It's a classic Nixon impression, but this time the impressionist is Richard Milhous Nixon himself. On 38 hours of videotape, America's most controversial politician talks about himself and reveals yet another new Nixon. On these tapes—unlike some others that might be mentioned—the secret bomber of Cambodia is a lighthearted storyteller; the unindicted Watergate co-conspirator a folksy grandpa. But, of course, some traces of the no-nonsense Nixon remain: Q: "Do you consider that you've had a good life?" A: "I don't get into that kind of crap."
The people at CBS News considered this new Nixon so different from the various old Nixons that they paid $500,000 for 90 minutes of the "electronic memoir," to be broadcast on 60 Minutes and the new American Parade series in April. (Nixon's cut of that money is a closely guarded secret.) Explains CBS vice-president Bob Chandler: "I saw a Nixon I never saw before—more relaxed, more candid, more forthcoming."
Like almost everything that Nixon touches, these interviews have aroused controversy even before their TV debut. In a New York Times article, prominent newspaper editors charged that CBS had surrendered credibility by purchasing interviews conducted by a former Nixon aide and speechwriter, Frank Gannon. "A press agent editing the news," sniped one editor. Not surprisingly, Chandler disagrees. "The situation is analagous to what goes on in the print media when a newspaper or magazine buys excerpts from a book of memoirs," he says. Chandler also defends Gannon's abilities as an interviewer: "He asks some questions that a professional journalist might not raise. For instance, he asked Nixon why he didn't show affection to his wife in public."
Yes, Gannon actually did ask that question and Nixon answered it. "Look," said the 37th President of the United States, "when I hear people slobbering around publicly—'I love her' and all that stuff—it raises a question in my mind about how much of it is real. That's the way I am and it's the way she is, too."
"Only I could have gotten from him what I got," says Gannon, 41. "David Frost got as much as you're going to get from an adversary situation. A lot of the really high-quality stuff I got from him was because he trusted me, and that trust wouldn't exist with other people."
Frank Gannon worked for Richard Nixon for seven years—in the White House and later in San Clemente after the 1974 resignation—but somehow he doesn't seem like the stereotypical Nixonian. Raised in Bellmore, Long Island, Gannon studied at Georgetown University, played piano at Kennedy administration parties, earned a Ph.D. in political science at Oxford and worked as a researcher on Randolph Churchill's multivolume biography of his father, Winston. He is also a bachelor-esthete with a lively interest in modern fiction, rock 'n' roll and parapsychology. Upon moving to New York, he insisted on an apartment with a view of the Empire State Building, which he regards as the highest flowering of Western Civilization. He rented a purple-walled Greenwich Village loft and decorated it with Edward Ruscha prints and a "Crapping Cow Calendar," which contains 12 photos of, yes, you guessed it.
Despite the obvious cultural gap, Gannon maintains, half-jokingly, that his relationship with Nixon was "in the stars." He learned of that destiny on St. Patrick's Day, 1968, when he visited a London fortune-teller touted by a girlfriend. An elderly Hungarian with a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent, she rubbed Gannon's wristwatch and saw his future. "Vy do I get Richard Nixon?" she asked. "I see you working for him and writing for him."
Three years later, Gannon won a one-year White House fellowship and ended up working for Nixon's domestic affairs counselor John Ehrlichman as a writer and "idea person." One of Gannon's ideas was to invite such cultural luminaries as Tom Wolfe, Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler to the White House for parleys with Nixon. Nixon liked the idea—not enough to actually put it in operation, but enough to instruct his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, to hire Gannon. Gannon, however, had just accepted a job as an apprentice scriptwriter for the Raymond Burr TV show Ironside. Ziegler urged him to stay for three months and Gannon agreed. For the next three months, he never even saw Ziegler much less Nixon. Disappointed, he turned in his resignation and shipped his possessions to Hollywood. On his last day at work, Ziegler summoned Gannon into an audience with Nixon. "The President was in his easy chair with his feet up, eating soda crackers and spilling crumbs all down his chest," Gannon recalls. The commander-in-chief urged him to stay and an awed Gannon obeyed. "All my earthly goods are probably moving through downtown Sandusky, Ohio right now," he told Nixon, "but I'll do it." The President arose, sending the cracker crumbs cascading to the floor, and slapped Gannon on the back. "Wonderful town, Sandusky," he said.
So instead of writing Ironside episodes, Gannon found himself typing up Ron Ziegler's notes. "This was the time of Watergate," he says. "The iceberg had ripped the hole in the ship and the compartments were flooding. On one level, I was objective enough to be fascinated, but you couldn't work in that atmosphere without getting emotionally involved." Looking back, he describes himself as a Nixon loyalist but not a blind loyalist. "I had grave reservations about Watergate, but basically I thought his policies were good for the country."
When Nixon resigned, Gannon was among the faithful aides who flew with him to California exile aboard Air Force One. A couple of months later, when Nixon was hospitalized with severe phlebitis, Gannon spent many hours at his bedside. "Tubes were coming out of every conceivable orifice and he was immobile in bed, but the mind was absolutely alert," Gannon recalls. "I think he was really aware of his mortality in a way that he had never been before. As a result of the experience, we developed a relationship that made the book possible."
The book was RN, Nixon's best-selling autobiography, published in 1978. For more than three years, Gannon headed a staff of researchers and helped to edit the one million words that Nixon dictated. "He held nothing back," says Gannon. "He gave me his diaries. I was doing a job and he trusted me." Although he came to know Nixon well, Gannon still has difficulty answering the question he has been asked "umpteen times": What is he really like? "It's easier to describe him by what he's not than by what he is. He's not self-important, he's not starchy. And sometimes he'll say things that are just so breathtakingly personal that you can't believe anyone is saying them, much less him."
When the book was completed, Gannon left San Clemente for Washington, where he worked for Senator John Heinz (R.-Pa.) and then for conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie. Then, in 1982, convinced that "books are archaic and will soon be obsolete," he went into business producing video memoirs. For the first of what he hopes will be a long series, with Cary Grant and Indira Gandhi as possible future subjects, he turned to his old boss. Nixon agreed to be interviewed, and the men talked 10 times over eight months in 1983 in New York's National Video Center. They discussed Vietnam, world leaders, Nixon's personal life and, for three uneasy hours, Watergate. "There were some tense moments during the questioning," Gannon recalls. "He hates to talk about Watergate. And he doesn't like to talk about private things." Fortunately, Nixon proved to be even more forthcoming than Gannon had hoped. "I was surprised at how much I got," he says. "He responded to the needs of the form. I had to be tough and he had to be forthcoming, and it all worked."
Gannon rises from his couch and feeds a cassette into his video machine. A test pattern weaves across the TV screen and then Richard Nixon appears, smiling broadly and telling an amazing story about trying to convince a rich but eccentric Californian to contribute to his 1946 congressional campaign. "In walked the butler," he says. "He had a .45 pistol. He pointed it at this guy and he turned to us and said, 'Young fellows, don't you have a thing to do with this s.o.b. He's no good and he's murdered two wives already.' And he waved the pistol in our direction. And this fellow said, 'George, quiet down.' And the butler said, 'Oh, no, you know what you did. You poisoned the first one and the second one, you made her take an enema and you kept the enema going until..."
Richard Nixon, raconteur. Who'd have thunk it?
The ski nose is perfectly Nixonian. The jowls quiver just right as he shakes his head in grave, statesmanly negation. The voice is that same distinctive, resonating baritone from a decade ago, but the words are, well, a little different. "I talk to people in the media." Pause. Smile. "You know we do talk on occasion." Pause. End of smile. "They say, 'But it's the responsibility of the media to look at the government, particularly the President, with a microscope.' " Pause. Punch line: "I don't mind the microscope but, boy, when they use a proctoscope, that's going too far."