“Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” It was a hard-hitting question, and perhaps the most significant sentence that Sir David Frost ever uttered. Under the watchful eyes of 45 million people, Frost traversed a verbal maze of side-stepping generalisations and denials, in order to find his way to the truth behind the notorious Watergate incident. Such navigation took a skill that the world recognised as worth remembering, which is why the tabloids and broadsheets alike have unanimously declared him as a hugely important figure in the British media, especially since his passing away a few days ago.
Perhaps what was most impressive about Frost was his sheer tenacity. His endurance in the media lasted right up until his death, with his hosting The Frost Interview on Al Jazeera English from 2012. Frost never felt the seductive lure of retirement life; he felt had “a duty not to waste time; to use your talents to the full.”
Of course, one could hardly accuse him of having wasted any time at all. By the time he had left Cambridge University with a degree in English, he had already edited Granta and been secretary of the Footlights, and quickly went on to perform in a comedy sketch with Peter Cook and gain a traineeship with the London TV company Associated-Rediffusion. In his lifetime, Frost earned himself a reputable label as the only man to have managed to interview all eight prime ministers between 1964 and 2008, as well as all the US presidents between 1969 and 2008.
Most will agree that the hallmark of Frost’s career was the famed Nixon Interviews, conducted and broadcast in 1977 (Frost himself, however, told The Guardian that his favourite interview was with George Bush Sr, in 1989). It was perhaps the moment that Frost went from being a simple asset to British satire, to being a renowned influence in the purgatorial realm between international politics and the public. He will forever be known as the man that got Richard Nixon to admit: “I let the American people down and I have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
The impact of Frost’s magnum opus was enough to launch him into a new level of stardom; no longer a jester of the BBC, but a man ready to find out the truth behind the masks of those he interviewed. He was famed for a softer interviewing technique than some of his more aggressive contemporaries, reflecting: “It’s pointless to get hostile with people if you don’t have a smoking pistol; you shut them up, rather than opening them up.”
David Frost died on 31 August, while lecturing on the MS Queen Elizabeth.