Nixon and the Media
Edited from: American Experience PBS: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/presidents/37_nixon/nixon_politics.html
When President Richard
M. Nixon stepped in front of the television cameras on
Nixon believed that his
long-standing enemies -- the elite, East
Coast liberals of the media -- conspired to tell only one side of the
story. Polls showed majority support for Nixon's policy of gradual withdrawal
In his address,
Nixon outlined the situation in
The silent majority responded immediately. Telegrams and letters of support flooded the White House. A delighted Nixon, who had an obsessive hatred of the media, proclaimed that the "press corps is dying because of that speech."
Richard Nixon's tumultuous relationship with the press had begun some twenty years before, when he served on the House Un-American Activities Committee. In dramatic public hearings, Nixon helped to uncover liberal stalwart Alger Hiss's links to a Communist spy ring. Nixon became a national celebrity because of the case, but liberal commentators scorned him. From the Hiss case forward, Nixon would consider the media his enemy.
Nixon's first major clash with the press came in 1952 when he ran as Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice-presidential running mate. On September 18, the New York Post incorrectly reported that wealthy backers had set up a secret fund for Nixon's personal use. Desperate to avoid being dumped by Eisenhower, Nixon turned the media against itself on nationwide television.
Known later as the "Checkers"
speech, Nixon's address of
The calculated emotional appeal struck a chord with sixty million Americans -- the largest television audience ever. Pro-Nixon telegrams barraged Eisenhower, and the two Republicans triumphed in November. Nixon's next major television appearance did not bring such positive results.
In 1960, Nixon won the
Republican presidential nomination. When his opponent, John F. Kennedy
The first debate, held on September 26, dramatically altered the course of the campaign. Kennedy, poised and handsome, presented a reassuring image to the record television audience. Nixon, recovering from a severe knee injury, appeared gaunt and unhealthy; he perspired profusely and his makeup ran. Those who watched on television favored Kennedy. But listeners on the radio thought Nixon had won the debate. In the wake of the Kennedy's television performance, momentum shifted his way. Nixon lost in November; another defeat lay ahead.
In 1962, Nixon lost the
Nixon's retirement lasted six years. In 1968, he swept to the White House amid promises of ending the Vietnam War. But his plan for a gradual withdrawal failed to satisfy antiwar activists. Nixon's silent majority speech of November 1969 brought an outpouring of support, but could not stop the nightly news broadcasts showing an American war gone horribly wrong.
Press leaks had plagued the Nixon White House. In May, 1969, when the New York Times published a
story revealing secret bombings of
As leaks continued, a
furious Nixon ordered the creation of a
group of anti-leak operatives known as the plumbers. Among other
operations, the plumbers burglarized the office of Daniel Ellsberg's
psychiatrist, searching for evidence that would discredit Ellsberg. They found
none. Shortly thereafter, the group disbanded, but another, the Committee to
Re-elect the President, took its place. On
Nixon neither authorized the burglary nor knew about it beforehand. Yet he feared that if anyone linked the break-in to his administration, he might lose the election of 1972. He ordered the FBI to halt its investigation of the burglary, and won re-election. But by early 1973, Watergate was a staple of the nightly news.
The Nixon White House
paid hush money to the Watergate burglars and appealed to the fidelity of the
President's aides. Still, under the
pressure of the media and a Senate investigation, the conspiracy began to
In Senate testimony on July 16, former White House Aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that Nixon had recorded his conversations in the Oval Office. First Senate investigators, then independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon refused to surrender them, and fired Cox. Americans swamped Congress with telegrams demanding the president's impeachment.
A desperate Nixon decided to do what had worked so well
in the "Checkers" and "silent majority" speeches -- go over
the heads of his enemies in the media and speak to the people directly. On
Nixon's proposal generated near-universal outrage; the media strengthened its calls for his ouster. After Nixon lost a Supreme Court bid to keep control of the tapes, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that the president be impeached. This set the stage for the most dramatic media appearance of Nixon's career.
Sadly, Nixon's long-standing distrust of the
media precipitated criminal behavior on his part which crippled, then destroyed
his administration and his political career. In an effort to stop potentially
damaging press leaks and help ensure his re-election, Nixon created a domestic
espionage network. Members of this network, working for the Committee to
Re-Elect the President, were caught in a burglary of Democratic National
Committee Headquarters at
In one of the most dramatic media events of the twentieth century, the Watergate conspiracy unfolded. Despite contrary public testimony by his closest aides, Nixon repeatedly denied any connection to Watergate; in the end dramatic tape recordings the president had made himself provided irrefutable evidence of his role in the cover-up. Under threat of impeachment, Nixon became the first American president ever to resign.