The Nixon Interviews - Background

Background

After his resignation in 1974, Nixon spent more than two years away from public life. In 1977, he granted Frost an exclusive series of interviews. Nixon was already publishing his memoirs at the time; however, his publicist Irving "Swifty" Lazar believed that by using television Nixon could reach a mass audience. In addition, Nixon was going through a temporary cash flow problem with his lawyers, and needed to find a quick source of income. Frost's New York-based talk show had been recently cancelled, leaving him consigned to a career based around the stories covered by the proto-reality show Great Escapes. As Frost had agreed to pay Nixon for the interviews, the American news networks were not interested, regarding them as checkbook journalism. They refused to distribute the program and Frost was forced to fund the project himself while seeking other investors, who eventually bought air time and syndicated the four programs.

Frost recruited James Reston, Jr. and ABC News producer Bob Zelnick to evaluate the Watergate minutiae prior to the interview. Their research allowed Frost to take control of the interview at a key moment, when he revealed details of a previously unknown conversation between Nixon and Charles Colson. Nixon's resulting admissions would support the widespread conclusion that Nixon had obstructed justice. Nixon continued to deny the allegation until his death, and it was never tested in a court of law because his successor, President Gerald Ford, issued a pardon to Nixon after his resignation. Nixon's negotiated fee was $600,000 and a 20% share of any profits.

Nixon chief of staff Jack Brennan negotiated the terms of the interview with Frost. Nixon's staff saw the interview as an opportunity for the disgraced president to restore his reputation with the public, and assumed that Frost would be easily outwitted. Previously, in 1968, Frost had interviewed Nixon in a manner described by Time magazine as "so softly that in 1970 President Richard Nixon ferried Frost and Mum to the White House, where the Englishman was appointed to produce a show in celebration of the American Christmas."

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