It’s a moment that’s almost unimaginable now, and I’m sure it was surreal when it happened.
A television interviewer leans into his subject, a disgraced former president of the United States of America. He softly, earnestly implores the president to accept responsibility for his wrongdoing.
I’d like to hear you say that you made mistakes and perhaps even committed a crime, the interviewer implores. I’d like to hear you say you abused your power as president. I’d like to hear you say you put the American people through two years of needless agony and you are sorry for that.
“And I know how difficult it is for anyone, and most of all you,” he acknowledges, “but I think that people need to hear it and I think unless you say it you are going to be haunted by it for the rest of your life.”
The president sighs, and his face softens a bit. Then the man who was once the most powerful in the world seems to spill out his soul.
“I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt and the rest. Most of all I let down an opportunity I would have had for two and a half more years to proceed on great projects and programs for building a lasting peace,” he says haltingly. “Yep, I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.”
The president was, of course, Richard M. Nixon, and the interviewer was David Frost, a British entertainer who made a career out of roles as a satirist, game show host and interviewer of some of the world’s most powerful and compelling people.
The apology he elicited from Nixon was long awaited and came in the midst of a grueling 29 hours of interviews. It takes moxie to challenge an unrepentant sinner, especially if said sinner is a former president and the confession is going to be recorded and broadcast. It takes moxie to make that happen, and David Frost had moxie. Here’s how:
Moxie doesn’t always stay in its own lane.
David Frost wasn’t a news anchor or a television journalist. His career was rooted in entertainment. He started out his career on This Was the Week that Was, a news satire show that is now considered the granddaddy of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Much as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert straddle the line between entertainer and political commentator today, Frost slid smoothly from television satirist to serious interviewer. He landed the biggest interviews of the day, becoming the only person to interview all six British prime ministers who served between 1964 and 2007, and seven U.S. presidents in office between 1969 and 2008. He also interviewed other notable figures like Louisville’s own Muhammad Ali and Orson Welles and Clint Eastwood.
Perhaps his background as an entertainer disarmed his guests, because he seemed to have a knack for getting their guard down and getting them to admit what they’d likely never admit otherwise. He famously led British Prime Minister Tony Blair to say the Iraq War was a disaster.
It’s tempting to write Frost off as a lightweight, but he clearly was not. There’s significant temptation to squash the opinions of athletes, actors, singers and other performers when they express political opinions. We’d do well to remember Frost, and his sharp thinking and disarming charm.
Moxie makes a way.
When Frost set out to interview Nixon, it was going to come at a cost. Nixon exited the presidency deeply in debt, and one way to get him to talk about it was to pay him.
Frost paid Nixon $600,000 and a cut of the profits to tell his story. Paying an interview subject ran afoul of the ethical standards of all the major network news operations, so no networks in the U.S. agreed to run the interviews. Instead, Frost had to syndicate directly with stations in markets across the U.S. and around the globe.
Frost sold his own shares in London Weekend Television to finance the project. Why was he willing to risk so much for this interview?
“He was the most interesting person to interview in the world,” Frost later told an interviewer for the Guardian. “I suppose one hoped the interviews would make history in some way, as a document on the Nixon presidency. So that was the ambition, obviously. Also one hoped they were bloody good television.”
Bloody good, indeed.
Just when his career on British television seemed to be winding down, a young upstart network came calling. Al Jazeera television, based in Qatar, was viewed with deep suspicion by much of the West, which was still grappling with Middle Eastern-based terrorism.
Frost took the risk, and was part of the network’s early rapid growth and credibility. He appreciated the chance to stay relevant, and pursue the conversations with people he found the most interesting and noteworthy.
Frost remained active up until the moment of his death aboard the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. He’d been scheduled to give a speech when he was stricken with a heart attack. He was 74 when he died.
Frost is without doubt an inspiration to me as an interviewer and host.
How about you? If you had a chance to turn the tables an interview Frost, what would you ask?