NEW YORK — David Frost listens intently to a novel theory: In election-year matters, TV has lost its old impact, and candidates who still emphasize TV now face being known only as "Whatshisname."
"I don't think so," he says. "It's up to the candidates to be as interesting as possible. But it's also up to the media to be as inventive as possible." Now, both propositions are getting a 13-week test run (12 weeks, technically speaking) starting this weekend with "The Next President," an ambitious syndicated series of one-hour programs.
The series was developed by Frost and U.S. News & World Report magazine. The British star--at home in political journalism as well as satire--is wearing his journalist's hat on this occasion.
He serves as the interviewer in the series, which premieres in Los Angeles Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on KCOP-TV (Channel 13) and has been bought by more than 115 stations around the country, a spokesman for the series said.
The first program--interviews with President Reagan and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford--offers their reflections on the modern presidency and the crises thereof. Succeeding weeks will bring Frost's taped interviews with six Republican and six Democratic candidates for the White House and their wives. Each candidate is getting his own hour.
Frost, who in 1977 made headlines by paying Nixon $600,000 and a share of the profits for his post-Watergate interview series with the former President, began his current venture in July, starting with Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).
He never interviewed one-time leading Democratic candidate Gary Hart, though. Hart, denouncing the press, dropped out in May after the press began raising questions about his relationship with part-time model-actress Donna Rice.
Frost did have a September interview with another leading Democratic contender, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden. But Biden also bowed out after disclosures about his law school grades and uncredited use of phrases from a speech by British Labor Party leader Neal Kinnock.
Funny thing, though, Frost says: In the interview, taped nine days before the senator's withdrawal, "he talked about Neal Kinnock, how he'd taped a speech by Neal Kinnock and adapted it. He was absolutely open, in fact, about it."
However, the Biden chapter has been dropped from Frost's series, which is limited to active candidates. Still, while politics taketh away, it also giveth, sometimes.
One day, Frost was scheduled to interview another Democratic front-runner. It turned out to be the same day that this front-runner--Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis--embarrassedly announced the resignation of two aides who had slipped reporters the so-called "attack tape" comparing the Kinnock speech with Biden's Kinnock-y orations.
That event and the ensuing interview session, Frost says, gave him a perfect opportunity to explore what are the central themes of his series.
Realizing that today's hot issue can be tomorrow's yawn, he says the primary questions he's been posing concern "character, what makes people tick" and how candidates react under pressure.
He first tried that approach in 1968 with a special, also called "The Next President," in which he also interviewed the major contenders, including Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, Robert F. Kennedy and George Wallace.
His preface to that program, he says, still applies in his current project: "What I was saying is, however much we deal with the issues . . . you can never find out (in advance) what people will do in an emergency.
"And therefore, you've got to vote for the sort of leader who you think would respond in an emergency the way you think a leader should respond."
Like other journalists, Frost seeks the unguarded, unexpected answer. He is considered quite good at getting same, but he concedes there have been times when a candidate responded with what Fourth Estate cynics call a tape-recorded announcement.
"Well, occasionally you do" get patented answers, he said, declining to name the culprits. "But you've just got to keep away from those questions" that result in stock replies.
Obviously, breaking news and new issues that arise in the candidates' campaigns also are important, he noted.
So, he said, to keep the series as contemporary as possible, all the interviewees have agreed to let him "revisit" them before their show airs to include their thoughts on major events that have occurred since their initial interviews.
In the wake of the Hart-Rice matter, there has been a certain amount of journalistic debate over the propriety of asking a presidential candidate, as Hart was asked, if he has committed adultery.
Frost pondered that, too: "We discussed with most of the candidates the whole issue raised by Gary Hart--namely, were his alleged activities a disqualification for the presidency?