I Gave Them a Sword
by David Goodloe
Thirty–five years ago yesterday, journalist David Frost and former President Richard Nixon sat down for the first of the Frost–Nixon interviews in Monarch Bay, Calif.
The interviews were edited into four 90–minute programs that were broadcast in May 1977.
After Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, he more or less disappeared from public view for the next couple of years. His presidency was the subject of many books and articles in that time. His successor, Gerald Ford, issued a controversial pardon to the former president about a month after he left the White House, allowing Nixon to avoid a trial, nearly certain conviction and a prison sentence.
But Nixon himself remained largely out of public view.
By March 1977, though, he was ready to give his side of the story.
He may have been about to finish writing his memoirs at the time — or perhaps a completed manuscript had already been delivered to the publisher. I don’t know. What I do know is that Nixon’s two–volume memoirs arrived in bookstores in 1978 and became huge bestsellers.
I don’t recall whether Nixon ever mentioned the upcoming publication of his memoirs during those interview sessions — or whether Frost ever mentioned it, either. But I do recall that Nixon made some tantalizing remarks in the interviews themselves.
Not the least of which was his assertion that “if the president does it, that means it is not illegal” when Frost asked him about the legality of his actions in the aftermath of the break–in.
That’s the kind of comment that justifies any kind of behavior, even behavior that is clearly unjustifiable, from a public official, and the Watergate break–in — and the activities it was meant to conceal from public view — are among the most unjustifiable imaginable.
Knowing what kind of man Nixon was — a president who kept a list of his enemies — I have no doubt that he harbored many grudges, but when he spoke with Frost, he attempted to make it appear that he did not. What had happened was his own fault, he said.
“I gave them a sword,” Nixon said, “and they twisted it with relish.” Had the roles been reversed, he continued, “I’d have done the same thing.”
After leaving the presidency in 1974, Nixon spent the last 20 years of his life waging a campaign to rehabilitate his image. Although Nixon spent every moment after he left the White House pursuing that goal, he did so visibly for about 17 — until his death in 1994.
But his P.R. campaign was really only partly successful.
If it had been possible, Nixon would have obliterated all memory of the Watergate scandal that pulverized his presidency and his legacy. But that could not be done.
Because you can’t tell Richard Nixon’s story without telling the story of Watergate — just as you can’t tell the story of Lyndon Johnson without also telling the stories of the Vietnam War and all the men who were killed or maimed in it.
It was a tale that was almost Shakespearean — the man who achieved his greatest ambition and held it in the palm of his hand like a crystal ball and then watched it slip through his fingers and shatter on the floor.
Nixon began that rehabilitation campaign in earnest 35 years ago today.
David Goodloe got his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas in 1982, and his master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas in 1991. He publishes the thoughtful weblog Freedom Writing. This post is cross posted from his website.