Excerpt: Elizabeth Drew’s ‘Washington Journal’

Nixon’s book was a great success. He received a handsome advance of $2.5 million for his memoirs, which he wrote with the help of some aides who had gone with him into exile. The resulting book, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, sold an astonishing 330,000 copies in just the first six months. (Nixon had sought to emulate his idol Theodore Roosevelt—or TR—by having his own initials, RN, be the title of the book, but the publishers talked him into merely putting them at the front of the title.)

While Nixon was working on the book he decided on another money- making venture: to grant a series of televised interviews. While American broadcasters vied for the opportunity, Nixon decided on the English talk show host David Frost. Nixon assumed that Frost wouldn’t ask him the kinds of troublesome questions that American journalists were likely to. Frost also offered Nixon a sweet deal: in a highly unusual arrangement, Frost agreed that Nixon would be paid a fee of six hundred thousand dollars, plus 20 per- cent of the profits from sales of the interview to television stations.

Thus, according to this agreement, Nixon had a financial incentive to say something that would guarantee headlines—and lots of sales. It was a fix. The supposed gladiators were in business together—a fact unknown by the viewers. But the deal almost didn’t pay off. Part of the arrangement between Nixon and Frost was that only one of the four sessions would be about Watergate. For the first three Nixon rambled through his foreign policy successes (as he defined them, including Cambodia); the interviews were considered soporific. So everything rested on the final Watergate segment. For a while Nixon remained unrevealing; both Frost’s and Nixon’s aides were becom- ing desperately worried that the whole thing would be a flop. But suddenly, through Frost’s misreading of a sign the Nixon side held up—he thought it said that they wanted a pause in the interview—there was an unplanned break. In the dressing room, Nixon’s aides told him that he had to be more forthcoming, and at the end of the break a Nixon aide told Frost that Nixon knew that he had to say more, “He’s got more to volunteer.” The deal was on. And so Nixon returned and uttered his more famous lines, “I let down my country.” And, “I gave them a sword.” He insisted that his mistakes “were mistakes of the heart rather than of the head.” These were unusual things for an ex-president to say, but they weren’t stunning revelations. It was highly improbable that Nixon, a lawyer and skilled debater, would start confessing now to the commission of crimes. Most open-minded observers concluded that the interviews had resulted essentially in a draw.

Unfortunately, the popular play and movie Frost/Nixon distorted the transcript of the Watergate interview. Both the play and the movie have Nixon confess to Frost that he he’d been involved in a cover-up—with Nixon’s

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