John W. Dean’s latest column at findlaw.com concerns Frost/Nixon. That’s not especially surprising in itself. But what is downright strange is that Dean has not seen Ron Howard’s film or Peter Morgan’s play because, he says, “scheduling” conflicts haven’t permitted him to do so.
So why is Dean writing about Frost/Nixon? It would appear that his big concern is that the film and play overglorify the role of James Reston Jr. in the development of David Frost’s line of questioning that led to the catharsis depicted so effectively in the play and film by Frank Langella as RN.
(Indeed, whenever Dean does bother to see the film, his fears might be assuaged. Sam Rockwell amusingly delineates Reston as a self-important, somewhat obtuse Nixon-hater whose contribution to the Frost team’s “strategy” isn’t as vast as he thinks it is.)
The onetime White House counsel spends a paragraph discussing Reston’s father, the longtime New York Times columnist Scotty Reston, who, according to Dean, was a foe of “muckraking” and who therefore was somehow to blame for the Times’s being slow to pick up on the Watergate story. Or that’s what Dean implies, anyway – he doesn’t spell out the details.
Dean also maintains that it is “very possible” that James Reston Jr.’s book about the interviews The Conviction Of Richard Nixon (which provided a good part of the structural backbone of Frost/Nixon as a play, though less so as a film) failed to find a publisher at the time he wrote it because it said little that was not also in Frost’s book “I Gave Them A Sword” and that this was why Reston put it in a drawer for 30 years. That seems a far-fetched notion. All through the 1970s, almost any “anti” book about Nixon would have had little trouble finding its way into print.
A leading example of such a book, in fact, is President Nixon’s Psychiatric Profile by Eli S. Chesen, published by the short-lived firm of Peter H. Wyden (father of Oregon Senator Ron Wyden) in 1973. Dr. Chesen’s volume, a rather vacuous venture into long-distance psychoanalysis, has received little serious attention from scholars or historians.
But Dean evidently thinks well of the book and its author, who is now a psychiatrist practicing in Lincoln, Nebraska. And he wants to let us know that it was Dr. Chesen who came up with the approach Frost used for the questions about Watergate, using Reston as an intermediary, and that he has failed to get due credit. To this end, Dean presents q-and-a exchange with Dr. Chesen, who says:
Nixon thought and functioned with endless algorithms. Changing the order of questions and abruptly shifting the mood in a dour direction, out of order, would, I told Reston, catch Nixon off guard, perhaps throwing him into the uttering of non sequiturs.
Moreover, I advised Reston that, given the propensities for compulsives to wallow in guilt, when possible, Frost should frame questions with the pre-suggestion of guilt. Nixon, to the very end, saw himself as the under-appreciated underdog; the martyr. It would have been “Checkers” II and Pat’s “Republican cloth coat” all over again had Nixon been given the chance. I believe Nixon could have taken the psychological ball and run with it, covering himself in sackcloth with the notion that, ‘I do and I do and I do and this is the thanks I get.'”
The tortured prose is quite representative of Dr. Chesen’s end of the exchange. A short article from a Nebraska newspaper renders the doctor’s claims in somewhat more readable form. But neither the article nor Dean’s column present evidence to confirm what Dr. Chesen says – no correspondence between the doctor and Reston, or other corroborating documents. One is curious about whether Reston will see fit to reply.