TV's David Frost Quizzes the Men Who Would Be President

UPDATED 12/07/1987 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/07/1987 at 01:00 AM EST

With furniture and lamps stacked in the hallway, the Oval Office has been stripped down to a TV-studio set of twin armchairs, twin ashtrays and yes, twin Remington statues. Showman to showman, President Ronald Reagan offers David Frost a glass of warm water, a vocal trick he says he learned from "two good sources"—a Methodist minister and Frank Sinatra. "It's such a joy to be doing this!" Frost says. Pleasantries exchanged, the gentle joust begins, producing occasional moments of self-revelation—the President saying of his wife, Nancy, "Being with her is kind of like coming into a warm, firelit room after you've been out in the cold"—but no headlines on policy. No matter. The redoubtable Frost has got his man for the President's first one-on-one TV interview in over a year. "He was more vigorous than I'd expected from his last press conference," says Frost, bounding into a limo with an entourage. "I would have loved to have pinned him down on Irangate, but nobody else has either. I'm absolutely elated!"

This is not the Mike Wallace school of broadcasting. Frost has scored his biggest journalistic coups not with confrontations and accusations, but by being a chummy, sympathetic peer to his subjects. It has worked so well that Frost is now richer and more famous than many of the world leaders and celebrities he interviews. Dismissed as a "news entertainer" when he paid Richard Nixon an estimated $600,000 for his TV memoirs in 1977, Frost grilled Nixon so skillfully that the ex-President came as close as he ever would to offering a mea culpa for Watergate.

Now the British interloper is on deck with The Next President, a syndicated TV series of interviews with Reagan, his two immediate predecessors and 12 men who are running to succeed him. The 13-week series made its de-but this week on more than 115 stations with the Reagan interview and more revealing sessions with former presidents Jimmy Carter (who blasted Reagan for "the bribery of kidnappers" in the Iran arms deal) and Gerald Ford. In subsequent weeks the series, co-produced with U.S. News & World Report, will devote an hour to each of the 12 declared candidates. The at-home sessions include interviews with the candidates' wives, a dimension Frost admits he "never thought of" when he did a similar series in 1968. Frost dismisses the Gary Hart-inspired "A-question"—Have you ever committed adultery?—as a "fishing expedition," but his interviews did try to catch the candidates in unguarded, personal disclosures. Among them:

•Congressman Jack Kemp, after resisting Frost's hammering, connects his "pro-life" stance to the fact that his wife once had a miscarriage.

•Rev. Jesse Jackson, who laughingly acknowledges his wife's role as "Vice-President" of their marriage, says: "In 25 years of marriage I have made all of the major decisions. Except no major decision has come up in 25 years."

•Vice-President George Bush, asked about the death from leukemia of his 3-year-old daughter, Robin, 34 years ago, and its effect on his faith, says: "For me—and this gets awful personal—"born again' is knowing that in my case Jesus Christ is my personal savior. I know that when our child was wrenched after six months of suffering, I was certain that she was in God's loving arms."

Researching a candidate's life and opinions as far back as childhood, Frost's small staff created a background binder on each of them. "We read Al Haig's master's thesis and talked to Jack Kemp's pro football trainer," says co-executive producer John Florescu. "When David could call a candidate by his high-school nickname, the guy knew he couldn't just b.s. it." Frost boned up on the research and rehearsed sample questions, including more than 100 for Reagan. Then he relied on his dinner-party charm to draw each candidate out, ingenuously asking Jimmy Carter, for example, "Do you like Ted Kennedy?" (After a pause, Carter said, "Personally, I like Ted Kennedy. I would not want to see him President. I don't think he's qualified.") "David can split his brain into simultaneous 'receive' and 'transmit,' " says BBC correspondent Martin Bell, Frost's classmate at Cambridge. "He's an ideal live-TV man."

The son of a Methodist minister in Kent, Frost learned his talk-show skills at an early age. "My father was a true pastor in terms of caring for his flock," he says, "and life at home was fascinating because there would be all kinds of people there—even once an escaped convict. My father always told me, 'Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,' meaning everyone has something of value to say."

An ambitious scholarship student at Cambridge in the heady '60s, Frost, recalls Bell, "somehow managed a fairly flamboyant life-style on little money. He simply knew he would be successful." And he was. In 1962 while only 23, Frost became famous as the host and co-creator of That Was the Week That Was, a controversial TV parody of current events that was a success in Britain and had a brief run on NBC in 1964. Today he is a one-man conglomerate who produces and packages TV shows such as The Spectacular World of Guinness Records and, this week in London, A Royal Gala, a benefit featuring Prince Charles and Princess Diana. A thoroughly Establishment figure, he is friendly with the pillars of most of the British institutions he once satirized on TW3. He attended Prince Andrew's bachelor party, and Fergie—whom he recently interviewed on Today—calls him Frosty. A longtime bachelor whose girlfriends ranged from Diahann Carroll to U.S. socialite Caroline Cushing, Frost was married for a year in 1981 to Lynne Frederick, Peter Sellers' widow. In 1983 he married Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, a Roman Catholic peer. "We'd known each other socially for years, but when we saw each other at a party in 1982," says Frost, "suddenly it was dot-dot-dot different." When a nun asked Lady Carina if her prospective husband was religious, she replied, "Oh, yes. He thinks he's God."

A late-blooming, admittedly "besotted" family man, Frost is eager to be home with Carina, 35, and their three children, Miles, 3, Wilfred, 2, and 7-month-old George. During the nine months spent preparing The Next President, he has been living in hotels and commuting weekly on the Concorde to London, where the Frosts live in a huge Victorian house with a country garden. On a corner nearby is an Italian restaurant where Frost likes to take the family. "The other day when we were there," he says happily, "3-year-old Miles said, 'Daddy, why are those plants hanging up there?' I said I didn't know. 'So people can't pick them,' he said. What a great question!" And in Frost's lexicon, there is no higher praise.

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