Nixon returns to the Oxford Union for the third time with Peter Morgan’s
Frost/Nixon, staged in 4th week in the debate chamber – the venue that hosted the former President’s two visits to the place in 1958 and 1978. You would be forgiven for thinking the two previous visits were made by different men. In 1958, Nixon was Vice-President in an administration that oversaw the birth of NASA and a mutual agreement between Russia, the UK and the USA to stop developing armaments for three years.
Come 1978, it was an entirely different story. Nixon had resigned over the Watergate scandal, in which it had emerged that his cronies wiretapped his opponents to gain an electoral advantage. More than that – Nixon himself had been involved in covering up the crime. His resignation had simply been a way of avoiding shameful impeachment. That year, the whole debacle had just reached catharsis. It had also been a year since an infamous set of interviews conducted by David Frost. The sensational no-holds-barred conversations pulled in audiences of over 45 million viewers in America alone. It remains the largest ever television audience for a political interview. Nixon admitted that he had disgraced the presidential office. But he also dropped the bombshell: “I believe it’s not illegal if the president does it”.
As a result the televised interviews – conceived as an attempt to raise his profile – tanked, while the interviews sent Frost’s career into the stratosphere. A poll showed 75% of viewers thought Nixon had no more role to play in public life.
The play is infused with a real sense of competitiveness between the two sides; the Frost and Nixon camps rehearsing separately. The directors see the chamber as a boxing ring, and projections of people filming the show live will give the audience the sense of a TV show. Nixon was not a man who gave up easily. His 1978 trip to Europe was a bid to re-establish himself as a speaker with an agenda to make a difference in the world, and to promote his recently published memoirs. Among his stops were the Sorbonne, Berlin and Oxford. The Union, then a conservative-leaning organization, had invited him to speak in great secret. For security reasons, he was not even on the termcard for the Michaelmas when he visited. Even while the event was going on, the level of security was very high: Nixon’s men from the Security Service scoured the building for potential threats, and a whole wing of the Radcliffe Infirmary was reserved in case anything happened. There was so much public interest that the event was restricted to life members. Needless to say, the number of life memberships rapidly jumped following the disclosure of the visit.
Much like the visit of Julian Assange earlier this year, Nixon’s appearance attracted a great deal of controversy. Although Union memberships were snapped up on news of the visit, not everyone wanted to hear what Nixon had to say. A protest was organized by American graduate student Andy Paalborg, who studied at Pembroke at the time. Paalborg was intent on stopping Nixon benefitting from the prestige of Oxford and on hampering Nixon’s plans of only speaking at conservative societies to ensure a good reception. He managed to attract the attention of the international media to his protest by publicising that a large protest was planned – and the news reached papers all over the world. When Nixon arrived on the night in a black limousine, he was pelted with eggs. Paalborg told Cherwell, “There were 12 arrests that day. The protesters surged toward his car and rocked it back and forth.” The protesters allegedly numbered in the hundreds and carried anti-Nixon banners. They crowded around the Union as Nixon delivered his speech, tuning into the BBC to listen in to the address and shouting “Bullshit!” among other cries of disagreement during the Question Time-style session.
Although those who attended the event testify that the protests were not too disruptive, the demonstration was covered across the Atlantic. Paalborg and his protest was splashed across the British and American news channels whilst Time magazine published photos of the protesters. Some opine that the protests were the result of Oxford’s left at the time revolting against conservatism: Anti-Nixon sentiment merely provided a convenient excuse for action. The Union then was less open to all ends of the political spectrum as it is today. The term card cnsisted mostly, if not to say exclusively, of rightwing speakers.
There was at the same time a strong communist, even neo-Trotskyite, anti-American contingent that was trying to raise the profile of OUSU which was then a newly-born and penniless association. But what did Nixon actually speak about? Not that much to do with the burning topic of Watergate, apparently, although of course it was the thing that everyone wanted to hear about following the Frost interviews. Instead, he focused on looking forward: he spoke about the threat posed to the world by the Soviet Union, and how the West (which he defined as Japan, the US, the UK, Canada and Europe) can compete with the Communist states.
His only comments about the big scandal that brought him down were reluctantly made during question time, when he admitted “I screwed it up” and “I made a mistake”.