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What I've Learned: “Smashing!”
Comments () | Published January 1, 2010

You spent 29 hours interviewing Nixon—did you feel like you got a glimpse of what he was really like?

He didn’t want anyone to get too close to him—I think that’s why he was so appalling at small talk. But the very last day I was there in San Clemente, I went with my girlfriend to take my leave. No one would ever say Nixon was carefree, but for 20 minutes he was. He came to the door and said, “Hello, David. Come in and I’ll show you around the house.” In 28 and three-quarters hours of interviews, he’d never called me David.

He was pointing out where Brezhnev slept. And he said to his personal assistant: “Manolo, get us the caviar that the shah sent us for Christmas. But before you go, give us your impression of Henry Kissinger.” He was really carefree. And then the screen came down again.

It’s been reported the Nixon interview cost you 37 million pounds—is that true?

I agreed to pay Nixon $600,000, which someone told me is the equivalent of $6 million today, and I didn’t have the money—it was really frantic getting it together. So I sold my London Weekend Television shares for $200,000 in order to make the first down payment to Nixon. When LWT got bought in 1994, a media-commentator friend called and said, ‘Did you know that if you hadn’t sold your 5-percent share you’d be getting a check for 37 million pounds?’ But I would still have made the same decision. It was a landmark moment in my life.

What interview had the greatest impact on you?

Robert Kennedy. It was in Portland, Oregon, late at night. He was very relaxed. Quite tired. And he was absolutely moving and brilliant. He had that self-deprecating quality that’s so important in a politician.

It was 1968, and although a lot of people felt he’d mellowed, there were people who still called him ruthless. I asked him if his reputation for being ruthless was due to the tough things he had to do for his brother in 1960. He said, “No, that’s just my friends making excuses for me.” He could have swatted the whole thing away, but he didn’t.

He talked about the sort of America he wanted to see. I asked him the question I ask a lot of people: How would you like to be remembered? He said, “There’s a line in Albert Camus”—and I’m thinking, you’re the first politician I’ve ever heard quote Camus—“about ‘this is the world in which children suffer.’ And I’d like to make a contribution to lessen that suffering.” And then he said in his great Bostonian accent: “For if we do not do this, who will do this?” It was so much more elegant than just saying “who will?”

Four or five weeks later, he was dead. So it was the last full-length interview he did.

What’s your most embarrassing moment?

I was interviewing Isaac Asimov, the great scientific writer, who was saying that he didn’t believe in God. So I said, “Yes, but is there a force we don’t know about?” He said: “Well, there may be. But if there is, we don’t know about it.”

Who in history would you most like to have interviewed?

Apart from Jesus Christ and Hitler—and I think I have got some feel for the latter because I interviewed two of his henchmen, Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, and Baldur von Schirach, former head of the Hitler Youth—I would have to say Cyrus the Great, the Persian king. He was the first leader to use power to ameliorate the human condition, not to degrade it. He was a benign leader at a time when leaders were not. He believed in human rights in the true sense.

How would you like to be remembered?

I asked Barry Goldwater this question, and he said, “In a gentle way.” I asked Moshe Dayan, “What would you like people to say about you after you’re dead?” And he said, “Say about me after I’m dead? But that’s what I’m dead for—not to have to worry about what people say about me.”

I was brought up by great parents. If it turns out that my kids remember me as half as good a father as my father, I’d be very happy with that. Very happy indeed.

Frost has seen sides of politicians and celebrities that most people don’t.

This article first appeared in the January 2010 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here. 

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 01/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles