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DISCOVERIES

Behind a TV milestone

July 08, 2007|Scott Martelle

IT'S been 30 years since British television interviewer David Frost sat down for more than 20 hours of taped inquisition with Richard M. Nixon, then in exile at Casa Pacifica, the former Western White House overlooking the ocean at San Clemente. The interviews (for which Nixon collected more than $1 million) came three years after his inglorious exit from power, and the disgraced president was hoping they would lay the foundation for his political comeback. Remember those "He's tanned, rested and ready" bumper stickers? He'd already done it once.

It didn't work out that way this time. The sessions drew 45 million viewers, historian James Reston Jr. (whose journalist father was on Nixon's enemies list) tells us in "The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Stories of the Frost/Nixon Interviews" (Harmony Books: 208 pp., $22). Through dogged preparation by the younger Reston (who framed the Watergate-related questions) and others, Frost caught Nixon in several crucial lies, eventually drawing from him both blame-shifting explanation and tacit apology for the legendary coverup. The interviews revealed the inner Nixon, the ego and the insincerity, while producing some telling one-liners, including one that seems still to echo through the White House: "If the president does it, that means it's not illegal."

Reston has crafted a riveting memoir of the lead-up to the tapings (the manuscript helped inspire the play "Frost/Nixon"). He overreaches in places -- the afterword matching Nixon against Shakespeare's "Richard II" is a bit much -- and Reston's Vietnam War-rooted hatred of the former president might reveal more than he intended. Still, the focus is on Nixon. The book dangles somewhere between coda and footnote in the political life of Whittier's favorite son, but this "you are there" memoir is a welcome flashback for those still infatuated with one of America's darkest political hours.

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-- Scott Martelle

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