By Hap Erstein
James Reston Jr., a former assistant to the secretary of the interior during the Johnson Administration and a respected journalist, has written 13 books, including The Conviction of Richard Nixon, his account of the broadcast interviews between the resigned but unapologetic president and glib British television personality David Frost.
Playwright-screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) based his play, Frost/Nixon, largely on that book and on talks he had with Reston. He made Reston, a member of Frost’s research and strategy team, into a character in the play, its narrator and moral center.
Beginning Sunday, performances of Frost/Nixon begin at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton in the play’s regional premiere production. The movie version, starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, is currently in theaters. Reston spoke recently with Palm Beach ArtsPaper about the play and movie.
Hap Erstein: How did you first come in contact with Peter Morgan and assist in the development of what became Frost/Nixon?
James Reston Jr.: Peter says that he saw a documentary in Britain in 1995, in which I was interviewed. That’s when he got the idea, and then he went to David Frost and Frost thought it was a good idea, not surprisingly.
Peter came and saw me in Washington and we talked in London on another occasion. Then I remembered that I had written this manuscript, so I fished around in my files in the country, and that really helped him tremendously. So I think it’s a major inspiration in terms of the dramatic lines of the thing, but it didn’t really start with the manuscript.
Erstein: He picked your brain on events surrounding the 1977 interviews?
Reston: Well, I think he was being a serious researcher, going around trying to talk to everybody. Because I probably had a lot stronger opinion than most of them, he kind of focused on me. What he said publicly, he said he wasn’t sure he really had a play until he talked to me. And I was so bristling with intensity and even anger, 30 years later, that he understood that there were really some important dramatic lines in the thing.
Erstein: He depicts you as very idealistic and something of a hothead. Is that accurate?
Reston: (Laughs) Oh, hothead with a capital “H.”
Erstein: How does it feel to be depicted as a character in a play?
Reston: Well, it’s immensely flattering, particularly because it’s a flattering character. That character tries to impart not only knowledge, but a kind of spine to David Frost, to really go after Nixon and do his historical responsibility here.
Erstein: Of the material that can be verified, how close to the truth does Morgan stick?
Reston: There’s a good deal of distortion of fact. But I think the issue in the arts is “Is there some sort of emotional truth here, some sort of emotional essence?” And I think in terms of the dramatic portrayal of Nixon as very intimidating and Frost as rather flighty and a gadfly and Reston, to use your word, a hothead or extremely intense, that much is accurate.
I once was called a Nixon obsessive. I love that. I think that’s my favorite description of myself.
Erstein: There’s a section of the play that is like detective fiction, where at the 11th hour you head to Washington and find the missing clue that gets Nixon to the confession point. Is that accurate?
Reston: How it really happened was those transcripts of [Nixon’s chief counsel and “dirty trickster” Charles] Colson were discovered eight months before Nixon went on camera. I went to the courthouse to look at the court record of the [Nixon’s chief of staff] H.R. Haldeman trial, and I knew from having written a novel two years before that on a criminal case in Cincinnati that sometimes when you look at court records, it’s the exhibits that are the most important place (to look). That’s where you see the bloody body and the knife dripping with blood and so forth.
Well, after a long day in which I was reading through the trial transcript, I noticed that there was a whole category of exhibits and there in the midst of those exhibits were these incredible conversations between Nixon and Colson.
I knew that anything with Nixon and Colson was going to be interesting, because Colson was the henchman in the White House. And I had never seen any Colson conversations in the published public record. The reason they were in the exhibits and not in the actual trial transcript was that those conversations had nothing to do with the guilt or innocence or H.R. Haldeman and therefore they had not been played before the press in open court.
But they were deeply relevant to the guilt or innocence of Richard Nixon. And so they’d just been stuck away back there and nobody except me had gone in there and discovered them. I sat on this hot material for that eight months, terrified that somebody else would discover it, and nobody ever did. Their value was that they undercut the Nixon defenses that he knew nothing about Watergate.
Well, what I did for Frost was I wrote an interrogation memo of 96 pages for him, in which he was to take Nixon, step by step through the coverup. And every time he came to one of these major defenses, we would let him state his public defense and then we would spring these surprises on him. And those surprises undercut the public defense that had come up until that point.
Erstein: What was your initial assessment of Frost as you were considering whether to get involved?
Reston: Well, I didn’t know anything about him really. I just knew the bare essentials, that he started as a comic and had that wonderful show in England [That Was the Week That Was] and he had sort of moved on to being an interviewer. He was rather famous for these softball questions. That gave me a certain amount of disquiet, but on the other hand, he had the exclusive rights to the whole thing. So I sort of set aside my disquiet about it, because this was going to be the only shot that history would have.
Erstein: Your character believes Nixon is evil, a man who shredded our constitution. Do you still believe that?
Reston: I don’t think my attitude has changed in the least. I think the ultimate goal of the Frost/Nixon interviews was that the decision of the nation to throw him out of office had to be validated.
Nixon was very intimidating and, obviously, having dominated American politics for nearly 30 years, he was a pretty awesome target. So who was in charge of the interview was a pretty important thing. That’s the central dramatic conceit of the piece.
Erstein: Morgan dramatizes the interviews like a prizefight. Your reaction?
Reston: I never thought about it in that way until that sort of became the propaganda of the play and the movie: “A new Rocky.” I never quite thought of it that way, because I didn’t ever think of David Frost as being a heavyweight.
But he had enormous skill and those interviews are absolutely brilliant, in terms of an inquisition by an interviewer over time. It’s so different than today’s television where it’s quite adequate to do a few tough questions and do a “gotcha” if you can manage it. But to sustain an inquisition or an interrogation of an extremely daunting and skillful subject over a period of four and a half hours, that takes some considerable skill.
Erstein: Our current president seems to be doing a number on the constitution, too. Who is the worse president, in your opinion, Nixon or Bush?
Reston: Well, I know that’s a lot of fun for people to bounce around. Clearly the metaphor of the play is driving its success, and the success of the movie, to a very large degree.
The Watergate scandal and its abuse of power and so forth is something that needs to be remembered. There are obviously offenses against the country and against the constitution that Bush is engaged in. In New York, when the play came to the line, “If the president does it, it’s not illegal,” the place erupted with raucous laughter. That’s everything about Bush, and not about Nixon. That’s kind of the central horrifying line of the whole thing.
And here Bush goes off into the sunset, kind of with a de facto full and complete pardon for the offenses against the country. So there is a link there.
Erstein: What would you say to young people who may not think that these events of 30 years ago relate to them?
Reston: That really makes me kind of angry, because its so important for us to remember how horrendous Nixon’s crimes were and what their relevancy is to all future presidencies.
And I know in the case of (the film’s director) Ron Howard, he was very, very keen with a number of focus groups to put that movie in front of young people, to see whether they could react to it. So it is really Peter Morgan’s achievement, I think, that the piece that he’s constructed here does transcend the details of Watergate, that he’s constructed a kind of Shakespearean drama here that does speak to all ages.
Erstein: Did you remain involved when the play first went into rehearsals in London?
Reston: Well, Peter invited me over to talk to the actors in the first two days of rehearsals in London, to set the historical stage and to explain why Watergate was so significant.
Erstein: How did the play change when it came to the United States?
Reston: I think what was different was that the focus for the British audience was Frost. Nixon was just this American eccentric who they didn’t really relate to. Well, that changed dramatically for American audiences. And quite appropriately, Frank Langella’s towering performance (as Nixon) really got focused on.
There were a couple of dialogue changes. In fact, one I take complete credit for, because I really pushed Peter Morgan to do this. There is a line in the American production that was not in in Britain where Nixon says, “I was the last casualty of Vietnam,” which I think is just an utterly horrifying line in its narcissism. That line comes from the actual interviews and I implored Peter to add it in the American production.
It somewhat gets eaten in the stage play, where Langella says it and quickly moves on to other things. In the movie, it goes by very fast there, too, but another thing that I’m responsible for, after Langella says that line, they cut to Sam Rockwell (the Reston character) and he says, “Tell that to the paraplegics.” I love that little moment. I really think it’s important and it’s another link to Bush, I think.
Erstein: Did Ron Howard involve you in the movie?
Reston: Yes, again I was asked to come out and talk to the actors in the first two days of rehearsal. And I have a cameo in the movie. It’s in the first scene, where Frost is in Australia and he does that show with [tennis star] Evonne Goolagong and then he goes to a television set and there’s Nixon resigning. There’s some people floating behind him and I’m one of them.
Erstein: What do you feel the importance of the play is?
Reston: The play as a play has done tremendous service, I think, to bring Watergate back into the public eye. As itself, it is important to be remembered. And the metaphor for Bush — the disgraced president going off, with people wondering would there ever be a Frostian interrogation of him — I think those are very, very important questions.
Peter has made this rather brilliant entertainment out of something that was a very dark period of American history. The probably more important point is: What are people taking away from this movie? Do they find Langella’s performance sympathetic? Do they suddenly regard Nixon as a tragic figure? I would be quite upset if either of those things were taken away from the movie. I don’t regard him as sympathetic and certainly don’t think he’s tragic.
Erstein: So why should we all go see Frost/Nixon?
Reston: Well, to begin with, it’s tremendous entertainment. It really is a very tight, exciting drama.
And then you have all these bonuses. That it’s about an important event in American political history and in American television. And then it’s important metaphorical question of how any country deals with a disgraced leader after they leave office. It just couldn’t be more vibrantly relevant.
FROST/NIXON, Caldwell Theatre Co., 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. From Sun., Jan. 4 to Sun., Feb. 8. Tickets: $36-$42. Call: (561) 995-2333 or (877) 245-7432.