What I've Learned: “Smashing!”

David Frost loves to talk—and he’s crossed paths with plenty of Washington players

By: Courtney Rubin

Before the Richard Nixon interview and the string of TV shows and the knighthood, there was David Frost the preacher.

It was 1958, and he’d been propelled to the pulpit partly by his Methodist-minister father but mostly by seeing Billy Graham. Frost, 19, gave a sermon based on the song “Ol’ Man River,” turning the line “I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’ ” upside down by considering those “scared of living”—those people, he said, “whose lives were unnecessarily blinkered, or whose growth was unnecessarily stunted, emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually, either by their own mindset or by factors beyond their control.”

That’s not a problem for Frost. Fifty years later, the British broadcaster keeps rolling along. At age 70, having put questions to seven US Presidents as well as everyone from John Lennon to Yasir Arafat—he’s still at it. His TV show, Frost Over the World, shown on Al Jazeera, is seen in 100 countries.

It’s ironic that Frost is best known for his 1977 skewering of former President Nixon because his signature style is gentle. He’s fond of recalling what British Labour leader John Smith told him: “You have a way of asking beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences.”

His technique has had rather smashing (a very Frostian word) success. As Washington Post writer David Segal put it: “There is no equivalent to Frost in the United States. He is Larry King times Regis, plus Bob Costas and a fraction of Jon Stewart.”

After the University of Cambridge, Frost began his career as a political satirist, ridiculing the ruling elite, of which he’s since become a member. In 1983, he married Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, daughter of the 17th Duke of Norfolk. They have three Eton-educated sons—the youngest of whom had Princess Diana as a godmother. Queen Elizabeth knighted Frost in 1993.

At one point, his shows on both sides of the Atlantic meant he commuted weekly on the Concorde, but he insists he isn’t a workaholic—only a telephone-aholic.

“I always think it’s been rather sad that the telephone happened to be invented before e-mail,” says Frost, who doesn’t use e-mail. “Because if it had been the other way around, the telephone would be the greatest thing ever invented. Wouldn’t it be smashing if you could say, ‘You know, we’ve been exchanging all these e-mails but now we can actually talk to each other’?”

There’s a story about you telling an aide to get George H.W. Bush to call you back “at home.” How did you two become so close?

When I met him, I was doing The Next President 1988, where we were interviewing all 12 candidates. So I went up to Kennebunkport. People had said that he wasn’t very good at interviews, but he was terrific—very candid and honest. We just hit it off, and that was the start of a great friendship.

Then I did a half hour with him and a half hour with Michael Dukakis on election eve. I asked Bush if he’d do the first interview with me if he became President, and he said yes. After the Gulf War, I was in Monte Carlo, so I rang him at 7:25 am Washington time and said, “You really ought to do an interview that captures your feelings now—preferably with me, but with somebody. You should do it because you won’t be able to recollect, when you write your memoirs in three years’ time, the way you’re feeling now.”

So we did it the next week at Camp David, with him, Barbara, Brent Scowcroft, and Marlin Fitzwater. Four hours of tape, which we said we’d hold until he was ready for it to be released. We released it as a special five years later.

We’ve stayed in touch, and he’s a terrific character, very decent, with a great sense of humor. I see him a couple of times a year when he comes over to trout-fish in our part of the country or if I’m over in the US. The British general Bernard Law Montgomery used to say the great test of a man was whether you’d want to go into the jungle with him. George Bush is certainly somebody you’d want to go into the jungle with because you can trust him.

Can you describe his sense of humor?

He’d gone off to meet some Southern senators after his interview, and we were interviewing Barbara. The senators were late, so he came back to watch her in our mini control room. At one point, Barbara said, “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I think that George Bush is the finest man I’ve ever met.” George turned to the control room and said, “Well, she’s entitled to her opinion.”

Another time, I was at the opening of his presidential library. During his presidency he’d gone to Japan and thrown up all over Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. So at the library opening George told me, “Actually, I invited him to come to this occasion. And I said to him, ‘This time, the dinner’s on me.’ ”

Who else is good with one-liners?

Eugene McCarthy had a fantastic wit. I was interviewing 1968 presidential candidates, and everybody had said that one of the leading candidates was George Romney [Mitt Romney’s father]. This was an example of the way in which one remark can finish your career in America in a way it doesn’t in England. George Romney had been in Vietnam and said he’d been brainwashed by American generals about how well the war there was going. People thought that was just appalling—brainwashing in the American army? He was out of the race in a week.

During that week, I was in New Hampshire interviewing McCarthy. We came out of the Sheraton Wayfarer hotel, and there were reporters looking for sound bites. They asked him, “What do you think of George Romney’s being brainwashed?” And he said, “I would have thought a light rinse would have been sufficient.”

You’re often criticized for being too friendly with the people you interview.

I think being friends helps you with the interview, actually, because you know the subjects they are strong on, the ones they are boring on, and always there is an understanding that this is a professional encounter. We’re on the record, we’re on the air, we’re live. It’s pointless being confrontational—it can be self-defeating. The idea is to open people up, not shut them up. You can ask the most testing questions in a civilized way.

One of your interviews with Bill Clinton was just after his memoirs were published. Talk about your approach to the Monica Lewinsky issue.

He’d already been asked all the obvious questions about her 30 or 40 times. So I said, “I hope you won’t be disappointed, but I’m only going to ask you two questions about Monica Lewinsky.” I asked about her claim that the relationship had destroyed her life, and he gave a calm answer about her good qualities. Then I asked: “Did you love her?” That brought the answer “No—and I think that was true on both sides.” Both were questions he had never been asked before. 

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.