In 1976, Robert Zelnick, an out-of-work radio reporter with a law degree, made a fateful decision: he signed on as executive editor for British talk show host David Frost’s televised interviews with disgraced former president Richard Nixon.
Zelnick, along with the rest of the country, had reservations. Nixon, many people thought, saw Frost as a high-living, tepid interrogator through whom he could rectify his legacy. The Frost crew, however, were determined to deliver to the country, as Zelnick told a journalist at the time, "the trial that Richard Nixon never had."
The Frost interviews took place in Beverly Hills over more than a month and consisted of eleven in-depth discussions, covering issues from the Kent State shootings and Vietnam to Watergate and Spiro Agnew. Nixon was paid $1 million. No one knew exactly how it would turn out—only that many careers and one presidential legacy hung in the balance. "If we screwed up everything except for Watergate, we knew we’d be successful," Zelnick, a Hoover research fellow, said in a recent interview. "If we got everything right except for Watergate, we knew we’d be a failure."
The on-camera struggle, and the behind-the-scenes drama, inspired the 2006 stage production Frost/Nixon, starring Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon. Film director Ron Howard adapted the play for the screen, wisely keeping Langella (who was nominated for a best-actor Oscar). Actor Oliver Platt plays Zelnick, who went on to work for ABC News for twenty-one years. Caleb Daniloff spoke with Zelnick about his views on Nixon, Frost, and seizing opportunities.
Caleb Daniloff: How did you first hook up with Frost?
Robert Zelnick: I first heard of the Frost interviews along with the rest of the country when it was announced. I had the same reaction that most of the public had: that Nixon had chosen a softy to do the interview over whom he would run roughshod. I got involved when the late columnist Joseph Kraft, who was a friend of David’s and also a good friend of mine, put the two of us together after he persuaded me that David intended to go about this rigorously and seriously.
Daniloff: What was your role?
Zelnick: I was going to be the Washington bureau chief. We were to hire reporters to specialize in certain areas of the Nixon presidency, specifically Watergate, and domestic and foreign policy. After our papers were coordinated with David’s, we were to converge on Beverly Hills and help David organize for the interviews. Before each one of them, I would marshal all the material we had, digest it, and try to anticipate the way Nixon would respond. After briefing David, I would sit in the chair and pretend to be Nixon, and he would ask me exactly the questions we had in mind for the next day.
Daniloff: Did playing Nixon give you any particular insight into the man?
Zelnick: It gave me tremendous insight in terms of being able to anticipate his thought processes. There were times when his response was almost verbatim to what my preparation had been. We all marveled at that. We did thorough research, and of course I had followed Nixon as a reporter and a columnist and had done some reporting on Watergate. We worked very hard on it and correctly identified the direction of Nixon’s responses and, in some cases, the specific responses themselves.
Daniloff: Anything you didn’t anticipate?
Zelnick: The single biggest surprise was not in the Watergate area or the alleged other dirty tricks. It was in the area of Vietnam, where Nixon flat out blamed Congress for losing the war, rather than the policies of Lyndon Johnson or the route that he had pursued. As time went by and I studied more about Vietnam, I came a little bit closer to Nixon’s position. I do believe that he or some president might have made the [peace] agreement stick if it hadn’t been for the War Powers Act that was passed by Congress or the bombing cutoff or the great diminution in aid to our South Vietnamese ally that was passed by Congress. I think there was some merit in Nixon’s argument, though it came as a great surprise to me at the time.
Daniloff: What behaviors did you expect of him?
Zelnick: His defendant-like positions of responding candidly and fully to matters that were already on the record. If it wasn’t something that was greatly favorable to him, like normalization of relations with China, then you weren’t going to get any information from Nixon himself. He was totally unconcerned about fleshing out the record and much concerned about tailoring the record to his historical advantage.
Daniloff: In what ways did you treat the interviews as Nixon’s trial?
Zelnick: Both sides treated it as litigation. I talked to prosecutors I knew and asked them, "If you had Nixon on the stand, what would you ask him?" And every night, for example, before we were going to do a segment of the interview, I called Ken Khachigian, one of Nixon’s top aides, and I would go over some of the areas that we’d be covering. I didn’t give him the exact wording or sequence of questions, but I wanted Nixon briefed on the incidents so that he could give the best response possible. It was important for me to deal with the unleashed Nixon, rather than someone in a cage that you just poke a stick at.
"We did thorough research . . . and correctly identified the direction of Nixon’s responses and, in some cases, the specific responses themselves."
Daniloff: How would you characterize Nixon the human being?
Zelnick: I would say that Nixon was incredibly smart and analytical, that he was patriotic, and that he wanted do a good job. He was terribly selfconscious about his background and his education compared to the elite of Washington—although there’s nothing shameful about going to Whittier and Duke Law School, then serving as an officer in the Navy in World War II. He was an overachiever. A very interesting story about Nixon was told to me by a member of his cabinet, who thinks the maternal influence was very great. Hannah Nixon probably told her son, she being a devout Quaker, that whatever happens, never lie. Always tell the truth even if it hurts you. No one was more guilt-ridden than Nixon when the chance to vindicate his mother’s advice came and he ended up lying all through Watergate.
Daniloff: And as a politician?
Zelnick: Nixon was a tough adversary. The interviews show how tough a core Nixon had and how strategic his every move was. Nixon thought one step, two steps, three steps ahead. He had an objective firmly in mind. He was his own best lawyer. At the same time, he had this dark streak and he was his own worst enemy. Everything that people noticed about him that was good—his strategic thinking, his patriotism, his analytical abilities, his recognition of the character traits of others—all of that deserted him in the moment when it counted the most.
Daniloff: How did David Frost conduct himself in the interviews?
Zelnick: David impressed us all as someone who did a prodigious amount of studying, not only in the material we sent him, but mining his own contacts. He has a great retentive mind and a great sense of humor. I think he does have a tendency to be lavish in praising his guests and exaggerating his guests’ good points, but I think that’s the showman and promoter in David. But he did keep it in check once we got going. He realized that his whole career hung in the balance, and we realized pretty much the same ourselves. It was infinitely worrisome. There was more than once when we thought Nixon was just more than David could handle. In the end, David handled what he had to handle very well.
"Nixon flat-out blamed the Congress for losing the war, rather than the policies of Lyndon Johnson or the route that he had pursued. As time went by and I studied more about Vietnam, I came a little bit closer to Nixon’s position."
Daniloff: Did you have much interaction with Nixon beyond the camera?
Zelnick: Occasionally, he’d come out during a break. One time he came out specifically to meet the Frost staff, and we shook hands. He had ridiculed "Frost’s well-paid staff" on camera and had used "well-paid staff" two or three times. When I met him, I said, "You know, Mr. President, I found your reference to ‘David’s well-paid staff ’ so offensive that I almost choked on my caviar." So we had that sort of banter, but it was infrequent. He would, of course, banter with David on the set as they were waiting for the cameras to roll. The classic moment was one time Nixon sat down next to David and after a long silence said, "So, David, did you fornicate much over the weekend?" David looked at him like he couldn’t believe he’d just been asked that question.
Daniloff: To what extent do you think Nixon was able to rehabilitate his legacy?
Zelnick: I think it was rehabilitated somewhat in his lifetime and the interview played something of a role in it—not because it exonerated him, but because it cleared the air so completely, which is something that we anticipated. He took charge of his own rehabilitation by writing profusely, by making himself available to the hated networks, by staying in touch with colleagues like Henry Kissinger to make sure they were always telling the same narrative in the same way.
"Hannah Nixon probably told her son, she being a devout Quaker, that whatever happens, never lie. Always tell the truth even if it hurts you. No one was more guilt-ridden than Nixon when the chance to vindicate his mother’s advice came and he ended up lying all through Watergate."
History will also record that Nixon had more of a political overview than people gave him credit for. People thought he was a great tactician but not a great strategist. I think he foresaw what would happen politically to the country as the civil rights movement progressed and voters’ rights issues took over. He saw correctly that we would go from what was essentially a four-party country to a two-party country and that it was important to him to nail down the South and convert it to Republicanism. I’ve heard people who worked with him describe Nixon as the second- best politician of the twentieth century, the first being Franklin Roosevelt, in terms of the impact they had on the electoral contours on the United States.
Daniloff: Have you seen the movie?
Zelnick: No. But I’ve seen the play. It was great theater, and the overall account is reasonably accurate, but there was poetic license taken for the stage that was somewhat in excess of what I was comfortable with. And I’m sure I’ll have the same feeling about the movie.
The character of Frost as portrayed on stage presents him as the kind of guy who rose to the occasion one time in his life. I don’t think that’s true. I think David can be criticized over the years for not being consistently serious. Maybe that’s a rap against him. But he’s done some significant interviews. He had a weekly Meet the Press type of show in London for years. I regard David as a man who rose to the occasion, whether it was once in a lifetime or more, and he should be applauded for doing that. A lot of people have the opportunity and don’t rise to the occasion.
Daniloff: What was it like meeting Oliver Platt, the actor who played you in the movie?
Zelnick: I was flattered because he is six-foot-five and I’m five-foot-six. He’s not as handsome as I am.