Dylan Jones: If you ask me

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The Independent Online

If you ask me we can learn a lot from Richard Nixon, or at least from the Nixon we meet in David Frost's Frost/Nixon. This book which is an updated version of an earlier Frost book, I Gave Them A Sword, which came out in 1978 was overshadowed by Peter Morgan's enormously successful stage play that preceded it, although it should be required reading for anyone in the damage limitation business. This is a post-rationalist's textbook, even though one of the interesting things about Frost's book is the extent to which Nixon was aware of how difficult and unlikeable people found him, even before the Watergate scandal.

All of us colour our less glorious moments with the more attractive hues of hindsight, as denial always feels better when it's suitably embellished. In Nixon's case the embellishment was labyrinthine, often to the point of absurdity. In the 35 years since Watergate, some have quietly suggested that Nixon's only crime was being caught, while others have seen Nixon as a victim of his times (though in truth he was a victim of himself).

Of course, for most he will always be the bogeyman. Philip Roth felt the need to have another kick in Exit Ghost (in the words of Nathan Zuckerman, "a creature so rooted in his ruthless pathology, so transparently fraudulent and malicious"), and he's even being used mythologically in entertainment aimed at the 18-24 demographic. In Live Free or Die Hard, the recent Bruce Willis film, one of the baddies uses news footage of presidential speeches, from FDR onwards, to create a fake televised newsflash designed to strike terror into every home in America "It is time to strike fear into the heart of the citizenry ... American progress is at an end!"

"That was creepy," says one of the hench-geeks. To which the director of the sinister telecast replies with a curt but appreciative, "I tried to find more Nixon."

Ron Howard's film version of the play is due soon, with both Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprising their roles (even though they allegedly can't stand each other). When Sheen told Frost, "I'm going to be playing David Frost for the next year," the 68-year-old Al-Jazeera convert had a typically Frostian reply: "That's a coincidence. So am I."

Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'