David Frost back in prime time with George Bush interview


January 02, 1991|By Michael Hill

THERE IS A SLIGHT paunch around the belt now, but the jacket that covers it is still a flashy double-breasted model, its shade of dark blue contrasting smartly with the bright red of the striped shirt, dotted tie and patterned socks.

There are some sags and wrinkles in the face, yet it retains an elemental boyishness. And though thick glasses often block the view of the always-hooded eyes, somewhere back there you can still catch a glint of merriment.

It's been a quarter century since David Frost first sprang upon the consciousness of the American public, seemingly the model of modern English wit as he hosted the satirical, acerbic "That Was the Week That Was," a brilliant bit of political parody that blazed across prime time like a shooting star in 1964 and 1965.

Since then he has remained in view, building up a mini media empire in Britain while retaining a presence on the American small screen as a talk show host, all-around quipster, and, most recently, as an interviewer, particularly of presidents.

It is in that function that Frost returns to prime time tonight with the first of six hourlong interviews, this one with President Bush, including significant contributions from his wife Barbara. It will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 8 o'clock.

"There are enormous advantages to having a varied career but you do have to re-explain yourself time and again," Frost said in a recent interview in Washington just after completing his session with Bush on Dec. 16.

"First there was 'That Was the Week That Was' and then I did a talk show and people asked, 'What's a satirist doing with a talk show?' And I would explain that. Then I did other work for ABC sports.

"Then there were the Nixon interviews," he said of landing the first in-depth interviews with Nixon after his departure from office. "And people wondered what a talk-show host satirist was doing interviewing the former president.

"So I do have to re-explain myself, but it's a very small price to pay for the freedom and variety of this sort of career."

In England, Frost's many talents seem to be accepted. In addition to his executive duties, he has a serious interview program every Sunday morning -- "It's called 'Frost on Sunday,' quite an imaginative title" -- but also takes 13 weeks a year to host a panel game show he invented, just because he thought it would be fun.

Indeed, Frost finds that it's mainly in America that journalists have tried to construct an impenetrable fort around their profession.

"I don't really understand it," he said. "Journalism is a state of mind. A cab driver can have a journalist's inquiring mind and a network news executive can be lacking it."

Frost certainly shows his considerable skills in tonight's hour. It is the fourth time he has interviewed Bush, going back to the beginning of the future president's candidacy. That was when people were wondering if he was a wimp. Now, they are wondering if he is a warmonger.

"The cast remains the same, but the scene changes," is the way Frost put it.

Tonight, Frost shows himself to be the thinking person's Barbara Walters. Like Walters, these days he does primarily make his living as an interviewer so it is necessary to keep on good terms with potential subjects.

But in doing that, Walters often becomes obsequious, unabashedly so.

Frost, however, while coming across with gracious manners that seem impeccable to Americans when filtered through a British accent, gently, subtlety, but powerfully, turns the conversation -- which centers on the situation in the Gulf but touches on other issues -- to the tough questions.

Almost unconsciously, he acts as if he's bringing up such difficult matters reluctantly, out of a mutually understood sense of duty, but still makes sure that they are brought up.

What results are some of the most straightforward answers Bush has ever given to his views on Iraq and Kuwait, showing him to be a product of his generation, a man who as president wants above all to avoid being perceived as the tragic appeaser Neville Chamberlain, just as surely as a member of the next generation would want above all to avoid being seen trapped waist deep in big muddy conflict such as Vietnam, as was Lyndon Johnson.

Bush even claims that the Iraqi situation is the clearest case of right versus wrong since World War II, reveling in the seductive powers of the moral clarity of the last good war as he tries to parry Frost's query about sacrificing Americans to put an Emir back on a feudal throne aided by a Syrian government denounced as terrorists.

At the end of the hour, if Bush has any wounds, they are not the product of a scratching and clawing frontal assault such as a Sam Donaldson or Mike Wallace might deliver. Instead, they were inflicted with the delicate touch of a surgeon's scalpel, painlessly, artistically, in such a way to insure that Frost will be invited back.

Six interviews are planned in this monthly series, with Margaret Thatcher and Robin Williams on the guest list.

"I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't do the lighthearted interviews as well," Frost said. "I yearn for the session with Robin Williams."

That's when he can take off those glasses and let that impish glint in his eyes show clearly.

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