Toothless tigers

April 27, 1994|By Russell Baker

IT WAS entertaining to watch the press crowd come to grips with the dead Richard Nixon over the weekend. What a botch they made of it. They seemed engaged in a group conspiracy to grant him absolution.

It will be said that they were simply indulging in the civilized insincerity that courtesy prescribes at such times, and there is something to be said for an outbreak of courtesy in the press. The Clintons would doubtless welcome an epidemic of it.

Its post-mortem engagement with Mr. Nixon, however, suggests once again that the press' dreadful reputation for bestiality is mostly fraud. Like an old tiger with no teeth, it can still gum its way through a vegetarian meal like Whitewater, but serve it a tough customer and it purrs and rolls over, as it did when confronted by President Reagan.

To measure how much vitality has gone out of the press, compare its sentimental treatment of the dead Nixon last weekend with H.L. Mencken's obituary of William Jennings Bryan, three times Democratic candidate for president.

"Has it been duly marked by historians that William Jennings Bryan's last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch flies?" Mencken's assault began.

Like Mr. Nixon, Bryan had been on the political scene for what felt like eternity. At his death in 1925 he had been an important public figure for 29 years, since his first attempt on the White House against McKinley.

The fact that, like Mr. Nixon too, he was an adored figure among his party's old warriors earned him no mercy from Mencken, who wrote of him:

"The best verdict the most romantic editorial writer could dredge up, save in the humorless South, was to the general effect that his imbecilities were excused by his earnestness -- that under his clowning, as under that of the juggler of Notre Dame, there was the zeal of a steadfast soul."

Brutality on this scale toward a statesman freshly dead would leave today's publishers, editors, reporters and columnists in catatonic shock. They -- we -- are all a polite and timid bunch, too delicate to utter truly rude noises over newly filled coffins.

And wouldn't the public be appalled if one of us did? Wasn't Mencken's obituary just a vicious piece of showing-off by a sassy kid? Well, he was 45 at the time, scarcely a youngster, and yes, his obit was an iron wreath flung on Bryan's grave, but it stirred the public when it was published, is still read as literature today and may endure to be all that Americans know of Bryan.

Mr. Nixon produced no such monument from his media pallbearers. The toothless tiger gummed him toward the grave with "on the one hand this and on the other hand that" and with many a "figure of controversy" and, on the whole, with such evenhanded objectivity that, to borrow again from Mencken, it ,, was enough to make a barber beg for mercy.

Mr. Nixon hated the press, of course. Later when television replaced print as the instrument for clouding men's minds he hated television too. He wanted to cloud men's minds for himself and found it unbearable that press and television were able to interfere with the purity of the process.

Not all the press hated him back. There was usually a tiny Nixon press claque on his campaigns. Yet new reporters joining those hectic caravans with prejudices still unformed were often astonished and then alienated by the arms-length isolation at which they were kept and by the weight of suspicion which was always palpable around Nixon despite efforts by the Herb Kleins, Bob Finches and Charlie McWhorters to lighten the atmosphere.

Many of the old press hands who hated Mr. Nixon most, of course, have preceded him into the Yonder, and those who are now old and living are scarcely old enough to remember when the hating was truly good. Even many of those are in retirement without presses or cameras at their disposal for issuing a Mencken farewell.

The truly bleak fact, however, is that there are no Menckens left among us. This is too bad, not just for the reading public, and for the self-respect of journalism as a calling, but also for poor dead Nixon.

He hated the press with a fury that deserved the fury of at least one press giant who could hate him back with a grandeur to match his own. At death, he received only polite murmurs.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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