40th Anniversary of Frost v Nixon
Lies Cover-ups and Downfalls
The Story of how an American President was caught out by a British Entertainer
It was hailed as the cover up of the century with money laundering, burglary, missing phone transcripts and the only resignation of a President of the United States in its 200 year history. But it was all down to one rookie British talk show host David Frost who was the only person able to get the truth out of the seemingly impenetrable former President Richard M. Nixon. March 2017 will see the 40th anniversary, the Frost / Nixon interviews which are still a hotbed of discussion today as they were all those decades ago.
Tricky Dicky as he became known was the 37th president in 1969 taking over from Lyndon B Johnson. But despite his achievements in welfare, civil rights and the environment it was his involvement of the Watergate affair which led to him moving out of America’s most famous residence.
In the early hours of the morning of 17th June 1972, several burglars were arrested inside the office of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), located in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. It was soon discovered that the prowlers were connected to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, and were caught while attempting to wiretap phones and steal secret documents. Although it has never been proven whether Nixon knew about the original break in, he took steps to cover it up afterwards by raising “hush money” for the burglars. He also attempted to stop the investigation by destroying evidence and fired any member of staff who was un-cooperative with him.
By 1974 his direct connection with the Watergate conspiracy was brought to the surface. So on the evening of Thursday 8th August President Richard Nixon appeared on television to the nation and announced his decision to resign the Presidency effective at noon the next day. Nixon recalled he didn’t sleep much the night before he left the White House. Once he did wake up, he noticed his watch had stopped at 4am on the last day as President. “By that time,” he admits, “I was worn out too”.
Despite never being charged or prosecuted, his successor Gerald Ford gave Presidential pardon to Nixon for all the crimes he “committed or may have committed while in office”. Tricky Dicky had got away with it which made many Americans question the whole validity for leadership.
By 1977 after spending more than two years away from public life, Nixon’s personal finances were in dire straits. With rising bills and no way of being able to pay them, his publicist Irving “Swifty” Lazar persuaded Nixon to appear on television with David Frost, a British entertainer, to reach a wider audience and promote the sale of his memoirs. However, Frost had other ideas and wanted to give the American people the trial they never had.
To do this came at a cost and so to secure the deal Frost had to agree to pay Nixon an unprecedented $600,000 (about $8M in today’s money) plus a 20% share in any profits for just three weeks work. But there was a problem. Because Frost had agreed to pay Nixon for the interviews the American news networks were not interested, regarding them as chequebook journalism. They refused to distribute the program and Frost was forced to fund the project himself.
Without the networks the daunting prospect of self funding became a monumental uphill struggle. Advertising companies refused to work with him and with other revenue avenues running out; there became a real risk that the whole project would never see the light of day. All forms of regular work started to dry up as one by one David’s other TV shows were dropped. His girlfriend Caroline Cushing revealed “It had been hairy up until the last minute” but salvation for David came in the form of an old friend, Australian-born investment banker Sir James Wolfensohn who went on to head the World Bank. He agreed to put up $200,000 – the equivalent of £1 million today – to underwrite David’s down-payment to Nixon that allowed the interviews to go forward.
Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff Jack Brennan negotiated the terms of the Interviews with Frost. He saw it as an opportunity for the former President to restore his reputation with the public and thought that Frost would be easily outwitted. As the recordings started it soon became apparent that this was a real life David versus Goliath situation and the reality dawned across the young Frost’s face he may be in trouble. Hard journalism was not his speciality as Nixon deliberately used endless monologues to answer just one question.
David was sinking fast. Spurred on by his producer John Birt and research team James Reston Jr and Robert Zelnick, David continued asking questions but nothing was forthcoming and it all started to look as though the former President was going to appear victorious. The final days were approaching and Frost didn’t have a single thing he could pin on Nixon, but he did still have to record Watergate.
As the final recordings took place everything was carrying on as before until Frost revealed details of a previously unknown conversation between Nixon and his Special Council advisor Charles Colson. This was a recording of the two men discussing covering up Watergate. At first the President tried to evade the information but as the interview progressed Frost knew he had Nixon on the run which he used to his advantage. Although Nixon never actually stated that he took part in the scandal citing “When the President does it that means it’s not illegal”, his face said it all and the close up image on the TV screen told the world that he’d been caught fair and square. Frost had won.
40 years on and the memories of those who witnessed the event still give conflicting opinions. Pete Mansfield 72 thinks Nixon “Didn’t initially know about Watergate and was only told after it had all gone wrong”. Whereas Chas McGowan 74 recalls “No one in the UK really cared, it was all happening over the pond but I think Nixon knew from the beginning”.
As the 1970’s scandal pales further into history the only real significance nowadays is that whenever a new one comes to light it has the suffix “Gate” attached to it. Both Nixon and Frost may have died but the name Watergate lives on.