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King of the Q & A

What Do Clint Eastwood, Jack Kemp, Richard Nixon and the Beatles have in common? they were all interviewed by David Frost.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 3)

Then there is the third sort of silence. "It's a pause at the beginning of an answer, when they're thinking. That's terrific, because it shows that they probably haven't been asked that question before and they don't have a ready answer. I remember a marvelous silence, when I was interviewing Pierre Trudeau when he was prime minister of Canada, and then as now there was tension between French-speaking Quebec and all the English-speaking provinces. And this also shows that sometimes the most lighthearted and simplest-sounding questions can be the most telling. You don't have to get angry with someone--that will often shut people up rather than open them up.

"I looked at Trudeau and said, 'If someone was to wake you in the middle of the night by shaking you, would your first words be in English or French?' It sounded like a question he might be asked at a cocktail party. And there was a marvelous pause, when he realized that this was not just a playful question but that there were [a certain percentage of] votes at stake here, depending on which way he went. You could see he was thinking, and you had that great live television moment when you could see he wasn't prepared. And then he made a very good comeback. He said, 'Well, I'm often awakened in the middle of the night by my sons. And if they say, 'Alo, Papa,' I say, 'Oui,' but if they say, 'What's up Dad,' I say, 'What's up yourself?' So I guess it would depend on the language of the person who was waking me up.'

"Then I said, 'That's why I said they only shook you. So you didn't have that cop-out.' And he roared with laughter."

Repeating a question, until you get the answer you're seeking, can sometimes be a very effective technique--and can make the subject appropriately uncomfortable. "In 1974, Edward Heath was the British prime minister and Harold Wilson was the leader of the opposition," Frost recalls. "It's normally a given that the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, although they may attack each other on the floor of the House of Commons, really get on well; they sort of like each other when the lights are turned off. But in this case, though Heath would never admit it publicly, he couldn't stand Harold Wilson. I was interviewing Heath, and I asked a very simple question. I just said, 'Do you like Harold Wilson?' And he said, 'Well, it's not a question of liking or disliking, it's just important that the business of government should be continued, and between us we insure that that happens.'

"And I said, 'But do you like Harold Wilson?' And he said, 'I don't think we're interested in that sort of thing. The Labor and Conservative parties have different views on certain issues, but we have a duty to the electorate that the issues of the day should be ventilated, and I think we do that.'

"Heath's tone of voice indicated that the subject was closed. So I paused. And then I said, 'But do you like Harold Wilson?' And he said, 'Well, we'll have to see about that, won't we?' And he laughed awkwardly. That last remark said it all. It was quite clear what he really felt. It's only occasionally that you can repeat a question--and to be effective, it has to be precisely the same words."

Frost pauses for another puff and looks expectantly at his visitor--there's that eye contact, no matter which chair he occupies; eyes that are actively engaged, eyes that probe and smile simultaneously. The next question?

What was his most difficult interview? Was it the now-legendary marathon talk with Richard Nixon, when he got the former president to admit that he had "let down the country"? Or was it a less-famous one, one that perhaps only he remembers?

He thinks. "Nixon was a great challenge," he says. "And when people said it was impossible to do, that made it irresistible. It was difficult in that he was in so many ways a fascinating enigma. Here was a man who had no small talk at all. For more than 30 years he was at the center of American political life but he had no small talk. But with Nixon it was just a question of making sure one got to everything in the 24 hours we had. And of course, we ended up asking for four and a half hours more. It was very challenging because it demanded a year of research before the interview. But the most difficult? No."

He pauses and thinks again. "I'm sorry I don't have a ready answer," he says. But then he smiles. "Perhaps it was the time I interviewed what was supposed to be the world's greatest talking bird," he says. "It turned out to be the Marcel Marceau of talking birds. It wouldn't utter a single peep, or whatever. Then I had to ad-lib. But of course it was funny, too."

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