"The reason that the fascination in the man will live is that he was such an enigma," says David Frost of Richard Nixon. "He was such a complex character that he has this dramatic interest that few other Presidents have ever had, being the the only President to be thrown out of office."
Seventeen years ago, Frost interviewed the former President in five landmark 90-minute shows that became the most-watched news programming to that date. For the first time since 1977, the interviews are being telecast in their entirety this month on the Disney Channel. "The Nixon Interviews With David Frost: 1994 Special Edition" features new introductions by Frost as well as footage of Nixon never broadcast before.
Frost is thrilled that Disney allowed him to add footage he originally cut because of time constraints. "It's been fascinating looking at (the new footage)," Frost says. "It falls into various categories. There are things like him saying where he thinks China will be in 20 years' time and just additional insights into the subjects we covered."
Frost's interviews with Nixon were conducted over a 12-day taping period that lasted 28 hours. Nixon had no knowledge of the questions and no control over the interviews. "The reason the interviews eventually had the impact they did was that everyone predicted the whole project was impossible, that you would never force Nixon to say anything he didn't want to say," Frost says. "I put in the contract that he would not know any questions in advance nor would he see any of the edited programs.
"It was also made clear that when the cameras rolled, whatever happened, I was entitled to broadcast. That was a vital point because if he just refused to answer and was totally obstructive in a sense, he would have looked absurd doing that."
The early sessions were slow going. "He did go all the way around the houses in terms of trying to answer the questions," Frost explains. "This was not an attempt to derail the project, but an attempt, I think, to get things on his terms. The other thing, nobody else who had been negotiating with him, like NBC News, had insisted that he do at least a quarter of the time on Watergate because, believe me, he wasn't volunteering things. He wouldn't have done Watergate at all if he didn't have to."
Frost was roundly criticized when the interviews were first announced in 1975 because Nixon was paid a reported $650,000 for the rights to his story.
"After I announced it, people said, 'Is this checkbook journalism?' During the time between when we announced it and we did it, I would routinely have to make the point that Nixon had already been paid four times as much for his book memoirs, where there was no check on him and what he said, as opposed to being paid 25% (less) for his television memoirs, which arguably would be more honest."
All arguments about Nixon receiving money, Frost says, "stopped dead when everybody saw that the Watergate program took Nixon so much further down the line of mea culpa than any of us could have hoped."
"The Nixon Interviews with David Frost" air Tuesdays at 9 p.m. through August on the Disney Channel.