Who was Richard Nixon? Students have been asking themselves this question for months as they prepared for the Theatre Department’s production of Frost/Nixon, a play based on the series of 1977 interviews conducted by the British talk show host David Frost with the embattled former President.
“The purpose of theatre is to better understand ourselves and our fellow humans,” says Frost/Nixon Director and Fine Arts Professor Matt Dubroff. “I wanted the students to know Nixon as a person, not just as a president.”
To that end, Dubroff brought in Dean of the Faculty Dennis Stevens, a political scientist, who has extensively studied the Nixon Presidency. Stevens talked to the cast about Nixon’s career and the effect of the Frost interviews on the American public. Matthew Watson ’15, who took on the role of Nixon, found Dr. Stevens’ comments insightful, but his journey to understanding Nixon accelerated after Professor Dubroff suggested that Matthew and Harrison Stewart ’16, who portrayed Frost, talk with President Emeritus Samuel V. Wilson.
General Wilson has been retired from teaching for long enough that the students were not entirely familiar with his reputation and had only a vague understanding of Wilson’s previous life in the military and the field of intelligence. Matt and Harrison met with Wilson at his farm in Rice and, after two hours of amazing stories, came away with a much clearer understanding of who Richard Nixon was and why General Wilson is so highly regarded.
As Matt and Harrison settled in around Wilson and snacked on Brazilian Cheese Bread courtesy of his dear wife, Susie Wilson, the retired general recalled stories from decades ago, giving evidence to reports that Wilson’s memory is as sharp as ever. First, Wilson told the students about hosting Nixon during the then-former vice president’s 1966 visit to Vietnam. At the time, Wilson was the chief of staff to Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the ambassador in Saigon. President John Kennedy had dispatched Nixon to Vietnam to assess the situation in that country, but Lodge was no fan of Nixon, so he assigned Wilson to serve as Nixon’s host and guide.
For ten days, Wilson and Nixon toured Vietnam, visiting provinces and discussing the difficulty in getting the peasants to side with the Vietnamese government. Wilson recalled, “As I traveled with him, I was impressed with his acute photographic recall. He absorbed information instantaneously and didn’t lose it. He absorbed it and kept it in its original form; he didn’t embellish.”
During a relaxed dinner one evening, Wilson told Nixon how he regularly recorded both sides of question and answer sessions about the war in Vietnam so his brother John Wilson could edit the recording and use it on the air at WFLO Radio in Farmville. Wilson would record the answers as if he were speaking directly to his brother, which made the radio broadcast much more entertaining. Nixon was so enamored with the idea that he and Wilson recorded a session together, which later aired back in Virginia.
“He was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Wilson recalled. “He could be charming and thoughtful, there’s no question about it. I don’t think it was totally political strategy of his to be nice to people, but he knew how to be nice and to go the extra mile.”
And go the extra mile he did. After Nixon left Vietnam, he had to stay in Manila for a day or two. While there Nixon called Wilson’s wife, who was living with two of their children in the Philippines at the time. Nixon assured her that her husband was doing well and working hard. When Nixon returned to the United States, he wrote a long letter to Wilson’s brother John at WFLO, as well as long, thoughtful letters to Wilson’s son in college and his daughter at a school in Louisiana.
“That he would write a letter to my brother was understandable, though not necessary, because he had participated in the little radio project. That he would find the time to call my wife, that too was understandable. But that he would write an additional letter to my son at the University of Alabama and another one to my daughter in Louisiana was above and beyond. That is indicative of the extent to which he could be so thoughtful, so kind and considerate.”
Wilson had met Dr. Jekyll. He would later meet Mr. Hyde.
During their time together in Vietnam, Nixon had asked Wilson if he would ever be interested in serving as an ambassador. Wilson had said, “Of course.” After Nixon was elected president in 1968, Wilson was contacted by Donald Kendall, then president of Pepsi-Cola and a member of Nixon’s transition team. Kendall asked Wilson if he could make a quick trip to Washington, D.C., for a meeting to discuss an ambassadorship.
Wilson recalled: “He said, ‘Can you be there?’ I said, ‘Yes, I can but you’ll have to do one little thing for me. You or someone on your staff should call the Pentagon and speak either to the Secretary of the Army or his public relations officer and simply say that you are inviting me to do this. There would be no question about their agreeing to it. Otherwise I would be skulking away and doing something in secret that doesn’t need to be secret.’ He was rather abrupt and said, ‘Well, of course. He’s going to be President of the United States. Of course, it’s going to be all right; it’s a high honor.’ I said, ‘Mr. Kendall, I can serve only one president at a time.’ When I said that, he hung up. I was told later that Nixon was furious, as though I had stabbed him in the back. That excited his considerable paranoia. I heard no more about it. Everything was quiet on the Nixon front from then on.”
Coming away from this meeting, Matt, who portrayed Nixon in the play, felt as though he had a much better understanding of Nixon the person.
He said, “Nixon was a name I knew, of course, but it was interesting to learn that so much of what he did as a president was ultimately overshadowed by a big mistake at the end of his presidency. I felt a little sympathetic toward him in a way. We’ve all made mistakes, and to see all of his policy achievements forgotten because of the Watergate scandal was eye-opening. Also, through the play and through hearing stories about Nixon from General Wilson, I saw a human side to this iconic character from American history.”
Matt saw the entire experience as a wonderful example of the liberal arts at work.
“With the liberal arts, sometimes you think you are learning random bits of knowledge; then you start connecting all of the pieces. You begin to understand the interconnectedness of the different parts of the world. Every semester, I am surprised how my classes seem to relate to each other.”
The Wilson Center for Leadership hosted a panel discussion on Nixon to accompany the Fine Arts Department’s production. Dr. David Marion led the discussion with Dr. Warner Winborne ’88 and Dr. Caroline Emmons as they dove into Nixon’s policy achievements and the battle over his presidency.
After portraying Nixon on stage and hearing General Wilson’s first-hand accounts of meeting Nixon, Matt says he will probably do his senior thesis next year on the Nixon Presidency. A few months ago, he may have been asking, “Who was Richard Nixon?” But thanks to Hampden-Sydney’s creative and personal learning environment, by the time he finishes his thesis next spring, Matt will have a deep understanding of Nixon the politician, Nixon the policy maker, and Nixon the man.