Great Moments in American Journalism (Or, the Sorrows of Gin)


by Ward Just

The writer remembers the moment when, for him, television took ascendancy over the printed press in the reporting of political campaigns. This leads in turn to reflecting on the differing roles of print and TV in illuminating the lives and characters of public figures.

Haldeman was dubious. You couldn’t trust the bastards, ever. But Nixon knew he could handle it. He’d handled the best we could throw at him for almost a year, and this time he had the questions in advance. That was part of the deal, Nixon one-on-one with Mike Wallace. Wallace had a reputation, then as now, as a tough interviewer, no patsy, and had an entrée to the entourage because Nixon’s television adviser was a CBS colleague on leave, Frank Shakespeare.

This was to be an exclusive interview, and the only one Nixon would grant before flying down to Miami Beach to accept the Republican presidential nomination. Wallace was an obvious choice. He and Nixon got on, strange as that may seem, and indeed, earlier—a few days after Nixon’s victory in the New Hampshire primary - Wallace had been approached on the possibility of becoming the candidate’s press secretary. Wallace was intrigued enough to raise the matter with his superiors at Black Rock, but in the end nothing came of it; a new assignment was in the works for Wallace, an experimental news program called 60 Minutes. After the convention, Wallace was to leave the campaign for keeps.

Nixon preferred television, knowing he could dominate it in a way he could never dominate cold print, and he liked Wallace, whom he saw as an independent operator, aloof from the despised Washington establishment. The essence of television is photography, the candidate not really one-on-one with the correspondent but one-on-one with the viewer. That was the heart of it, the viewer. If a politician knew what he was doing, it was a piece of cake. This particular interview would, by necessity, concern itself at least partly with Nixon’s phenomenal success in the primaries and how he intended to conduct the campaign. The convention was locked up and everyone knew it was locked up. If Wallace wanted to talk about the issues, Nixon had position papers on everything from agriculture to atomic energy and could discourse on any of them. As for his celebrated secret plan to “end the war and win the peace in South Vietnam,” that was out-of-bounds because, as experienced diplomats knew, the wise negotiator did not tip his hand in advance of the bidding.

My writing colleagues and I vigorously objected to this interview. It was the only one he would give, and we thought the form should be, if not a press conference, at least a tête-à-tête with the regulars, of whom Wallace was certainly one. We snobbishly objected to the exclusive interview, not because it was Wallace but because it was television. And we thought it was a mistake to supply the questions in advance. There were a number of other objections, but the main point was that the convention was only days away and CBS was about to score a significant competitive victory. Representations were made to the Nixon people, who, as I remember, regarded the tempest with amusement.

(I do not remember being similarlyconcerned when Nixon invited Bob Semple of the New York Times, Don Irwin of the Los Angeles Times, and me—then working for the Washington Post—to his Fifth Avenue apartment some weeks before to talk generally of the aims and purposes of his campaign. It was a background interview, meaning that the information could be used but no sources cited. To an experienced politician, such a ground rule is roughly equivalent to the right field bleachers at Fenway Park if you are Ted Williams. We drank El Fundador with Nixon for two hours, then repaired to the bar at the Pierre to compare notes. We decided that the main story was Nixon’s thinking on his running mate. It was the first indication we had that he was apparently considering an apertura alla sinistra; every name he mentioned belonged to a liberal Republican. John Lindsay, then mayor of New York, led the list. So much, by the way, for not “dominating” cold print. It may be that he could not dominate it at a press conference or in Herblock’s space on the editorial page in the Post, but he did very well indeed at the backgrounder, where the questions tended to be soft and the answers even softer, and trial balloons—John Lindsay, indeed!—could be lofted like so many Goodyear blimps.)

Wallace broke the stalemate and interceded. He said he had no real objection to witnesses, so long as they remained quiet and out of the way. He was conducting the interview in the living room of a rented cottage at Montauk, where Nixon had gone to rest before the convention. Wallace suggested that we writers eavesdrop in the kitchen. Of course there were certain guidelines: we could not break the release date, and full credit had to be given CBS. Some discussion about that, but the interview promised something fresh and there was very little that was fresh about the Nixon campaign, which then had the aura of a royal tour.

Haldeman, Frank Shakespeare, and the others accepted Wallace’s demarche and thus it was that representatives of the premier publications of the world’s oldest democracy were huddled ass-to-thigh in the kitchen with the servants, their ears pressed to the open door, listening to Nixon chitchat with Mike Wallace. The supposed descendants of Eddie Lahey and Frank Kent, eager to collect the crumbs from television’s table. Halfway through the interview, most of us in the kitchen decided we’d heard enough and went outside to stand on the front lawn and contemplate the dimensions of the disaster.

I imagine every writing journalist of a certain age has his own favorite story of the magic moment when television’s ascendancy over print was secured, at least in the reporting of political campaigns. This is mine—standing in the tiny kitchen of a rented cottage at Montauk, Long Island, scribbling furiously into a notebook. From my vantage point I could see Nixon’s face and he could see mine and— it is possible this is pure invention, so appalled am I at the episode —I will now swear that when he first caught sight of me, leaning through the kitchen door, he smiled that tight little smile he directed at an adversary whom he’d thoroughly disgraced.

I suppose, in retrospect, he was entitled.

Anyway, that was August 1968. I cannot recall one word of the interview: nothing of Nixon, nothing of Wallace.

In the first light of the year that is now dawning—the year of the tantamount, the rock-ribbed Republican, the powerful chairman, and the coattail—there are one or two points to be made about the coverage of the 1968 campaign year. (I am writing this in the spirit of The Truth Will Set Ye Free, though I have no confidence that it will; with a bow to John Cheever, you can title it “The Sorrows of Gin.”) I “covered” Nixon from Christmas to the convention. I do not regard it as my finest hour as a newspaper reporter, though I proceed from a theory that may be in error. It is that with intelligence, good instincts, hard work, and good luck, the essential character of the candidate and the men around him could have been discovered and reported. I do not mean armchair psychoanalysis; I mean the placement of facts and ideas in the context of known history.

I think it was impossible to predict Watergate, but it was not impossible to describe the mentality that led to Watergate. In 1968, the question turned on a simple proposition. Was Richard Nixon, then fifty-five, different from the thirty-three-year-old Nixon of the Voorhis campaign, the thirty-sevenyear-old Nixon of the Hiss case and the Douglas campaign, the thirty-nineyear-old Nixon of the K-1, C-3DACCCC (Korea, Communism, Controls, Corruption, and Dean Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment) presidential campaign, the forty-seven-year-old Nixon of the Kennedy campaign, and the fortynine-year-old Nixon of his “last press conference” as defeated candidate for the California statehouse? Nixon could not propose his supposed conversion himself; his surrogates had to do it for him, and more or less in private. And the campaign would have to reflect the new image. That is, it would have to be restrained, almost aloof, and issue-oriented, all above the battle. More than anything it would have to be clean and seen to be clean—“clean as a hound’s tooth,” as Eisenhower once said in another context—and I think now in retrospect that the strategy from the beginning was to keep Nixon away from the press in all but controlled situations. No proof for this, but my hunch is that television was to be used to display what the Nixon people were telling the writing press in private: he’s changed, grown, a new man. A bit like crossruffing with your dummy at bridge.

Nixon’s enemy was his own history.

I remember the campaign swings, one particular swing through the Far West. Flying in an Electra, two sedate speeches a day, the speeches always carefully advanced; full texts supplied to the press. The speeches were mature and responsible, mainstream Republican stuff, nothing resembling a bare knuckle. All that time they were collecting delegates, John Mitchell working his bond lawyer’s contacts, Nixon himself calling in every IOU in sight (and he held plenty of them after twenty years in politics). This was not as difficult as it might seem. There was no plausible opposition. Romney had dropped out in New Hampshire, Reagan was busy in California, Rockefeller could not be nominated, Barry Goldwater had had his hurrah; the rest were no threat to a politician as shrewd as Nixon. The pre-convention theme was Stay Out of Trouble (it was the post-convention theme as well, after the shambles at Chicago), and therefore the speeches were routine and the men around Nixon agreeable. One or two of them would even take a drink. The campaign swings, lacking tension, became long sessions of bridge and bloody marys at noon. You do not know what tedium is until you have covered a front-running Republican campaign.

Did Nixon deserve another chance? In November even Herblock gave him a shave. Should a man be given a shot at outrunning his own history? We gave it to him, I suspect partly because it would have seemed churlish not to; perhaps we believed in redemption. There was also a paradox. It was difficult to get at the history because nothing was concealed. It was all on the record, and most of it happened twenty years ago and more. Ancient history: Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas and Hiss and the Nixon Fund and K-1, C-3-DACCCC, and what could be said about them beyond the common knowledge that they were unsavory? There had to be a new lead. The celebrated “last press conference,” only six years before, was an embarrassment to everyone and explained away on the theory that the candidate was “exhausted.” Palpably true, for whatever difference it made. Nixon, asked about his Lazarus-like rise, replied that there was a time and tide to events, et cetera, and no one could be more surprised than he, et cetera. At any event, the writing press did not examine these archives, nor did television.

I pierced the veil once, and even now don’t know what to make of the experience. This was in New Hampshire, about two weeks before the primary election. Nixon was speaking at a schoolhouse and I was standing in the rear of the room, making notes. A colleague had a transistor radio turned to the news and suddenly I heard a bulletin, approximately, “George Romney withdrew as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination today, saying ...” I put away my pencil and headed for the podium. Nixon was winding down and I wanted to get to him first to inform him that his opposition had collapsed. He came off the stage and Dwight Chapin and I found him simultaneously. Chapin, who had heard the news, took him by the elbow, whispering, frantic to get him away from me. But I quickly told Nixon what had happened, asking for a reaction. His eyes literally began to spin as he backed away with Chapin. I remember him grunting, unh unh unh. It was as if he was terribly frightened. I wish it had been caught on television, or seen by an audience. Chapin was now dragging Nixon off and in a moment they disappeared into the men’s room. Both emerged presently, Nixon looking refreshed and calm, saying the usual things, Romney had put up a good fight, et cetera. It was obvious that Nixon had been badly shaken and needed a few moments to compose himself. Evidently a man who did not like surprises. A strange story, though. Romney was no threat to Nixon.

I wrote an abbreviated version of that anecdote into a piece for the Post, but because there was no obvious point to be made, and there were no witnesses, it was buried at the end of the Romney story. It was the only time I saw Nixon off guard.

I suppose the way to follow politics in 1980 is to watch television for the reflection of the image in newspapers. I am confident that if I read Martin Nolan in the Boston Globe in the morning, and watch Roger Mudd of CBS at night, very little of consequence will escape my attention. Nolan will furnish me the offstage business and Mudd the scripted drama. If the experience of the 1968 Nixon campaign holds true, nothing spontaneous will be caught by television: nor will the candidates’ histories . . .

Except a few weeks ago Roger Mudd caused Edward Kennedy to become incoherent and almost blithering on the subject of his personal life, notably the state of his relationship with his estranged wife, Joan. (He was merely abstract and unconvincing in his responses to Mudd’s predictable “political” questions.) It was a bewildering moment and wonderful television. I mention it only because this coming election, or the first phase of it, has to do with personal history-Ted Kennedy’s. The archives will not remain closed this time. Of course they are different archives; different beasts rattling different cages. I mean to draw no comparisons beyond the general proposition. But on the evidence of the Mudd interview, Kennedy is a terrible television performer. It’s possible that this year the process will be reversed: television will bring the news and newspapers will embellish the image. □