Television made, unmade, and remade Richard Milhous Nixon. His political career coincided with the birth and boom of commercial TV broadcasting. He succeeded despite lacking the telegenic charms that propelled John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama into office.
On September 23, 1952, when allegations of a slush fund led Dwight Eisenhower to consider dropping him as vice-presidential candidate, Nixon went on TV to defend himself. The famous, mawkish “Checkers Speech” salvaged his place on the Republican ticket and his career. On September 26, 1960, Nixon took to the air again, in a presidential debate with Senator Kennedy. Unlike his suave and poised opponent, Nixon appeared anxious and haggard, and his inability to command the electronic medium cost him a close election. However, by November 17, 1973, Nixon was at last sitting in the Oval Office, though, consumed by the Watergate scandal, he went on TV to declare: “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” People were not reassured, and demands for impeachment became impossible to ignore. On August 8, 1974, President Nixon went before the
cameras to announce his resignation.
Three years later, Nixon was, like Napoleon in Elba, living in sullen exile in southern California but plotting his return to public esteem. For his instrument of redemption, he gambled on TV. His unlikely co-conspirator would be David Frost, an Englishman best known here for That Was the Week That Was, a topical comedy show that anticipated Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. His own career floundering, Frost saw the disgraced former leader as his ticket to professional rehabilitation. Gambling that checkbook journalism would not undercut his ambitions, he offered Nixon $600,000 plus 20 percent of profits for 28 hours 45 minutes of interviews. The result, broadcast in four 90-minute installments beginning May 4, 1977, was a riveting clash of wits that drew the largest audience ever to watch an interview. It was fascinating to observe the wily pariah — “tricky Dick” — parry with Frost over foreign and domestic issues, but especially the scandal that brought him down. Would he finally admit guilt? “Well, when the president does it,” insisted Nixon, “that means that it is not illegal.”
In 2006, Peter Morgan, screenwriter for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, crafted a spellbinding stage play out of this extraordinary episode in TV history. Starring Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost, Frost/Nixon was a hit on two continents. Langella and Sheen reprised their roles in a screen version written by Morgan, directed by Ron Howard, and released in 2008. Alan Cox plays Frost in the stage production that comes to San Antonio for a run at the Majestic Theater April 7-12. Stacy Keach, despite suffering a series of mild strokes in mid March, is expected to be back onstage as Nixon.
More than three decades after the interviews and 15 years after Nixon’s death, Frost/Nixon might be approached by most as historical drama, appreciated, like Henry IV or A Man for All Seasons, for its vivid conflict of personalities and concepts. But when Morgan wrote his play, another imperial president was refusing responsibility for crimes against the Constitution and humanity. Frost/Nixon arrives now as a gratifying fantasy of displaced interrogation. What if, instead of Frost on Nixon, we could watch Jon Stewart, Jim Cramer’s scourge, grill George W. Bush about WMD, attorney firings, political hirings, wiretapping, torture, abuse of science and justice? As someone said on TV, people have got to know whether or not their president was a crook. •