In death, Nixon triumphs over Eastern news media


April 28, 1994|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The ultimate irony of the Richard Nixon story is the kind of posthumous revenge he achieved on the Eastern news media giants he always considered so implacably hostile.

In the days since his death the major Eastern newspapers and the television networks have given the story of his passing an intensity of coverage that was exceeded only by that shown -- hTC for obviously different reasons -- after the assassination of John F. Kennedy 31 years ago. For those who knew Nixon and his feelings about the Eastern press and particularly the television networks, it is mind-boggling.

When Nixon left office one step ahead of impeachment 20 years ago, who would have imagined the major networks breaking into regular programming to cover the loading and departure of his remains from an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y., then the touchdown of the plane at the El Toro Marine base in California and then, finally, the arrival of the body at Yorba Linda?

C-SPAN carried its characteristic wall-to-wall coverage to even greater extremes by showing buses carrying the congressional delegation to the Nixon funeral leaving the Capitol, then switching to Yorba Linda to watch the mourners file past the coffin. Even the cable weather channel joined, reporting on fair weather expected for the funeral.

Meanwhile, a cottage industry has developed among former officials and reporters old enough to have known Nixon personally and to have dealt with him. They were inundated with requests to appear on radio and television stations to pass on any tidbit about the former president.

In a sense, the intensity of the coverage of his passing is a testament to the success of his determined campaign to live down Watergate and reclaim his reputation as a president with a formidable record on both foreign and domestic policy in his six years in the White House.

The phenomenon also is a reflection of the passage of time. The number of Americans who remember his record on the war in Vietnam and the tawdry story of Watergate obviously has declined over 20 years. And the idea that he had been victimized has gained many adherents.

But it would be fair to surmise that Nixon himself would have most enjoyed the extraordinary attention from the television networks and what he considered "the Eastern establishment press" -- meaning the newspapers he considered so determinedly hostile to him while he served in the Oval Office.

Both as vice president and president, Nixon always felt that there was an elitist campaign to disparage a Republican who had come from humble beginnings and was a conservative who made his mark in the House of Representatives pushing the Alger Hiss investigation.

It was an attitude that surfaced only occasionally -- most glaringly when he held his "last press conference" after losing the 1962 gubernatorial election in California and told reporters, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." And there was a time in 1969, the first year of his presidency, when Nixon tried to make a fresh start with reporters covering the White House.

But those good intentions dissolved in a series of controversies -- over Vietnam, over his thwarted attempts to put Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell on the Supreme Court and over Watergate -- in which Nixon believed the liberalism of the press fostered a blindly negative attitude toward him that he could not overcome. It was no accident that the infamous "enemies list" began with Nixon's complaining about White House dinner invitations being given to reporters he considered unfriendly.

As a practical matter, Nixon often used the press effectively. In 1968, he was the first presidential candidate to understand how to control what the networks would show on their campaign reports by providing only one daily event that could be used on the evening news programs in those days before satellites.

But Nixon believed the networks encouraged the protests against the war in Vietnam that raged out of control after the bombing of Cambodia and the death of the dissenting college students at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970. And the transcripts of the tapes of his White House conversations released during the Watergate investigation made plain the depth of his resentment of news organizations he saw as part of a liberal cabal against him.

Given that history, the coverage given Nixon's death is extraordinary indeed.

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