The Conviction of RICHARD NIXON; the untold story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews by James Reston, Jr. (Harmony Books, New York (2007), $22, 207pp.
Reston was hired to advise Frost and help him to prepare the interviews. The stakes were high. Reston believes that Nixon underestimated Frost, who had built his career as a British television entertainer and soft celebrity interviewer. He likely thought he would be able to use his well-honed prosecutorial and political skills to create a forum in which he would be rehabilitated. As it turned out, Nixon was wrong. He was outgunned.
No doubt this was a triumph for Frost who proved that he could be a tough journalist when it really mattered. But more importantly, it decisively confirmed the justice of the impeachment proceedings before the bar of public opinion even though Gerald Ford had ended the possibility of criminal proceedings against Nixon.
The confrontation between the two men was high drama and Reston was witness to it all, as well as a major contributor to developing the evidentiary case against Nixon. In fact he gained access to new material that had not been available during the Watergate hearings.
Reston kept a private diary of the events but he didn't publish. How he came write the present memoir based upon the diary and his recollections of the period is another fascinating story. Peter Morgan, the screen writer who wrote the prize-winning script, The Queen, starring Helen Mirrin, decided to write a play Frost/Nixon about the interviews. Learning about Reston's diary, Morgan approached him and asked to see it. Reston agreed and thus became an advisor for the London production of Morgan's Nixon/Frost play.
The play has been a hit in London, where it first opened, and now also on Broadway. In the play a character named Reston narrates the action. A film is planned based on the play and scheduled for release before the 2008 elections.
The play is, of course, a fictional reconstruction of the actual circumstances. Reston said in an interview on a recent Book TV broadcast, shown on C-Span 2, that he admires the job done by Morgan and considers the play to be a great success. Inspired, Reston went back to his diary and its description of the time 30 years ago when the interviews took place. He decided that this was an opportune moment to write the actual history of the interviews as they unfolded. Reston has written a gripping account. If the film is half as good, it is sure to be a big hit.
For Reston, who has made a distinguished career as a historian, his new book has also given him the opportunity to draw parallels between Nixon's "high crimes and misdemeanors" and the actions of the present Bush Administration, which is attempting to successfully create an "imperial presidency" in defiance of the Constitution -- to succeed where Nixon failed.
But it has a contemporary sub-text. Nixon was defeated in his power grab by the efforts of a group of dedicated journalists who were supported by the media. Of course, Woodward and Bernstein led the charge, but many others,such as David Frost, weighed in. The moral is clear for us today.
The message from the first two pages of Frost's introduction is so important. Frost writes:
"If the President does it that means it's not illegal."
Those brazen words, uttered by Richard Nixon in his famous interview with David Frost in 1977, come eerily down to us through the tunnel of the last thirty years. In the area of criminal activity, Nixon argued, the President is immune. He can eavesdrop; he can cover up; he can approve burglaries; he can bend government agencies like the CIA and the FBI to his own political purposes. He can do so in the name of "national security" and "executive privilege." And when these acts are exposed, he can call them "mistakes" or "stupid things" or "pipsqueak" matters. In the twenty-first century, Nixon's principle has been extended to authorizing torture, setting up secret prisons around the world, and ignoring the requirement for search warrants. A president can scrap the Geneva Convention and misuse the Defense Department and lie about the intelligence analysis. He is above the law. This is especially so when the nation is mired in an unpopular war, when the country is divided, when mass protests are in the streets of America, and an American president is pilloried around the world.
If Nixon's words resonate today, so also does the word Watergate. Again the nation is in a failing elective war. A Nixon successor is again charged with abuse of power in covering up and distorting crucial facts as he dragged the country, under false pretenses, into war. Again secrecy reigns in the White House, and the argument is made that national security trumps all. More than thirty years after the fact, the details of Watergate, in all its manifestations and with its bewildering cast of characters, may seem like a remote event in American political history. But in its essence, it was a signal turning point.
The power of the Frost/Nixon interviews, a milestone in media history and in the modern American presidency, remains undiminished. The interviews raise the universal question of how a country comes to terms with an ugly episode in its recent past. They raise the question of how a leader who has abused his power is brought to justice once he is disgraced and removed from office, even if that justice is only moral or metaphysical.
About the Author: Carol White is Book Reviews Editor for ePluribus Media. She has edited a small science journal and is presently a free-lance writer, who covers the arts and related matters for her local newspaper.
ePluribus Contributors: AvaHome, cho and roxy