I Fell for Tricky Dick

Of course, nothing is certain. One predicts the future with trepidation, but on Dec. 1 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., I can predict (I'm writing this in late November) that I will be anxious. Because at that time there will be a screening of "Frost/Nixon," the movie that director Ron Howard and I have made of my stage play about the interviews David Frost conducted with Richard Nixon in 1977. In attendance will be scores of the most prominent journalists in Washington, politicians from Capitol Hill and many major figures from the great old days of Watergate. An august and formidable crowd. Shocks of white hair, tortoiseshell glasses and many bow ties. They will come to weigh what I've done with a man they of course know far better, have thought about far more deeply and have studied far longer than I've ever done, and no doubt there'll be no pleasing of everyone.

A lot of people in the Dick Nixon industry might wonder how an Englishman barely old enough to remember Watergate would dare to visit this material. How someone untouched and unscarred by the agonies that Nixon visited upon the American people could possibly have the credentials or the necessary emotional investment to write about it. And, of course, they'd be right.

As a European from a different, younger generation, I wasn't really gripped by the trauma that was Nixon's presidency. For one thing, I never voted for him. Was never invested in him. I voted for Anthony Charles Lynton Blair three times, so his betrayals distress me far more. The horrors and betrayals that Nixon visited upon his electorate left me comparatively unscathed, though I have clear memories of my late father's anger and sense of disappointment as the Watergate scandal began to unfold. (He died in December 1972, close to two years before Nixon resigned from office.)

Nor did I set out to write "Frost/Nixon" as a metaphor for the failed imperial presidency and abuses of power of George W. Bush—the idea to write it first came to me in 1993, while I was watching a biography of Frost on British television—although the endless and disconcerting parallels unfolding before our eyes continue to make this claim look ridiculous, and quite possibly, for our film's marketing purposes, ill advised.

For me, "Frost/Nixon" was always about the responsibility of the creative process. About the subjectivity of memory, the twilight differences between fact and fiction, truth and accuracy. About the power of editorial control, and journalistic ethics.

I saw in the Frost/Nixon interviews a series of challenges and provocative questions. Moral dilemmas. Could paying a subject $600,000 for a series of news interviews ever be morally justified? (Today's equivalent would be to pay George W. Bush $3 million.) Should profit participation for a disgraced president ever be condoned? How legitimate can any claim of a victory be when only one side has the editorial control? Could such a notion as "history" ever really exist when all the participants united by time and place in the mid-'70s would, 30 years later, have such conflicting views about what actually happened? Never, it seemed to me, had historical record seemed more like a series of other people's fictions.

And along the way, of course, I became immersed in the supernova of complexity that is Richard Nixon. And let's be honest, the supernova of complexity that is David Frost too. A fascinating clash of characters, two men I initially found hard to like, but of whom I became strangely fond. And perhaps I can end this piece by asking the august collection of historians and journalists who will assemble in the Woodrow Wilson Center: Is it a sin to become fond of people who have abused power? Who have criminal faults? Or is it unavoidable, somehow, that we emotionally connect with villainy more than integrity? Is tragedy more revealing about ourselves than achievement? Is the industry of exploring villainy, no matter how high-minded that industry, to be applauded or condemned?

As I reflect on that, I hear a familiar voice behind me in my hotel room, and I notice that David Frost is on daytime TV, being grilled for having paid Nixon for the interviews, and I can't help wondering: If we didn't have television and entertainers to interrogate or hold our politicians to account, how impoverished would we be? How often has the "tube," and its army of showmen, been the cavalry coming to the rescue, the courtroom where politicians truly get taken to task? (I'm thinking of the devastating impact that Jon Stewart and Tina Fey and YouTube had in the recent election—achieving a far more telling coup de grâce than any inflicted by political opponents.) And in that scenario, don't the ends justify the means?

The Frost/Nixon interviews had the largest audience of any TV news interviews in history and delivered a lasting blow to Richard Nixon and his legacy. They also delivered a qualified catharsis for the American people who watched. An extraordinary achievement. In the process, they also made Frost and Nixon rich.

If we have a problem with that, if it depresses us in some way, it's worth remembering we vote as much with the remote switch as with the electoral ballot. With the click of the mouse as with the hanging chad. We participate in a thousand choices and elections every minute of the day, and if we dislike the results, if we wonder why or how it is that our political world and our entertainment are so enmeshed, blurring indistinguishably with one another, don't always blame the politicians or the entertainers. Blame us too. We put them there, after all.