Watergate Lies Multiplied The Fiction of Frost/Nixon

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We are now in the midst of a grand celebration of itself by the mainstream media. Forty years ago this summer, through their great investigative reporting, they began the process that drove a president from office for the crime of lying about his participation in the cover-up of a political “black bag” operation. To the more perspicacious young people among us who just became aware of their political surroundings in the 21st century, this so-called Watergate story, this morality play, must have them greatly confused. Isn’t this the same mainstream press that shows not the slightest interest in big-time hush-ups like, say, the omission of any mention at all in the official 9/11 report of the collapse, demolition-style, of World Trade Center Building 7 or of who might have been behind the forgeries of documents purporting to show that Saddam Hussein was attempting to obtain raw material from Niger for building nuclear weapons? Could our mainstream press really have come down so far so fast?

The answer, of course, is no. As you might expect, our press in the Watergate episode was not the great knight in shining armor that they would have us believe they were, rather, they were the same old blackguards that are currently covering our current presidential race as if the American people have actually been presented with legitimate choices. As it turns out, almost everything they have told us about Watergate is about 180 degrees from what actually happened. For a good introduction to the real story, I recommend two recent contributions by Charles A. Burris on LewRockwell.com, his article “Watergate Plus Forty” and his LRC Blog entry “Russ Baker and Jim Hougan on Watergate.”

Watergate might have been a small time burglary, but the entire episode was a big time spook operation. And that brings us to the title of this article. If the official Watergate story itself is phony, what is one to make of the 2008 fictionalized movie that is based upon a 2006 fictionalized play about a set of carefully edited interviews that essentially retell the outlines of a phony story? It’s like a fake of a fake of a fake of a fake; like raising a lie to the fourth power.

Actually, as it turns out, we are missing one of the links in the chain. The following is from the dust jacket of James Reston, Jr.’s 2007 book, The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews: “Originally written in 1977 and published now for the first time, this book helped inspire Peter Morgan’s hit play Frost/Nixon.”

How about that? A prize-winning playwright somehow got his hands on an unpublished manuscript by one of David Frost’s researchers and saw enough in it that he was moved to turn it into a compelling play. One has to wonder how, exactly, that came about, but the dust jacket says no more, nor is there any explanation in the book.

As it turns out, the playwright apparently didn’t see quite enough in the book for his dramatic purpose. In the movie, his Nixon interview is one big desperate and frightfully expensive entrepreneurial venture by Frost and his young producer, John Birt. The advance financing that he had hoped to get from one of the major U.S. networks did not materialize and Frost is forced to resort to his own rather shallow pockets and to do the interviews as an independent production. If he can’t squeeze enough drama out of the Nixon exchanges to attract viewers, he could be ruined. If this were actually true, one would think that this would be of some matter of concern to Frost employee Reston and of interest to readers of his book. Since he makes no mention of this matter, we may draw our own conclusions about its veracity. Reston also fails to mention the drunken, self-incriminating telephone call that the movie has Nixon making to Frost in the middle of the night. As for the truth of that episode, we need make no surmises, director Ron Howard admitted in his commentary on the DVD release that the phone call was, “from start to finish, an artistic invention by the scriptwriter Peter Morgan.”

What is in Reston’s book that is central to the movie is Reston, himself, and his great research success in finding “obscure” court documents that, almost at the last minute, sufficiently arm the “lightweight” Frost that he is able to bring down the haughty and “heavyweight” Nixon to the point that the latter is forced, in essence, to admit his guilt before the world.

That’s all balderdash, too, but, at least, there is a James Reston, Jr., and he did work as a researcher for Frost, but are he and the Frost team really who the movie purports them to be? There is some reason for skepticism. Reston’s father, after all, was the famous New York Times reporter and columnist, but he was more than that. He was also a high profile member of the “Georgetown Set.”

After the Second World War a small group of people began meeting on a regular basis. The group. living in Washington, became known as the Georgetown Set or the Wisner Gang. At the [sic] first the key members of the group were former members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). This included Frank Wisner, Philip Graham, David Bruce, Tom Braden, Stewart Alsop and Walt Rostow. Over the next few years others like George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Richard Bissell, Joseph Alsop, Eugene Rostow, Chip Bohlen, Desmond FitzGerald, Tracy Barnes, Cord Meyer, James Angleton, William Averill Harriman, John McCloy, Felix Frankfurter, John Sherman Cooper, James Reston, Allen W. Dulles and Paul Nitze joined their regular parties. Some like Bruce, Braden, Bohlen, McCloy, Meyer and Harriman spent a lot of their time working in other countries. However, they would always attend these parties when in Georgetown.

This, folks, is the very heart of the US secret government/establishment. Notice the “journalists” like Reston, Phillip Graham, and the Alsop brothers keeping close company with a lot of known high-level spooks. Wisner, in fact, is the CIA man who coined the term, “mighty Wurlitzer,” to describe their propaganda apparatus for “influencing” the news media. Reston, Sr., is alleged to have been a part of it. (See Operation Mockingbird.)

How far did the apple fall from the tree? Before addressing that question, let’s have a look at some of the other characters involved with the Frost interviews of Nixon. How about that fresh-faced, idealistic young producer, Birt? We learn this from p. 179 of Reston’s book:

John Birt went on to the daunting post as director general of the BBC, to become a well-known public figure in Britain in his own right, and to become Prime Minister Tony Blair’s alter ego during Britain’s entry into the Iraq war. He [like Frost] got his peerage and is now known in the House of Lords as Baron Birt of Liverpool.

“Once I challenged [Birt] to a chess game. ‘I never play chess,’ he replied. ‘My whole professional career is a chess game.’” (p. 30)

The executive editor of the Frost/Nixon interviews, Robert Zelnick, who came from National Public Radio, became a household name in America as a 20-year ABC correspondent covering the Pentagon, Moscow, and Israel.

My recollection is that these interviews of Nixon by Frost hardly made any splash at all at the time – certainly not the dramatic encounter that they are represented in the movie – but working on them, like working on the Watergate investigative staff (e.g. Hillary Clinton) surely looks like it was a good career move.

Speaking of the Watergate staff, Reston tells us that one of his mentors in his research job for Frost, a person with whom he developed a “friendly working relationship” (p. 48) was Richard Ben-Veniste. Ben-Veniste was in charge of Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski’s Watergate Task Force and was the chief prosecutor in the cover-up trial of several Watergate figures. We encounter Ben-Veniste again playing a major cover-up role (along with the mainstream press, led by The Washington Post) in the case of the death of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster during the Bill Clinton administration. Most recently he has turned up as a member of the government’s 9-11 Commission. Along the way he was defense counsel for CIA-connected drug smuggler Barry Seal.

Who is James Reston, Jr.?

So what do we know about Reston other than who his father was? When he got the call to join the Frost project, he was, perhaps quite appropriately, a lecturer in “creative writing” at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We’ll have to take his word for it that the opportunity came about through a chance conversation that his mother had at a party in Washington, DC. Although he has gone on to a successful career as an author and journalist, his credentials look rather thin for a job on the faculty of a major public university. With just a bachelor’s degree, it would appear that he had somehow managed to leverage his just-published first novel into the cushy teaching job, a job that afforded him the time to work on his first non-fiction book, The Amnesty of John David Herndon. What he had been doing in the form of actual employment before he got the UNC job is not clear. On his Wikipedia page there’s a three-year gap between his U.S. Army tour and his college teaching job.

The rsum gap is intriguing, but so, too, is news of the Army tour. He mentions it a couple of times in his book, once to one-up Zelnick who flaunted his Marine background, when he had only been in the Marine reserves while Reston had served a full three years of Army active duty. What is odd here is that, to the very best of my memory, when we knew one another in Chapel Hill, he never mentioned the fact to me. It is particularly odd because it is on account of my work as a principal organizer of the North Carolina Veterans for Peace that he sought me out in the first place. (See “Spooks on the Hill” for another future Washington figure, Frances Zwenig, whom I first encountered through my NC antiwar activism.) He was working on his Herndon book and making contact with assorted veterans, particularly those who were opposed to the Vietnam War, which was just about all of us in Chapel Hill at the time.

In Frost/Nixon Reston is portrayed as something of a Nixon-hating anti-Vietnam War firebrand. But by that time, the war was over. The time to agitate against the war was when we were at Chapel Hill together, and the most effective way to do it was openly as a veteran. In fact, after Nixon instituted the draft lottery, most of the undergraduates seemed to lose interest in the war. Veterans’ agitation was the only antiwar game in town, and it is my recollection that Reston took no part in it. Rather, he was busily working on his book that seemed to advocate leniency toward the least sympathetic of the war’s presumed opponents, military deserters, which is what John David Herndon was. Reston, frankly, struck me as just a careerist and an opportunist, not as a sincere Vietnam War opponent.

Speaking of strange rsum gaps, upon reflection the Army tour looks a bit like one as well. Straight out of college he got a good job as assistant to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Then, with the Vietnam War raging most dangerously, he went into the Army for three years. We know that he didn’t serve in Vietnam, or he would have told us. Did he know that there was no chance that he would be sent to Vietnam before he signed up? Was he drafted? That’s not likely given his connections, and draftees were obligated to serve only two years of active duty. Had he been in ROTC, with his active duty obligation deferred while he worked in his government job? Again, an ROTC commission had only a two-year active duty requirement. Maybe he went to Officers’ Candidate School, but why, and what did he do in the Army? Maybe he didn’t tell us about his Army background because he was afraid we might ask him questions like that.

Professional Wrestling

Elizabeth Drew, writing in the Huffington Post, gets almost to the heart of the phoniness of the Nixon interviews by Frost. She and others have told us that Nixon was paid $600,000 for it (Reston says it was a cool $1 million.), but, most importantly, what we don’t learn from Reston or the movie is that Nixon was also promised 20 percent of the television revenues. That revelation completely undercuts the central premise of the movie that Frost and Nixon were great adversaries. If Frost wanted the program to be interesting and “edgy” enough that it could make money, so, too, did Nixon. Drew also throws cold water on the great Reston findings that supposedly gave the interviews, just in the nick of time, their edginess:

There are other distortions in the movie. One of them makes a very big thing of the "discovery" by James Reston, Frost’s chief researcher, of a taped conversation between Nixon and his political henchman Charles Colson, supposedly the first one about the cover-up. (Reston, is depicted as the moral conscience of the story, the one who is determined to hold Nixon to account, but he is made less of a noodge in the movie than in the play, where he became an irritating presence.) Much is made of the fact that this bit of conversation was theretofore unknown. But after I saw the play I checked with one of the Watergate prosecutors, who told me that that particular piece of tape was unknown because "we were awash in far more incriminating evidence" against Nixon, and the prosecutors didn’t consider it worth using.

So much for Reston’s crucial last minute “discovery.” Where I part company with Ms. Drew is at her conclusion:

It doesn’t matter that Frost/Nixon moves some scenes around (though it’s not always clear why), and engages in some invention. But such a gross misrepresentation of such important events – roughly seventy percent of the population is too young to have been aware of Watergate – about a figure over whom there is still serious debate, in the name of entertainment and profits, to my mind, crosses the line of dramatic integrity and is dishonorable.

I believe that the evidence is far stronger that the movie and the play, like the interviews themselves, were not done primarily for entertainment and profits. They were done as propaganda.

David Martin [send him mail] writes at DCDave.com.

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