A British journalist's 1977 televised interview with a disgraced American president drew an audience of 45 million -- a viewership record that still stands. Yet, despite what the conversations between David Frost and Richard Nixon reveal about the men and the era in which they lived, historians lightly regarded the interviews.
Moreover, the understanding the public today has of the event, recounted in the 2006 play and 2008 film "Frost/Nixon," is fed by historical inaccuracies, misrepresentations and faulty memory, said a Franklin & Marshall College professor whose scholarship focuses on the nation's 37th president.
"The complete narrative of this pioneering broadcast has not yet been written," said Daniel Frick, adjunct associate professor of American Studies, whose 2008 book, "Reinventing Richard Nixon" has received acclaim from scholars. "How did such a momentous event get passed over by history and yet remain in the cultural memory?"
The backdrop for the interviews was Watergate, the political scandal that began with the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars, linked to the Nixon administration, were trying to help the Republican president's re-election bid by attempting to sabotage the Democratic nominee's campaign.
Fallout from the crime sent many in the administration to prison and ultimately forced Nixon, facing impeachment in the House and likely conviction in the Senate for abuse of power, to leave office on Aug. 9, 1974. He is the only president in the nation's history to resign. His successor, President Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon a month later to end what was called "a national nightmare" that would have dragged on had Nixon been indicted.
The Frost interviews were the first time Nixon spoke publicly about Watergate, but the three major TV networks at the time -- NBC, ABC and CBS (cable television was in its infancy) -- refused to run the programs, deriding them as "checkbook journalism" because Frost had paid Nixon $600,000 to speak with him on camera. While that left only local independent stations and a few network affiliates to air them, viewers tuned-in in droves.
Intrigued by the short shrift that he says historians have given the interviews and the public's hazy memory of them, Frick, director of F&M's Writing Center, began researching the event shortly after the release of the film, which critics applauded but also criticized for inaccuracies.
"The movie was historical fiction, not a documentary," Frick said.
With assistance from two Hackman Scholars, F&M juniors Courtney Rinden and Erin Moyer, Frick has been painstakingly reviewing transcripts for the tentatively titled "Defrosting History: The Nixon/Frost Interviews in Cultural Memory," a follow-up to his first book on Nixon.
What TV viewers watched appeared to be a seamless, single interview, broken down into 90-minute sessions over four nights in May, and a one-hour session one night in September. In actuality, those programs were edited from 11 sessions Frost conducted with Nixon over a four-week period in March and April of 1977.
Frost taped nearly 30 hours of conversation with Nixon, but to streamline the production, the two men wore the same suits for every session and kept their hair cut the same length throughout, Frick said.
Rinden and Moyer, both American studies majors, pored over 28.5 hours of transcripts to identify the parts of the 11 sessions that were stitched together for the broadcasts.
"If you put the 11 sessions together as they occurred, you get another perspective of Nixon," said Rinden, a native of Yorba Linda, Calif., Nixon's birthplace and home of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, where her late grandmother was a docent. "It's amazing to see Frost coax what everyone believed to be a fallen president out from "exile" while still pushing Nixon to face his demons."
The interview sessions revealed to the students the human element of Nixon, but also showed a skillful politician maneuvering a veteran journalist.
"The interviews were like Nixon in a microcosm," Moyer said. "Frost would give him an inch and he would take a mile."
The students used color-coding in the transcripts to piece together the parts from the taped interviews comprising the broadcasts. Frick said the undertaking illuminated the process of stitching together journalism-based television programs.
"At any one moment in the broadcast when it seems Frost and Nixon have been talking together it could be a time in March 1977 or a week later," Frick said.
Sifting through microfilm of newspapers, magazines and show business periodicals such as Variety, the students also recorded what was occurring in art, music, film and television entertainment at the time. Frick plans to use this information to provide cultural context to the interviews.
"I intend for the book to serve as a history of the interviews -- how they were created and how they were received -- and as an analysis of their place in the cultural memory," Frick said. "How they have been remembered, misremembered, and even, at times, forgotten."