Journalist and media personality Sir David Frost died this weekend while giving a speech aboard a cruise ship.
If you grew up in the Seventies, Frost’s is a name you know, even if you don’t know why you know it, kind of like Joyce Brothers. But unlike Joyce Brothers, whose death earlier this summer went by almost unmentioned, David Frost is being fondly remembered on all the cable news networks.
And that is because Frost is one of them, a TV newsman, a media entertainer. What is most shocking about his death is that Frost was only 74. He made his name by interviewing world leaders in the 1960s and 70s, but he himself was a full generation (or more) younger than his interviewees, which is surprising because Frost never gave off an aura of youthfulness.
So why is Frost famous exactly? If you’re British you know him as a prominent television journalist who hosted a weekly program and interviewed no fewer than eight sitting British Prime Ministers.
If you’re American you know him for one reason: The Nixon Interviews.
When Frost interviewed Nixon in 1977, the line between news and infotainment hadn’t been blurred the way it is today. That was the era of the primacy of the network anchorman. Huntley, Brinkley, and especially Cronkite, were (and still are) names that commanded respect and trust, names that even managed to bridge the generation gap when the generation gap was at its most acute.
It goes without saying that Cronkite was the most respected and trusted man in America in the late 60s and 70s, rather than any of our elected officials.
In America, David Frost was automatically upgraded into this esteemed club because of his distinguished sounding name and his British accent, but in actuality, he was much more of a raconteur. In addition to interviewing the leaders of the free world, Frost was a behind the scenes producer/creator a la Dick Clark, and a man who liked to dabble in comedy writing. Additionally, David Frost was known for carrying on a series of relationships with high-profile socialites and entertainers. In 2006, his net worth was estimated to be over 200 million British Pounds.
Richard Milhous Nixon resigned the Presidency effective Aug. 9, 1974, boarding a helicopter on the White House lawn and going straight into virtual seclusion at his San Clemente beachside estate.
Yet, no figure continued to inspire so much speculation and generate so much interest in seclusion, not even Greta Garbo. Nixon had been such an integral part of the American Sixties, and in the Seventies his monumental fall from grace so quickly after winning a triumphal second term of the Presidency left us all with far more questions than answers.
Nixon went into media seclusion after his Aug. 1974 resignation of the Presidency, and yet he still loomed large on the scene as the most talked about, joked about political figure in the land, probably until the Carter presidency began to collapse under the weight of its own problems in 1979.
In 1977, Richard Nixon was about to publish his long-awaited memoirs. In addition, the ex-President was facing cash flow problems stemming from his legal bills. Nixon’s publicist, the great Swifty Lazar, understood the power of television, and that TV exposure would boost Nixon’s book sales immeasurably.
Enter television raconteur and impresario David Frost. Frost agreed to pay Nixon the princely sum of $600,000 plus 20% of any of the future profits in exchange for sitting down to an exclusive series of interviews. (For perspective, $600,000 was about what the highest paid American professional athletes received annually in 1977, a figure that is over $20 million today.) The first interview to be broadcast reached an audience of 45 million viewers, a record that still stands today for political figures.
Nixon was the biggest name in media in the 70s, and David Frost, 30-something jet-setting British playboy, had upstaged all the American network giants in landing the exclusive interview. The Frost-Nixon interview itself became meta (to borrow a modern term), with David Frost being interviewed by Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” about his interview with Nixon. And of course, the whole thing was memorialized with the play “Frost/Nixon” that was later adapted into a $25 million feature film directed by Ron Howard.
While today’s obituary is ostensibly about David Frost, shrewd businessman, playboy, and cruise ship keynote speaker, a man who joined the ranks of other upstanding figures such as Mick Jagger to earn the title of “Sir” before his name, the real story is, as usual, the enduring legacy of Richard Milhous Nixon.
Without the Nixon interview coup, Frost would be an unknown in the U.S. Having his name attached to Nixon’s in the headlines will ensure Frost a legacy that is far beyond the weight he punched at.
“Sir David” will be otherwise forgotten just as quickly as tomorrow’s news cycle kicks off. But Nixon’s fame is only beginning. Forget James Dean and Jim Morrison. Is there anyone who inspires so much interest and fascination 20 years after his death?
Nixon lives on in our popular culture two decades after his death as surely as he lived on in secluded retirement for the two decades that followed the public disgrace of resigning the Oval Office.
The post-resignation years mainly saw Nixon being commemorated as the butt of our jokes. But with the passing of time and numerous subsequent Presidential scandals, Nixon is being remembered if not more fondly, then less shrilly.
Consider Nixon’s legacy these days:
- In addition to “Frost/Nixon” the play and film there is the opera, “Nixon in China.”
- There is the comedy film “Dick,” featuring Dan Hedaya as the lovable, grandfatherly, five-o’clock-shadowed Dick Nixon, who develops a paternal fondness for two ditzy but adorable 15-year old girls.
- There is the portrayal of Richard Nixon’s head in Futurama, an arch-villainous figure to be sure, but one you can’t quite bring yourself to hate, in part because you know that after two decades of Red-baiting and conniving in the White House, he ended up an old man walking glumly alone in his slacks on the golden beaches of San Clemente.
- And of course there is the 2008 critics’ favorite book, “Nixonland,” which reexamines the story of Nixon in the 60s from the perspective of a writer who wasn’t even born when Nixon won the Presidency in 1968, and shows that the saga of Richard Nixon is still as fascinating and relevant as ever.
As we can see, the very name “Nixon” still carries weight, and may arguably join Lincoln and Jefferson as the most recognizable and powerful one-word Presidential monikers after Washington (which is in a class by itself, having become the place name of the American capital and a word synonymous with the nation itself). Just put ‘Nixon’ into the title of your play, book, movie, TV show, and watch interest go up immediately. The fact that his is the only Presidential name with an X in it will only add to its cachet for future generations.