In 1983, Paul Berman called Richard Nixon “the richest, most promising character the American theater has ever seen.” Recalling the scores of Nixons that had, even then, already appeared on stage and screen, Berman noted, “His personality descends to almost oceanic depth, plunging from bright intelligence through piety, vulgarity, maudlinity and paranoia to the murky floor of violent criminality. His quivering cheeks and humped back are an actor’s dream.”
Some years later, Daniel Aaron offered a different view. “Writers for the most part have used him as a whipping boy rather than as an object for contemplation,” he observed. Their “clever exercises in political denigration haven’t weathered well because the topical allusions once so devastatingly apt are largely lost on today’s readers, and because they weren’t all that funny to begin with.”
Both men are partly right. Aaron unfairly dismisses some gems, such as Philip Roth’s brilliant Our Gangand Dan Aykroyd’s enduring Saturday Night Live performances. He neglects others, such as Philip Baker Hall’s delicious Nixon in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, and he wrote too early to account for still others, such as Nixon’s Nixon (a 1996 play, recently revived) and Dick (a 1999 movie). But he’s right (as I’ve suggested before in Slate) that plays and films about Nixon have largely failed to capture the Shakespearean traits that Berman enumerates. Now, the latest Nixon effort, Frost/Nixon, has come to Broadway from London with much fanfare. Does it capture the dramatically complex Nixon that both Berman and Aaron relished?
Written by Peter Morgan—a Briton best known as the screenwriter of The Queen—Frost/Nixon tells the story of how, in 1977, British talk-show host David Frost, considered a lightweight (and a washed-up one at that), nabbed the first interviews with Nixon after his resignation and how the two men, both seeking rehabilitation, jousted before and during their series of televised parleys. Frost wanted to gain respectability by exacting an apology and admission of guilt from the unrepentant president. Nixon, convinced the news media had railroaded him, craved a prime-time forum to tell his version of events—a version that would downplay Watergate and stress his foreign policy.
The premise, therefore, is great—at least for hard-core Nixonologists. Yet Frost/Nixon begins inauspiciously. Unlike, for example, Nixon’s Nixon, in which director Jim Simpson permitted “no latex noses,” Frost/Nixon puts Frank Langella through the paces of a full-on impersonation—replete with gravelly voice, jowls, and even an exaggerated hunch. The choice suggests we’re in for broad comedy, not psychological drama. Moreover, the play’s early scenes include re-creations of several stock Nixon highlights, including his self-pitying resignation speech, which are by now so well-trodden as to border on cliché.
Yet Frost/Nixon quickly leaves the realm of the familiar as it shifts to the characters of Frost and James Reston Jr.—the latter a journalist, son of the great New York Times columnist, and research assistant to Frost on the Nixon interviews. Frost, played by Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen), is the best kind of fictional hero—a highly unappealing one. Frost’s vanity, superficiality, and bad 1970s tummy-hugging shirts are on full display. He preens, bluffs his way into his meeting with Nixon, and sidles up to a leggy passenger on his flight to Los Angeles. But he develops during the play, discovering that he actually has deeper motives for wanting to spar with Nixon than mere careerism.
Reston, for his part, is played by Stephen Kunken with the earnestness and goofiness befitting a 1970s baby boomer eyeing a chance to nail the recently pardoned Nixon. An unreconstructed Nixon-hater, Reston’s politics are a generation gap away from his father’s sober centrism. Recruited to the Frost research team by Bob Zelnick (who would go on to write an attack biography on Al Gore), Reston groans and winces for much of the play as Frost balks at confronting Nixon as forcefully as Reston thinks he should.
Once the interview tapings begin, Langella’s Nixon portrayal deepens and tension builds. For Nixon, the series of four face-offs serves as a repetition of his four debates with John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential contest: Again, he is squaring off mano a mano against a fair-haired rival who is better-looking, more popular, more sexually accomplished. (Morgan has the good sense to draw his biggest laugh lines from reality—he includes the question that Nixon asked Frost before one of their interviews: “So, did you do any fornicating this weekend?”) But if Nixon is reliving the “Great Debates,” this time he means to win. He’s even put it in the contract that he can stop the filming and dab his sweaty lip or apply new makeup as needed.
As the first few interviews proceed, Nixon seems headed for a victory. He artfully parries Frost’s questions. He turns a query about the emotionalism of his White House farewell into a filibuster about his utterly banal feelings on the occasions of Dwight Eisenhower’s death and his daughter’s wedding. The research team squirms, Frost slumps in his chair, and Nixon prattles on merrily—with Langella conveying the subtle sadistic pleasure that Nixon takes in besting his antagonists.
As anyone acquainted with the actual interviews knows, Frost ultimately prevails, and Reston’s quiet heroism proves responsible. For all his sleeve-borne political commitments—the kind we normally distrust as prejudicial in a reporter—Reston turns out to be right about Nixon, and his instincts serve him well. His hatred of Nixon is vindicated, not because we feel no sympathy for Nixon (we do), but because Nixon’s pathos never obscures his villainy. Reston helps Frost slay Nixon by finding a transcript from Nixon’s White House tapes that becomes a second smoking gun, further implicating the president in the Watergate coverup. Nixon never saw it coming.
Frost’s contribution to Nixon’s slaying, ironically, resides in an aspect of his own superficiality: his intuitive grasp of television’s power. Although Frost never actually gets Nixon to apologize, he comes close. More important, he elicits from Nixon a series of pained, remorseful facial expressions—portrayed beautifully by Langella and magnified for the theater audience via a mammoth TV screen—that speak volumes. “The power of the close-up,” Reston marvels, with both disillusionment and satisfaction. “The first and greatest sin of television is that it simplifies. … Tranches of time, whole careers, become reduced to a single snapshot.” Television—Nixon’s friend and aide so often in his career, from the 1952 Checkers speech to his 1972 trip to China—this time did him in. It was 1960 all over again.
The play’s irony is true to life. Everyone expected Frost’s interviews to offer Nixon an easy platform on which to grandstand. The four programs that resulted drew 45 million viewers, or 42 percent of the TV audience, the same as a typical episode of Happy Days, the No. 1 show that year. But the polls detected no improvement in Nixon’s public standing. Even old loyalists were unsympathetic. John Ehrlichman judged Nixon’s performance a “maudlin rationalization that will be tested and found false,” H.R. Haldeman called it an effort “to rehabilitate himself over the prostrate bodies of his aides,” and Sen. Bob Dole, who had chaired the Republican Party under Nixon, sniped: “It takes more than four interviews to properly rehabilitate Richard Nixon.”
Morgan’s grasp of Nixon’s place in American culture is confirmed near the play’s end, when Reston endorses an opinion that one seldom hears in routine journalistic commentary but that I believe is undoubtedly true: Nixon was never rehabilitated. He never came back. Despite the pomp and fine words at his funeral, his name remained a synonym for presidential corruption and crime, and the “-gate” suffix attached to scandals ever since certified Watergate’s cultural importance. Earlier in the play, Nixon fumed to his aides that the audiences at his speeches were asking questions only about his wrongdoing. That tendency continued years afterward. Indeed, as late as 1990, after Nixon had published another memoir, his third, he sighed to his research assistant: “None of the other stuff in there, like on the Russians or the other personal stuff, made it into the news or even the reviews. Watergate—that’s all anyone wants.”
James Reston Jr. and Nixon haters everywhere can sleep easy.