The President and the Press

"I was determined to tell my story directly to the people rather than to funnel it to them through a press account." —Richard Nixon, Six Crises

President Richard Nixon was in a good mood.

He had left Bucharest that afternoon; now his plane touched down at Mildenhall Air Force Base, England, the last stop on what had been a successful journey around the world. The crowds cheered the President along the way. Only two weeks earlier, on July 20, 1969, the United States had become the first nation to land men on the moon.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson had gone to the Air Force base, eighty-five miles north of London, to greet the President. As he chatted informally with Wilson at a reception at the officers' club, Nixon said he planned to send moon rocks to every chief of state. At the time, there was a good deal of concern, later discounted, that germs might exist on the moon to which earthlings had no immunity. Because of these fears of real-life Andromeda Strain, the Apollo 11 astronauts had been sealed up in a capsule and quarantined upon their return from outer space. Well aware of this, Nixon told Harold Wilson that he also had another gift in mind. He might find a few "contaminated" pieces of the moon, he said, and give them to the press.

Nixon was, of course, joking, but the story revealed with clarity his attitude toward, and relations with, the news media. Nixon's bitterness toward the press is legendary, perhaps best symbolized by his now classic remark after his defeat in the 1962 gubernatorial race in California: "You won't have Nixon to kick around any more...." On the other hand some of the men who went to work for Nixon after he became President have often left the impression that they would very much enjoy kicking around the press.

On election night, 1968, fifteen minutes after Richard Nixon issued his victory statement, about twenty GOP advance men gathered in the empty ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York to accept congratulations from John Ehrlichman, their chief. The happy, elated Nixon workers next heard from J. Roy Goodearle, a tall, beefy Southerner who was Spiro Agnew's chief advance man (and later the Vice President's principal political liaison with Republican Party leaders).

"Why don't we all get a member of the press and beat him up?" he asked. "I'm tired of being nice to them."

Unbeknownst to Goodearle, Ehrlichman, or the other advance men, Joseph Albright, then Washington bureau chief for Long Island's Newsday, was standing in the room and wrote down the remark. Goodearle does not deny it; Agnew's former press secretary, Victor Gold, speaking for Goodearle, insisted to me that "it was a joke." "Perhaps so," says Albright, "but nobody laughed."

In the spring of 1972, columnist Nicholas Thimmesch of Newsday was invited by Jack Valenti to a private advance screening of The Godfather at the Washington headquarters of the Motion Picture Association of America. Seated in the small theater, Thimmesch suddenly felt someone grab his hair from behind and yank his head back sharply against the seat.

When Thimmesch was able to turn around he saw that the hair-puller was the President's chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, about whom Thimmesch had recently written a somewhat critical profile. (The article termed Haldeman's manner "brusque" and "clinical," and quoted Haldeman as saying: "I guess the term 'sonofabitch' fits me." Haldeman's crew cut, the profile added, "hasn't changed since the beginning of the cold war." Despite this column, Thimmesch was held in exceptionally high regard by the Nixon-Administration.) Apparently Haldeman did not approve of the length of Thimmesch's hair.

"Oh; pardon me," said Haldeman, "I thought it was a girl sitting there."

It was the newspapers that broke the story of the "Nixon Fund" during the 1952 presidential campaign--the $18,235 collected from wealthy contributors to help pay for his political expenses, or as Nixon put it, "to enable me to continue my active battle against Communism and corruption." As pressure mounted over the fund, General Eisenhower threatened to force Nixon to resign as the Republican nominee for Vice President. Nixon prepared to deliver his famous televised "Checkers" speech.

"My only hope to win," he wrote in his book Six Crises, "rested with millions of people I would never meet, sitting in groups of two or three or four in their livingrooms, watching and listening to me on television. I determined as the plane took me to Los Angeles that I must do nothing which might reduce the size of that audience. And so I made up my mind that until after this broadcast, my only releases to the press would be for the purpose of building up the audience which would be tuning in. Under no circumstances, therefore, could I tell the press in advance what I was going to say or what my decision would be....This time I was determined to tell my story directly to the people rather than to funnel it to them through a press account."

And so Nixon went before the television cameras. He invoked Pat's Republican cloth coat, his little girl, Tricia, and his little black and white cocker spaniel dog ("regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it"). The public response was overwhelmingly favorable; Nixon flew to Wheeling, West Virginia, to meet Eisenhower, wept on Senator William Knowland's shoulder, and stayed on the ticket.

But the lesson of all this was not lost on Nixon: the newspapers had threatened his political career; television had saved it. The words in Six Crises remained a manifesto and guideline to his dealings with the press. The way to deal with newspapers was to tell them very little, build up suspense, and then go over their heads to the people via television.

Nixon can keep track of what the networks and news media are saying about him through the "President's Daily News Briefing," the highly detailed private digest prepared for him by his speechwriting staff. Copies are not meant for public consumption, of course, but when the President was in China in February, 1972, a reporter got hold of one, and it showed that, even in Peking, Nixon could read what was being written and said about him in fantastic detail.

Television reports, for example, had obviously been clocked with a stopwatch, since the precise number of minutes and seconds of each network story was given, for example: "NBC led with 5:20 from the banquet...1:30 of RN toast and 1:20 by Chou." This meant Nixon could tell by a glance at the summary that American viewers watching NBC-TV got ten seconds more of Nixon than of Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. The log, which covered February 25, went on to say that NBC's Herb Kaplow had done a two-minute report from the Forbidden City. "Both better film and audio of RN than was the case in live coverage." For the "2nd night in a row," the summary noted somewhat sourly, "CBS led with busing story."

In discussing coverage by CBS--which has not been the Nixon Administration's favorite network--the digest said: "Still frustrated in getting news was he said reporters were again turning to sightseeing." White House correspondent Dan Rather, the log said, did a report on acupuncture. "We saw a fellow under lung surgery--no pain. Then Dr. Dan in his operating room outfit concluded if it was all as it had been demonstrated, and he gave no reason to cause one to think it was otherwise, the operations witnessed were 'amazing.'" The sardonic reference to Rather as "Dr. Dan" implicitly questioned his ability to make medical judgments; and the tone of the President's news summary suggested that Rather had clearly been taken in by acupuncture and those clever Chinese. The log concluded with several single-spaced pages of reports on newspaper coverage of the trip, quoting headlines and going into great detail about treatment of the news, photographs, cartoons, and editorials.

One can only speculate about the cost, the tremendous effort, and the man-hours it must take to monitor the television networks and dozens of newspapers in such minute detail every day, then boil it down into written form, assemble it, and- when the President is out of Washington--transmit it to him.

The Administration sees political advantage in attacking the press, says Hugh Sidey of Time, "but don't discount their general hostility toward the press. It bubbles to the surface all the time. I once asked JFK what ever possessed him to call the steel men SOB's. He said, 'Because it felt so good.' Some of that is here in the attacks on the press. Under Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, the staff guys would bitch and moan about us, but there was always a sense of public trust, that they were awed by the responsibility given to them, and they understood this and would talk about what they were doing. They would talk about things. You could talk, write about, or disagree with them, but at the end of the day you could have a drink with them. There is no sense of that with these people.

"This crowd came in like an occupying army. They took over the White House like a stockade, and the Watergate, and screw everybody else. They have no sense that the government doesn't belong to them, that it's something they're holding in trust for the people."

"We feel the general pressure," says Tom Wicker, associate editor and columnist of the New York Times. "No administration in history has turned loose as high an official as the Vice President to level a constant fusillade of criticism at the press. The Pentagon Papers case was pressure of the most immense kind. You have the Earl Caldwell case. If they indict Neil Sheehan, it will be pressure. In a sense, even the Ellsberg indictment is a form of pressure.

"There is a constant pattern of pressure intended to inhibit us. What the lawyers call a chilling effect. To make us unconsciously pull in our horns." In December, 1971, Wicker said, he had received a telephone call from James Reston: "Scotty called me from Washington. I was in New York, and something had come up about the Sheehan case. I said, 'I don't think we ought to talk about this on the phone.' I don't know if they were listening. But if they can make us feel that way, hell, they've won the game already."

One comes away from an interview with presidential press secretary Ronald Ziegler with the feeling of having sunk slowly, hopelessly, into a quagmire of marshmallows. But unless a newsman is out of favor, Ziegler is at least accessible to the press. To an unprecedented degree in the modern presidency, President Nixon is not.

Ziegler says that there has been no intent to intimidate the press. "Unless the press can point to efforts on the part of the government to restrain them, they shouldn't care. I suppose if we were in a debate, someone would point to the Pentagon Papers. I feel the government had to take that view, do what they did." Ziegler paused. "And after all," he said, "the Pentagon Papers were published."

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