Perhaps you missed the fuss because there has been so little publicity about it. But last week, at Davos, the President of the United States was granted the extraordinary privilege of an audience with Britain’s leading interviewer, media communicator and cultural icon, the David Frost de nos jours Piers Morgan.
On Sunday night we finally saw the result and what an unbelievable masterpiece of a scoop it was. We knew this because every few minutes the show’s star kept popping up in voiceover form to tell us.
‘I knew the first international televised interview with President Trump was going to be special. But I hadn’t expected the commander-in-chief to be quite so candid,’ Piers congratulated himself at one point.
At another, he couldn’t resist reminding us, as he has been for several days now, what a remarkable achievement it was for him to have extracted an apology from the President for having retweeted someone from a far-right group.
But President Trump didn’t apologise. What he said was: ‘Here’s what’s fair. If you’re telling me that these are horrible racist people, I would certainly apologise if you’d like me to do that. I know nothing about them. I don’t want to be involved with these people. But you’re telling me about these people.’
To listen to Morgan’s response — half Uriah Heep; half King Kong; all knob — you’d think it was a major gotcha moment. ‘Thank you, Mr President. It means a lot to people in Britain,’ he said, as though the whole row hadn’t just been a fake-news confection whipped up by the Mayor of London, Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of left-wing activists on Twitter, but had in fact preoccupied the whole nation.
Trump explained why he had retweeted those tweets: ‘Radical Islamist terror — whether you like talking about it or not, Piers — is fact.’
Earlier in the interview — which was actually quite short so you can understand why ITV had to pad it out with repeats, inserts and bits of editorialising — Morgan boasted that he’d got the President ‘to open up about his bedroom habits’.
Well, yes, up to a point, Piers. Morgan asked Trump about his Twitter usage: ‘Are you actually lying there with your phone working out how to wind people up?’ To which Trump replied: ‘Perhaps sometimes in bed. Perhaps sometimes at breakfast or lunch or whatever.’ I’d say the key word in that sentence is ‘whatever’.
And I haven’t even mentioned the pièce de résistance: the bit where Morgan modestly invited the President to recall the words he’d used ten years ago when he had named him the winner of a special celebrity edition of The Apprentice. Just in case the President had forgotten such an important moment, here was Morgan with the video evidence. ‘You’re tough, you’re smart, you’re probably brilliant… You’re certainly not diplomatic, but you did an amazing job, and you beat the hell out of everybody, and you won by far more than anybody.’ Warming to his theme, Morgan suggested that when Trump had won the election, ‘It looked like you’d stolen my playbook, Mr President.’
Here’s the biggest problem of all with Piers Morgan, though. Yes, he’s the annoying little tosser you absolute loathed at school because he was so bumptious and full of himself and perpetually on the make, not nearly as clever as you and with no obvious talents save outrageous chutzpah and zero self-doubt. And now, there he is, a gazillion times more successful than you. But what’s worse, far worse, is that you have to concede that he probably deserves it.
As Christopher Booker recalls in his essay collection The Seventies, Oxbridge contemporaries used to feel much the same way about David Frost. He wasn’t funny like Peter Cook, or clever like Jonathan Miller or witty like Alan Bennett, but more than any of them he was the perfect creature of television, a genre for which he might have been made.
Frost got his interviews with Nixon; now Morgan has bagged his career-defining love-in with Trump and, for all his irritating braggadocio, I can’t think of a person on earth who could have done a better job. Being old friends they were relaxed; being of a type — preening self-promoters — they played up to one another affectionately and entertainingly; and the result, as presumably they had both intended, was that Trump came out of it really well: frank, quick-thinking, optimistic, easy-going, nobody’s fool.