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TERRY GROSS, Host:

In 1977, three years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, 45 million Americans watched on television as British celebrity journalist David Frost confronted Nixon over the Watergate scandal. It was the first time anyone had heard Nixon interviewed about the events that brought down his administration. Nixon agreed to speak to Frost for a total of 24 hours in return for a six-figure payment. The interviews were edited down to four 90-minute TV programs.

GROSS: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews," was published last year, when the Peter Morgan play "Frost/Nixon" renewed public interest in the interviews. Reston was a character in the play, and in the new film adaptation directed by Ron Howard, he's portrayed by actor Sam Rockwell. Reston, who's also a consultant to the film "Frost/Nixon," spoke to Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.

Let's start with a scene from the film. Reston is confronting David Frost over the direction Reston thinks the Nixon interviews should head in. Frost is played by Michael Sheen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "FROST/NIXON")

M: (As James Reston Jr.) I'd like to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had.

M: (As David Frost) Of course, we'll be asking difficult questions.

M: Difficult questions? The man lost 21,000 Americans and a million Indo-Chinese during his administration. He only escaped jail because of Ford's pardon.

M: Yes, but equally going after him in some kneejerk way, you know, assuming he's a terrible guy, wouldn't that only create more sympathy for him than anything else?

M: Right now, I submit it's impossible to feel anything close to sympathy for Richard Nixon. He devalued the presidency, and he left the country that elected him in trauma. The American people need a conviction, pure and simple.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, James Reston Jr., welcome back to Fresh Air. Why did Nixon decide to grant this interview not to a credible American news organization, but to a British interviewer known much more for fluff and celebrity interviews?

M: I think there were several reasons. First and foremost, perhaps, in Nixon's mind was that he was going to make at least $600,000, and I think in the end he made over a million dollars from the project. He was very concerned about his memoirs, and I think that he felt that was - that this was going to be just an electronic version of his memoirs. And thirdly, and maybe most importantly, was that he thought that he could walk all over this British talk-show host and rehabilitate his reputation and perhaps change the historical attitude toward him.

DAVIES: So, when you finally met this guy who had this reputation of being this guy who tossed softball questions and for you, it was the chance to give Nixon the real trial that he never got, what was your impression of Frost?

M: Well, I was really rather in conflict about that whole thing because on the one hand, you know, we had these deep concerns about whether this man was up to the job and whether he really appreciated the historical stakes that were involved here. But you put against that the fact that, indeed, he's the one that got the deal. He had the exclusive rights. This was going to be the one shot that history would ever get to bring Nixon to account. And so, that was the conflict. Was he up to it? Well, not necessarily. Was he the one that was going to do it no matter what? Yes. There you had it. So, I put those things into the balance and decided I'd better get into this with gusto.

DAVIES: It was important for Frost to understand all this material about Watergate, but it would have been particularly helpful if he'd gotten some new stuff. You were able to find some Nixon conversations which had - really had not made it into public view. How did you do that?

M: Yeah. Well, these were conversations with Charles Colson, who was a kind of henchman for Rich Nixon in the White House, and I had never seen any Nixon-Colson conversations in the public record. But I had gone to see Colson, and he had indicated to me that there were such things, and I thought that might be quite interesting if I could find them. So, I was on the hunt, and indeed, by going back to the United States courthouse and looking at the trial transcript of the H. R. Haldeman trial, in the exhibit portion, out dropped something like five conversations between Nixon and Colson. And they were quite amazing. They walked the chronology backwards a few days in terms of Nixon's knowledge of the break-in and his involvement in putting the cover-up into place in the very first working day at the White House after the break-in on June 17th, 1972.

Nixon had left office when a tape recording was revealed from June 23rd, 1972, that became famously known as the smoking-gun tape. But here dropped a conversation out with Colson which showed him very much starting right at the get-go in putting a cover-up into place. And we hoped that this would flummox Nixon, in his shock and surprise that we had new material, and that this would allow Frost to take charge of the interview.

DAVIES: In the interview, when he confronted Nixon with this unexpected material that you had uncovered - conversations with his hatchet man Charles Colson which the public had never yet heard before - as you watched that, what was its effect on Nixon?

M: Well, it was quite extraordinary because, you know, yes, this was the trial that he never had, but it was a trial before 57 million people. And there is something relentless about that television camera, of course. This was very tight close-ups. And when the trap was sprung, it was fascinating television because Nixon - you could almost see the wheels working in his head, asking himself, my God, where does this come from? How do I respond to what's in it? Here he had said to Colson, you know, we just stonewall it. We're just going to leave it with the burglars and so forth. It was tremendously damaging material. And so, it knocked him off his game. It knocked him off his studied defenses. And indeed, the material itself undermined the basic case that he had presented to the public up until that moment.

DAVIES: You know, I watched the actual interview as it aired in preparation for our interview. And I have to say, I mean, David Frost did a masterful job of this, because you had a situation where, as you say, the material was incredibly complex, a lot of dates, and Nixon knew it all and was prepared to offer point-by-point defenses. And Frost was so good. His mastery of the material was such, thanks to him having read the preparation you'd given him, that he really came back so often and so well. And I thought we would listen to just a little bit of this, and this is a moment where he cites for Nixon excerpts of Nixon's own words from that White House tapes, discussing hush money for a number of Watergate conspirators, including Howard Hunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1977 FROST/NIXON INTERVIEW)

M: Is there any doubt, when one reads - reading the whole conversation - one, you could get a million dollars and you could get it in cash; I know where it could be gotten. Two, your major guy to keep under control is Hunt; don't you have - three, don't you have to handle Hunt's financial situation? Four, let me put it frankly; I wonder if that doesn't have to be continued. Five, get the million bucks; it would seem to me that would be worthwhile. Six, don't you agree that you'd better get the Hunt thing? Seven, that's worth it, and that's buying time, also. Eight, we should buy the time on that, as I pointed out to John. Nine, Hunt has at least got to know this before he is sentenced. Ten, first, you've got the Hunt problem; that ought to be handled. Eleven, the money can be provided. Mitchell could provide the way to deliver it; that could be done.

See what I mean? Twelve, but let's come back to the money. They were off on something else here, desperate to get away from the money, bored to death with the continued references to the money, a million dollars and so forth and so on. Let me say that I think you could get that in cash. Thirteen, that's why your immediate thing, you've got no choice with Hunt, but 120 or whatever it is, right? Fourteen, would you agree that this is a buy-time thing? You better damn well get that done, but fast. Fifteen, now who is going to talk to him? Colson? Sixteen, we have no choice and so on. Now, reading, as you've requested, the thing in the whole context, that is...

F: All right, fine. Let me just stop you right there. Right there. You're doing something here which I am not doing, and I will not do throughout these broadcasts. You have every right to. You are reading there out of context, out of order, because I have read this and I know it really better than you do.

M: I'm sure you do.

P: And I should know it better because I was there. It's no reflection on you. You know it better than anybody else I know, incidentally, and you're doing it very well.

DAVIES: And that's from the Frost/Nixon interviews in 1977, which, of course, our guest James Reston Jr. wrote about. He helped prepare Frost for the interviews. And you know, what's fascinating about that cut, you can see Frost being the prosecutor and you hear Nixon getting rattled. You know, you write in this book that you thought no American journalist could've done what David Frost did in that interview. Why?

M: Yes. Well, I've been sounding rather negative towards David Frost up until this point, but he, in some ways, he was the best person in the world to do this, if he was going to buckle down and master the material, because he had this past as an entertainer and as a comic, and he was very much in command of the language. He knew how to use irony and humor to undercut an argument of his guests. So, it was the entertainer side of it were really quite powerful weapons that he brought to this thing.

DAVIES: We're speaking with James Reston Jr. He helped David Frost prepare for his interviews with Richard Nixon, which were aired in 1977. They're depicted in the new film "Frost/Nixon." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with James Reston Jr. He helped David Frost prepare for his historic interview with Richard Nixon which aired in 1977 and is the subject of the new film "Frost/Nixon." There was an unexpected break in the taping, which people didn't realized at the time, and that's a story you tell in the book. What happened?

M: Well, very shortly after that, that point, Nixon started, it seemed, to crack. And Jack Brennan, who was Nixon's chief of staff, came on to the set, and he held up a note to David Frost. And Frost acceded to this, stopped the taping, and there was a furious rush. I came flying out of our room. Brennan came by and grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me into a room. David came off the set, and he was beckoned into this room, and there was a 10-minute break in which Brennan said...

DAVIES: This was Nixon's guy, Brennan? Right.

M: Yeah, he said to both of us, now you've brought him to this extraordinary moment in his life. You've got to back off in this prosecutorial thing and let him talk. He really wants to be forthcoming. And as the, sort of, the goad in the piece, I said, well, what is - you know, if we back off, what's he going to say? Is he going to acknowledge criminality? Will he acknowledge an impeachable offense? No, said Brennan, he wouldn't do that. Well, I said, why should we back off, then? So, it was a conversation which really had no resolution to it. We had no assurance that anything different was going to happen. So, back they went onto the set. And Frost simply took a bet that he would get something very significant if he backed off, and indeed, changed, basically - and this is where he was at his brilliant best - changed from the prosecutor to the kind of father confessor to pull out of Nixon first an acknowledgment of the crime and then, ultimately, an apology for his behavior.

DAVIES: Well, you know, it's interesting because it seems to me, when I listen to it, that Nixon didn't acknowledge very much. I mean, he continued to insist that he had never committed an impeachable offense, had never engaged in obstruction of justice, and the closest he came was where he said that, while he was advising his friends - his aides Ehrlichman and Haldeman - when they were in trouble, he was sort of acting as a lawyer, and he says, I came to the edge, and under the circumstances, I would have to say a reasonable person could call that a cover-up. But he immediately says, I didn't think of it as a cover-up, I didn't intend a cover-up, and he continues with sort of these self-pitying stories about his daughter pleading with him and more rationalizations. I think it was a powerful interview, but I'm not so sure he admitted so much. Am I wrong?

M: Yes. Well, this is, I suppose, the great subject for discussion of historians and the general audience about that acknowledgment and that apology. I found it absolutely satisfying in every respect. I think you slightly misstated what happened there, that, indeed, he does say, I didn't commit a crime; I didn't commit an impeachable offense. But he goes on to say, these are technicalities. You know, I did tremendously botch the thing. And then he goes on to talk about how he let down his friends, and he let down the country, and he let down the young people of America who wouldn't get into government because they now think it's so corrupt.

That is left not as a legal question, but as a psychological question. As the viewer, do you find that to be an acknowledgment of his criminality, and do you find the apology sincere, or is it fake? I, as one who felt he had to be shown to be guilty of the crimes of Watergate, I felt that that happened. That is my opinion and that was the opinion of 72 percent of the American people when polls were taken afterwards. Did he say, yes, I committed a crime, and yes, I committed an impeachable offense? No, he didn't. But I think that's a really sort of minor point.

DAVIES: For a lot of Americans, especially younger Americans, I mean, the "Frost/Nixon" film will really be the version of history that they take of these events in 1977. And Nixon is portrayed in the film by Frank Langella, who also did him in the play, and it's an incredibly nuanced portrayal. And I'm wondering, do you think it is a sympathetic view of Nixon? And are you concerned that people will view Nixon in a more sympathetic light if this is the Nixon they see?

M: Yes. Well, I am very concerned about that, and I've had many discussions with a number of people in the production on that particular point. The achievement of the film is that it humanizes Nixon, and that's a very good thing. When you move beyond humanization into sympathy, you get into much more dangerous territory. There is no reason to feel sympathy about Richard Nixon in relation to the Watergate scandal. And the performance of Frank Langella is extraordinary in the sense that, yes, he is a human being, but he also has this sense of menace and scariness about him that is the mark of a great actor and a great performance. But I would be very distressed if coming out of this film that people felt sympathetic. You can say the villain is complicated, and he is fascinating and enigmatic and riveting. But he's still a villain, and he did do these things, and we need to remember precisely what those crimes were.

DAVIES: Well, we're out of time. James Reston Jr., I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us.

M: Delighted.

GROSS: James Reston Jr., speaking with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies. Reston is the author of the book, "The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the "Frost/Nixon Interviews." He was a consultant on the new film "Frost/Nixon" and is portrayed in it by Sam Rockwell. Dave Davies is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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