Oh that Brilliant David Frost to Capture Nixon So!
There is no earthly reason why I should defend Richard Nixon who fired me as assistant commerce secretary in 1970…when I had four kids and a wife to support (fortunately it all worked out)-but defend him I will from the worst thing that can happen to a president barring assassination, the fictionalizing of history in which he played a vital part. A leading candidate for the Academy Award is a dramatization of an interview between David Frost, a British journalist and Richard M. Nixon. You see TV clips all the time with a lumbering actor with slumped shoulders playing the wretched, defeated Nixon and a young, bright journalist, Frost.
In real life, in 1977 David Frost paid $600,000 to interview the former president in the hope that Frost could get him to blurt out his guilt for Watergate. The 6-hour program ran in mini-series form for several nights in 1977. I saw it, actually, in Cambridge, Mass. where I was teaching politics as a John F. Kennedy Harvard Fellow.
I had every reason to be interested in the program as I had had several meetings with Nixon before his presidency…the most notable at the home of my employer, the CEO of The Quaker Oats Company, in 1966 when Nixon was in town to campaign for a group of candidates in an effort to rehabilitate himself-one being Charles H. Percy, one, a candidate whose campaign I headed; John Hoellen who was running against Roman Pucinski for Congress…and for another candidate in whom I had a great interest, David Reed who was opposing the wooden-legged old black denizen of the plantation-style Democratic machine, Rep. Bill Dawson.
Here you will have to endure an extensive digression…the first of several-but indulge an old man, will you? Nixon held an impromptu talk session in Lake Forest at my employer’s home and forecast a number of things-most of which didn’t turn out. He shrugged off Ronald Reagan’s bid for governor of California as very un-special and said that it would be impossible for Reagan top win moderates to his side against Pat Brown. The fact that Nixon lost a challenge to Brown two years earlier was recognized by everyone…but it was more than a dissing of a competitor. It was obvious that Nixon felt Reagan was a lightweight…obvious because he said so. Reagan, he said, was a bad candidate despite his charisma because he was so inured to the screen that in everything he needed a director-and the heat and immediacy of a campaign barred this kind of handling.
How wrong Nixon was! He was wrong that night about a great many things…and he was wrong about my program to provide limited federal assistance to minority…largely black…entrepreneurs.
When I was hired in the Commerce department, he enthused to me that if the program went well, blacks might well flock to the Republican party. In a handwritten letter to my then boss, Secretary of Commerce Stans, he expanded on it. I doubted the program would help the GOP although I was exceedingly favorable to it…but knew better, having worked with blacks a variety of urban affairs roles in Chicago. I took the job on a long-range basis, to gradually build a larger middle class among them which would be based on their affinity for their churches…and so stabilize society.
The steps I took were so unpopular they got me fired…steps which if I had to do over again, I might seriously reconsider because I am a more conservative man now and I have come to believe that blacks in the long-run must help themselves. Whitey helping them engenders bitterness. The most unpopular of my nice acts of noblesse oblige was to give black business owners who might be bidding on federal contracts to get a piece of the action in the same way the Small Business act offered a percentage of contracts to white non-big business. That affirmative action step was followed by a federal policy that private businesses have used ever since-conferring on minority businesses a share of contracts. In short, the programs we devised worked to build up the black middle class…but did nothing to cut down on the root causes of black poverty, the destruction of the black family that came from Lyndon Johnson’s ugly and misnamed War on Poverty.
One reason I was fired was because Nixon’s reelection was geared to a southern strategy under South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond who was angered at our fomenting a non-Republican black economy in his state. Thurmond getting mad was greatly feared by John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman who took care that Stans canned me. The second reason I was fired was because I interfered with Maurice Stans’ list of Republican big business contributors in a largely successful effort to convince the then Big 3 automobile manufacturers to encourage more black dealerships. When I started there were just four black-owned car dealerships in the country. By the time I was peremptorily interrupted there were 100 dealership opportunities conferred on blacks through cooperation with my office and Whitney Young’s Urban League. I was fired because Stans, who had been Nixon’s bag man, felt that in importuning James Roche of GM, Henry Ford of Ford and Lynn Townsend of Chrysler that they would feel they “gave at the office” and would be less inclined to contribute big bucks to Nixon in 1972, in a campaign which Stans was to be the top fundraiser.
End of Digressions.
As one who knew quite a good deal about Nixon either firsthand or from others, I was intrigued with the David Frost interview. The interview was heavily promoted but was largely superficial. The most interesting part, to me, was Nixon’s view about the Tom Huston schema, a blueprint designed to collect thoughts about how to counteract domestic terrorism. Those who were not around in the late 1960s should know that controlling terrorism was front and center in both parties since the radical opponents of Vietnam were afoot. In fact, when I got to the Peace Corps as number three, we soon found our building…a private office building… taken over by ex-Peace Corps volunteers who were radicalized, who flew the Viet Cong flag out the window and were ultimately dislodged from their perch. We got them out by cutting off their food so when they got hungry, they vacated to the nearest McDonald’s and we recaptured our base. No big threat…just inconvenience.
Tom Huston, a White House staffer, had been put in charge of drawing together ideas on how to counteract terrorism were it to become a national phenomenon-just as White House staffers under more serious bases do it now. Huston postulated several approaches…conservative, moderate and draconian. The draconian scenario would be considered only if the republic were in danger. In formulating his scenario, Huston drew from the only example in U.S. history relevant to this condition-the Civil War when Lincoln could look out his White House window and see the smoke of the Confederate army bonfires in Virginia. Well, with a threat like that you would understand that Lincoln had to take drastic measures. And he did. He suspended habeas corpus. He detained enemies of the republic in jail without charge. He seriously considered placing Chief Justice Roger Taney, a Confederate sympathizer, under arrest (he never did so). Those were drastic days.
I remember very well Nixon’s description of the Huston report and said…rightly…that with the nation under attack-even under siege as it was with Lincoln-there can come a time when the president must act without conferring with the Congress. At times of great crisis when the survival of the nation is in danger, Nixon said, when the president finds he must do something, it is not illegal. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. My way somewhat different. Say Confederate troops are invading D. C. and you’re the president, what you do to save the country cannot be run by the Congress and its interminable committee system…so you just do it. In any event, Nixon was NOT referring to Watergate. He was referring to quite a different proposition. And Frost knew it. And all of us who saw the interview knew it.
Ron Howard, the director of this re-incarnated show takes some outrageous liberties with its production. Since Nixon was never tried for his so-called crimes of Watergate since he had been pardoned, Howard has the actor playing Frost vowing that he will get the ex-president to show his true colors. How to do it. In a phone call he made to Nixon before the taping, Frost led the old man on…so the scenario goes…and Nixon makes the statement “when the president does something, it is not illegal.” Then Frost sets the trap and in the interview leads Nixon skillfully to declaring the self-same thing with respect to Watergate.
Well, a Bronx cheer and a rude noise greeting to Ron Howard the former Opie of the Andy Griffith show who is hungering for an Oscar…and who so hungered for one that he bought the rights to the sacrilegious “Da Vinci Code” which has invented the tale that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalen, the two sired children and spent their lives in France…after which the Roman Catholic church conspired to keep their secret safe for 2000 years. The novel was a sensational best-seller but Howard’s attempt to get an Oscar for it bombed…as did the movie. Now this is Howard’s latest attempt.
There are, of course, terribly indecent liberties taken in the film. First, there was no phone call in which Nixon led Frost to his conclusion that he could be trapped in saying what the president wanted to do is by its very nature legal. No phone call. Second, as I have mentioned, Frost asked Nixon about the Huston report and Nixon explained it fulsomely. Third, the film concludes that with the interview, Nixon was destroyed as a human being…and Frost was propelled to the stratosphere of fame. Wrongo. After the film was made, Nixon embarked on yet another resurrection. He went to Oxford, performed at the Oxford Union and started work on a series of books. The strange fact is that after the interview, Frost never really blossomed again. He is now Sir David Frost and is all but forgotten.
Some of these things in abbreviated fashion are contained in an article in “The Weekly Standard” by John Podhoretz, editor of “Commentary” magazine. When we are quite beyond this current fiction phase of docu-drama, we will find that (1) Nixon was never a threat to our civil liberties, Watergate or not; (2) he was with all his faults, one of the more significant presidents of our time because he skillfully capitalized on a split between the USSR and China which immeasurably helped us in the Cold War.
But I suppose you could say that David Frost has triumphed since this little bald odd ball, the former Opie, Ron Howard, has so manipulated the minds of our young people who are bereft of history thanks to our debased culture…but no.
The truth will out. I just wrote this to tell you how bad and untrustworthy our culture really is. And when you watch Andy Griffith in black and white and you see that little tousled haired kid, learn once again that appearances aren’t everything…given what a twisted revisionist Ron Howard has grown up to be.
Tom Roeser is the Chairman of the Chicago Daily Observer Editorial Board