British television journalist David Frost passed away on Saturday at age 74. The pinnacle of Frost’s career was a series of interviews with former President Richard Nixon in his post-presidential years. Nixon, who badly needed money to pay his legal bills, was paid $600,000 plus a percentage of the profits from the broadcast. The interviews inspired a hit Broadway play and a movie directed by Ron Howard. Frank Langella did a serviceable job as Nixon in both but could not capture Nixon’s ticks and idiosyncrasies the way Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon.”
Frost claimed Nixon, in an attempt to be jocular, asked Frost before the camera’s rolled, “Did you do any fornicating this weekend?” There is no video tape of Nixon saying this, probably because Nixon didn’t say it. The technique Frost described was definitely in the former President’s repertoire. Nixon would often say something salty and risqué to show he was “one of the boys.” Anyone who listens to the Nixon White House would recognize that Nixon, who was in the Navy, was no stranger to profanity. He used the F-word often in political conversations. Locker-room banter was part of Nixon’s effort to seem like a “regular guy”.
Over dinner in his Saddle River, New Jersey home in 1989, I asked Nixon if he had indeed asked Frost the celebrated question, which Frost used to great effect as a device to make Nixon seem even weirder and more uncomfortable in his own skin than he was. “No, I asked him if he got laid,” Nixon told me. “I figured he cleaned it up for TV” said the 37th President, still obtuse to Frost’s word games.