David Frost, who died of a heart attack aboard the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship on August 31, was much more than the man who interviewed President Nixon. Frost, who was 74 when he died, had a career in the U.K. spanning the possibilities of TV presenting: satire (That Was the Week That Was), entertainment hosting, and serious political interviews. But his signature program, the series of interviews with the ex-President in 1977, which became the most-watched political interview ever, combined the many aspects of his career: it was part newsmaker interrogation, part psychological inquiry, part drama, and a good part theater.
The interviews were originally meant to benefit Nixon as much as his interviewer and the news-viewing public. Frost, having had a career in British television since the ’60s (where he was well-known enough to be parodied by Monty Python as “Timmy Williams”), wanted to establish himself in the U.S. Nixon, besides receiving a generous fee, hoped to redeem his reputation and return to public life. The thinking was that Frost was a glad-handing interviewer who could be easily handled.
But the twelve-part interview — chronicled in the play and 2008 movie Frost/Nixon — ended up being a lengthy interrogation of Nixon’s betrayal of the public trust. Frost had a reputation (exaggerated by his parodists) as a glib creature of showbiz, but with Nixon he was steady, determined, and — maybe rarest in the hurry-up medium of TV — patient. Frost’s blow-dried reputation may have gotten him the interview, but he showed up as a journalist. He walked a reluctant Nixon through the history of his presidency and its downfall, with little theatricality or “gotcha” in his demeanor, and secured the closest thing to an admission of wrongdoing as the public was likely to get.
As Frost handled it, the Nixon interviews became a kind of unofficial public trial, a cathartic surrogate for the process that, owing to Nixon’s resignation and pardon, the country would never get. It was also, possibly, the last interview of its kind that we would see, perhaps because of its success; though we have seen hundreds of high-profile TV confessional interviews since, no handler could remember Frost’s dissection of Nixon and allow a client to agree to the same deal.
For Frost too the interview was a peak, though he would go on to interview leaders and celebrities for decades, most recently for Al Jazeera English. His most lasting influence remains as an on-camera natural, who proved that an interview set could be simultaneously a stage and a courtroom. RIP.