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Nixon's Broadway Revival | The Nation

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Nixon's Broadway Revival

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Ample evidence exists that Nixon said precisely what he wanted to in order to help Frost sell the interviews. In actuality, during a break in taping (also misrepresented in the play), a Nixon aide, after conferring with Nixon, told Frost's aides, "He knows he has to go further.... He's got more to volunteer." This line is not in the play. The play imagines Nixon in the dressing room saying, "I'm tired.... He's good today" and commenting that he does not want to "carry on denying it all." But there's little evidence from what followed in the interview that Nixon had opted for full candor. According to other accounts of these interviews, when the taping of the Watergate session was over, Nixon remarked to Frost, half-smiling, "Well, that should make you happy." (This is not in the play.) Morgan himself told John Lahr of The New Yorker, "I could just as easily have written the piece--and found substance to support it--to substantiate the idea that Frost didn't get Nixon, that Nixon half threw it, in order for these interviews to sell."

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Elizabeth Drew
Elizabeth Drew is a Washington journalist and author. Her latest book, Richard M. Nixon, was recently published by...

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As in the real interviews, Nixon dominates most of the segments through rambling reminiscences, to Frost's and his advisers' despair. Then, during the Watergate segment, the last, the well-prepared Frost presses Nixon hard, and Nixon says some gripping lines--during which the play shows Langella's ravaged, swollen face contorted with anger and agony on the television screens clustered in the back of the set. On the recording of the actual interview, Nixon looks uncomfortable, his eyes glowering at times, but far less rattled than as portrayed in the play. Other problems are caused by the playwright's fiddling with what Nixon said in the interview. The most egregious emendation in the script has Nixon confessing that he "...was involved in a 'cover-up' as you call it." The ellipsis, which is unknown to the audience, is crucial: What Nixon actually said was, "You're wanting me to say that I participated in a legal cover-up. No!"

In the interviews (and as accurately depicted in the play), Nixon gives a semi-confession that "a reasonable person could call that a cover-up," but Nixon quickly recoups and says, "I didn't intend it to cover up," and he insists that he had no corrupt motive. Nixon famously says that his mistakes were "mistakes of the heart rather than the head." Although he admits that he had abused power, most of those abuses for which he was about to be impeached and convicted when he resigned go unmentioned. Both Nixon and Frost were ultimately successful in achieving their mutual goals: the interviews attracted a huge worldwide audience, and Frost's career and Nixon's rehabilitation effort were enhanced considerably.

Morgan specializes in dramas that pit two figures against each other and explore the psychology and tensions of the relationship, usually with the good guy prevailing. Among his earlier successes were The Last King of Scotland, about Idi Amin and a naïve, idealistic Scottish doctor, and The Queen, in which Prime Minister Tony Blair (also played by Sheen) tries to persuade an out-of-touch monarch to show empathy toward her subjects' grief at the tragic death of Princess Diana. In this movie, Queen Elizabeth's conversion occurs in an improbable scene and overworked metaphor in which she sees a beautiful stag about to be killed by hunters, bringing tears to her eyes. But whether or not this literally happened doesn't matter. The movie doesn't distort history in large ways, and the figures Blair and Elizabeth are true to themselves.

Frost/Nixon is different. It goes over the line in placing commercial appeal over historical truth. Innumerable plays, as well as movies, elaborate on what is known (Shakespeare was the genius at this), and when dramatists and screenwriters base their work on historical events or figures, they are granted large license. But we do expect the dramas about them to be essentially true to history. Frost/Nixon is not. It matters a lot because this popular drama is about a relatively recent figure whose historical role is still the subject of vigorous debate, in which Nixon defenders argue that his fate was undeserved. In that sense, the play is propaganda, perhaps inadvertent but effective and powerful nonetheless.

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