Frank Shakespeare, TV Executive Behind a New Nixon, Dies at 97

Frank Shakespeare, a self-described “conservative’s conservative” who used skills he had learned in the television industry to help elect Richard M. Nixon as president and then put a hard edge on the Nixon administration’s message abroad, died on Wednesday. He was 97.

The death was announced by the Heritage Foundation, the conservative Washington think tank, where he was chairman of its board of trustees in the 1980s. It did not say where he died or give the cause.

Mr. Shakespeare led the United States Information Agency under Nixon and was later a U.S. ambassador, first to Portugal and then to the Vatican.

He joined the 1968 Nixon presidential campaign while on leave as a CBS executive. As an adviser he was principally responsible for coming up with a novel way to present the candidate on television, in large part to make viewers forget Nixon’s stiff TV performances in 1960, when as vice president he was the Republican presidential standard-bearer.

Mr. Shakespeare took on that task with Harry W. Treleaven Jr., an advertising executive who was credited with coming up with the slogan “Nixon’s the One!”; Leonard Garment, a lawyer who would become a Nixon White House counsel; and Roger E. Ailes, a television producer and the future Fox News president. They devised an approach in which panels of seemingly regular folks would ask Nixon questions and he would answer them conversationally.

“We wanted a program concept of what Richard Nixon is in a way in which the public could make its own judgment,” Mr. Shakespeare said in an interview with The New York Times in 1968. “We wanted to try to create electronically what would happen if five or six people sat in a living room with him and got to know him.”

The four advisers “knew television as a weapon” that could be used to sell candidates in the manner of toothpaste, wrote Joe McGinniss in his 1969 book, “The Selling of the President 1968.”

Mr. McGinniss said Mr. Shakespeare had been “more equal than the others,” ruling on matters as minute as whether Nixon’s daughters should sit in the first or second row at a telethon. (He overruled an aide who had assigned them to Row 2; he wanted Nixon to be able to greet them on his arrival easily.)

It was after he helped plan Nixon’s inaugural pageantry that Mr. Shakespeare was appointed director of the United States Information Agency, which had been created at the height of the Cold War to broadcast programming that would further American interests overseas.

There he shifted its financing efforts from movies to television. He arranged U.S.I.A. coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, reaching 154 million people, and introduced television programs giving American views on issues in less developed countries.

He also used his position to press his own anti-Communist thinking — sometimes to the ire of the State Department, which was negotiating treaties with the Soviet Union. He had a film made that argued that most Americans supported the Vietnam War and ordered that the works of conservative authors be placed in his agency’s libraries.

Richard Nixon, as a presidential candidate, answered questions from a panel during a CBS television appearance in 1968.Credit…Associated Press

Mr. Shakespeare publicly clashed with Senator J. William Fulbright, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calling him “bad news for America” in an argument over the agency’s budget authorization.

Mr. Fulbright countered that Mr. Shakespeare was “a very inadequate man for his job.”

Frank Joseph Shakespeare Jr. was born in New York City on April 9, 1925, to Frank and Frances (Hughes) Shakespeare. He attended Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1946, and served in the Navy from 1945 to 1946. He worked briefly for the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company and Proctor & Gamble before becoming an advertising salesman for radio stations.

In 1957, at 32, he was named general manager of WXIX-TV, a CBS affiliate in Milwaukee. Two years later, he was named vice president and general manager of WCBS-TV in New York. There he personally presented what was regarded as the first television editorial on local affairs, a critique of off-track betting. In another editorial, he examined how critics had treated a new CBS comedy show.

He soon became a protégé of James T. Aubrey Jr., a top executive at CBS. In 1965, Mr. Shakespeare was appointed executive vice president, the second-highest post at the network.

But after Mr. Aubrey was dismissed as president that same year, Mr. Shakespeare’s star waned. His last job at CBS was as head of its cable TV, syndication of programs and foreign investment. He said he volunteered for the Nixon campaign after being impressed by the candidate’s intellect when they met.

Mr. Shakespeare left the Nixon administration in 1973 to become executive vice president of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, where he oversaw the company’s broadcasting operations. He went on to become president and vice chairman of RKO General, which owned radio and television stations.

Mr. Shakespeare was named chairman of the Heritage Foundation in the early 1980s as it pushed conservative positions like abolishing the Energy Department and cutting food stamps.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan named him chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting, overseeing Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. He served as ambassador to Portugal from 1985 to 1986 and to the Vatican from 1987 to 1989.

Mr. Shakespeare and his wife, Deborah Anne (Spaeth) Shakespeare, had three children, Mark, Andrea and Fredricka. Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

For all his skill in honing an image, Mr. Shakespeare knew his limitations in trying to mold Nixon, according to the McGinniss book. When other Nixon aides complained that the candidate had resisted their entreaties to stop repeating the phrase, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear,” Mr. Shakespeare had the last word.

Drop the subject, he said — it wasn’t going to happen.

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