The helicopter that lifted Richard Nixon from the White House lawn nearly three years ago seemed an angel of mercy, rescuing the nation from the long, painful nightmare of Watergate. As it turned out, however, the bad dream had its afterglow, and books and articles by the dozen promised the inside story of the final days and a psychological profile of the man at the center of the scandals. The former President has till now maintained a dignified distance from Watergate post-mortems.
The silence could not last. Richard Nixon is a personality both born and destroyed in the media. His series of conversations with David Frost, on reflection, was inevitable. He has always been compelled to bring his case directly to the people, from the time he defended his campaign expenses in the "Checkers" speech in 1952 to his long and tortured explanations of Watergate. Now, once again, he is confronting the cameras in an attempt to salvage his reputation and, perhaps, even begin a retum to public life.
The careful staging of the media event points out once more that tragic lack of a sense of propriety which seems to haunt the man and those he chooses as his associates. In fact, he is allowing his potential confession to be marketed by the show-business entrepreneur, David Frost, in the same way he allowed his Presidency to be marketed by admen, Messrs. Haldeman, Erlichman and Ziegler. None of the networks would air the series, since "checkbook journalism," the competitive bidding for personality news, is generally thought to devalue news departments. When commercial sales lagged, a few leaks hinted at startling new revelations, and the spiciest segment, dealing with Watergate, was moved from the last of the four evenings to the first, to generate press coverage and advertising revenue. It succeeded. Mr. Nixon will earn close to $1 million and Mr. Frost about twice that amount. Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and CBS all gave feature space to the series.
The dream image has been fixed in the American consciousness by this time. Those who found Mr. Nixons explanations faulty three years ago will find this attempt at self-vindication equally hollow. Any new admissions are unlikely to shake the trust of the believers, who to this day believe he was merely persecuted by his enemies. The images have not changed, but the pain, confusion and shame will be revived. In all of this, Mr. Nixons sense of the media remains constant, and terribly, terribly flawed.