released editions will ever be made available to the public. :
- 1 disc edition, 85 minutes ("Frost/Nixon: The Watergate Interviews")
- 2 disc edition, 377 minutes ("Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews")
- "Nixon Talks". Time Magazine. 9 May 1977. Retrieved 2009-01-05.
- "James Reston Jr. On The 'Frost/Nixon' Interviews". Columbia Journalism Review. 2008-12-17. Retrieved 2009-01-04.
- "Transcript of CNN's Larry King Live: Frost, Schieffer, Bradlee Discuss Extensive Nixon Interview". CNN. 2001-02-07. Retrieved 2009-01-04.
- White, Theodore Harold (1975). Breach of faith: the fall of Richard Nixon. New York: Atheneum. p. 7. ISBN 0-689-10658-0. OCLC 1370091.
- Frost, David; Bob Zelnick (2007). Frost/Nixon: Behind the Scenes of the Nixon Interviews. Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0-06-144586-6.
- Janusonis, Michael (23 January 2009). "Is Frost/Nixon true? Let's ask PC grad Jack Brennan — he was there". The Providence Journal. Archived from the original on 2009-02-01. Retrieved 2009-01-25.
At San Clemente, Brennan served as Nixon’s chief of staff and negotiated the terms for the 1977 interviews with David Frost that became a TV sensation and are the subject of Morgan’s play and movie script.
- "David Can Be a Goliath". Time. May 9, 1977. Retrieved 2009-01-08.
- Barnes, Mike (2009-11-13). "'Nixon Interviews' producer Marvin Minoff dies". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on October 24, 2012. Retrieved 2009-12-02.
- "Producer Marvin Minoff dies at 78 - Worked on Frost-Nixon TV interview specials". Variety Magazine. 2009-11-13. Retrieved 2009-12-02.
- Interview with David Frost included with the 2008 DVD re-release of the original 1977 Nixon interviews.
- 1977 60 Minutes Mike Wallace interview of David Frost on YouTube.
- "Profile:Sir David Frost". UK News. BBC. 2005-05-28. Retrieved 2008-12-13.
- "Nixon's Views on Presidential Power: Excerpts from an Interview with David Frost". landmarkcases.org. Retrieved 2016-03-06.
- Hughes, Ken. "Why Didn't Nixon Burn the Tapes?". Presidential Recordings Program. University of Virginia. Retrieved 2008-12-13.
- David Frost Interviews Richard Nixon at the Internet Movie Database
- "British presenter David Frost taking on Nixon". Summer Breakfast. Radio National. 5 January 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-01-31.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is how a team of journalists prepped Frost to take on Nixon in the interview. One of those journalists was Bob Zelnick, played by Oliver Platt in the [Frost/Nixon] film. The real Bob Zelnick speaks to us on Summer Breakfast.