(L-R): David Frost (Jeremy Webb) interviews Richard Nixon (Allen McCullough) about his presidency in "Frost/Nixon," presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts January 16 through February 10.
(Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Berne)
In a time when we rarely hear politicians apologize, the power of a public apology takes on an almost mythic quality. For the play Frost/Nixon, on now in Mountain View, a real life apology serves as the climax of an epic struggle between a disgraced former president and his interviewer.
What took down President Richard Nixon? Watergate, the scandal over his coverup of a botched break-in to Democratic Party headquarters in Washington DC. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached. But the apology came three years later, in a history-making interview with TV journalist David Frost.
“I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system of government and the dreams of all these young people that ought to get into government but think it’s all too corrupt and the rest,” Nixon said.
Then, "I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life."
Peter Morgan ("The Crown," "The Last King of Scotland"), a gifted interpreter of the political stage, wrote the play Frost/Nixon based on those tapes. The piece debuted in London in 2006. Its Broadway premiere the next year garnered a Tony for actor Frank Langella for his performance as Nixon, and led to a Hollywood adaptation with the same cast. That the play still seems fresh today is a tribute to Morgan's talent for spotting the epic moments in the endless day-to-day of ancient news headlines.
While Morgan takes a few liberties with the facts, he doesn't take nearly as many as Nixon did himself. That late-night phone call a drunk Nixon makes to Frost in the play? Didn't happen.
Also, in real life, David Frost wasn’t really a lightweight talk show host. He and his team went into the studio heavily armed with research. In particular, James Reston Jr., the son of the legendary New York Times reporter, found scores of transcripts of the White House tapes that prosecutors had seen but never used in court. They were in the public record, but somehow other reporters failed to notice them.
In the play though, Frost is trying to restore his professional reputation in a parallel fashion to Nixon. That makes for a juicier role for actor Jeremy Webb, who plays Frost in the TheatreWorks production now on in Mountain View.
He also serves as an excellent stand in for the rest of us, especially those of us who "can't recall" the original history, only the echoes rippling through modern day politics. Webb says, "I was born June 10, 1972, and Watergate's June 17," Webb said. "So I don't have a recollection, but probably some of the first words I was taught were, 'We hate Richard Nixon.' "
The original conversations took place over nearly 29 hours during 12 days in 1977, shot near Nixon’s estate in San Clemente. The footage was then condensed into four 90-minute segments for broadcast.
Watching even a fraction of that is rough sledding for viewers who didn't live through the Nixon administration. There are so many details, and Nixon does his practiced best to hide in those details. Unfortunately for him, Frost had done his homework and matched the president point for point.
Why did Nixon agree to the grilling? Money, for one thing. But also, as Frost told Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, "Television is a more powerful medium than a book. If he has ... told the truth on television, millions and billions of people will have seen that. If he misses this opportunity, no one's going to buy the book anyway."
In the play, we watch Nixon gradually let go of his justifications over a more digestible 100 minutes, and finally admit to failure, if not illegal acts.
The former president comes off as tragic, says Allen McCullough, who plays Nixon in the TheatreWorks production in Mountain View. Does McCullough fear restoring Nixon's reputation with modern audiences? No.
"If the audience says, 'Richard Nixon is a schmuck and he’s going to stay a schmuck,' there is no play. Many people have come to me who said, 'I remember him. I hated him. You really made me feel differently about him.' Then I’ve done my job."
But we still gets a gripping history lesson on Nixon’s insecure, open hatred of the press, and his arrogance about the law. Nixon says at one point -- in the original interview, mind you, as well as the play -- "When the President does it, that means it is not illegal."
Frost/Nixon put on by Theatreworks runs through February 10, 2019 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, click here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.