By Jerry Roberts
“Frost-Nixon,” the hit movie about Big Dick Nixon’s famous post-Watergate TV interviews, won an Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture of the Year.
Ken Khachigian is glad it’s not up for Best Documentary Feature.
California’s top-ranked Republican strategist (and All-World UCSB alum) Khachigian was a longtime aide to Nixon and chief researcher for his 1977 television confrontation with British talk-show host David Frost. Portrayed in “Frost-Nixon” by Gabriel Jarret, and an informal adviser on the film, Khachigian has a good news-bad news take on it.
“It’s great entertainment,” he told me. “Having said that, it’s not great history.”
Khachigian graduated in 1966 as Gaucho student body president, then joined Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign and the White House communications staff at Pat Buchanan’s urging. After Nixon resigned in 1974, he was one of four key aides to join him in San Clemente (Diane Sawyer was most notable among the others). He worked closely with Nixon, first on a memoir and, after Frost ponied up $1 million for the first post-presidency interviews, preparing for 28 hours of taping. “We put together 25 briefing books, and I spent dozens of hours prepping him,” he said.
Frost’s interviews with Nixon were of national interest because Gerald Ford’s pardon after the resignation provided a free legal pass – not only for the White House-sponsored 1972 break-in at Democratic national headquarters, but also for other alleged high crimes and misdemeanors, short-handed by the media as The Watergate Scandal, disclosed as the burglary cover-up unspooled. Millions wanted Nixon held to account, and Frost got the first, best chance to do the job. “Frost-Nixon,” however, overreaches in how effectively he performed: In reality, Frost scored points against the ex-president, but nowhere near the knock-out of the movie.
The climax of the film (Spoiler Alert), in fact, substantively distorts the historical record. The money shot comes when Frank Langella, whose performance won him a best actor Oscar nomination, is cross-examined by Frost, played by Michael Sheen, who presses for some justification for the break-in at the Watergate complex.
“When the president does it, it’s not illegal,” a harried Nixon-Langhella blurts. As big screen drama, it’s a great moment; as history, not so much.
As Khachigian recalled, Nixon said those words – but not in connection with the break-in. Instead, the comment came amid a colloquy with Frost about the [Houston] Huston Plan, a secret White House wiretap operation aimed at officials suspected of leaking national security information. Legally, Nixon’s claim that as a policy matter he, as a wartime president, had authority to order wiretaps is a broad, if familiar, view of executive power (See: Bush, George W.) – but far from an admission of guilt, or even responsibility, for a felony crime.
Khachigian remembers the real drama about Watergate questions and answers well. As accurately shown in the film, Frost badgered Nixon about the issue, so chief of staff Jack Brennan interrupted taping. While Brennan met with Frost to insist that he ease up on “the Perry Mason deal,” Khachigian said, he went in alone with the ex-president.
“Frost had been pushing and the old man was getting his back to the wall,” he recalled. “I went in to see him and he said, ‘Ken, they want me to admit to everything, to just grovel.’ He was thinking out loud and I said, ‘whatever you do, you have to do in such a way that survives history, and survives being on video. If you say you lied, (or) you committed a crime, (or) you committed an impeachable offense, it will be on the video forever, so choose your words carefully.”
A few minutes later, a composed Nixon re-emerged and uttered his famous, modified limited hang-out (CQ. Palmer: those four words a famous Watergate reference), as close to taking responsibility for the break-in as he ever came: “I let the country down.”
“The old man always had it in his head how to handle this,” Khachigian said. “He was thinking through for a matter of weeks the words he would say that would put Watergate behind him. He had the staff going back and forth about what to do, never revealing what he would do.”
At least two other big moments in the movie are simply fantasy. The first comes when a surprised Frost gets a call in his hotel room from Nixon, who delivers a terrific drunken rant. In the final scene, Frost drops off as a gift a new pair of Italian loafers, a fashion choice that Nixon earlier chides Frost for wearing.
“That was pure horseshit,” Khachigian said, adding that he pointed out factual flaws in the script to Peter Morgan, the “lefty Brit” writer. Morgan’s reply: “Hey, it’s entertainment.”