Nixon's messenger

February 12, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Ron Ziegler, the White House press secretary who dismissed the 1972 Watergate break-in as a "third-rate burglary" and spent the rest of his tenure trying with denials to save Richard M. Nixon's presidency, was essentially a messenger boy.

Mr. Ziegler, who died Monday at 63, attended countless insider meetings at which strategies for dealing with a host of important domestic policy matters were discussed. And although he sometimes put in his 2 cents, he was basically the man assigned to pass the word - first to a press corps Mr. Nixon considered the enemy and later to key aides Mr. Nixon didn't want to face with bad news.

The word Mr. Ziegler conveyed to the White House reporters was invariably self-serving for his boss. It either provided the administration spin on the story of that particular day or carried out Mr. Nixon's personal hostility toward them and their publications, born sometimes of fear and sometimes of malice, especially in the Watergate years.

The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House, the most revealing daily jottings of Mr. Nixon's chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, portrayed Mr. Ziegler as constantly being told directly by the president what to say and how to say it. Only four months in office, Mr. Haldeman wrote that Mr. Nixon complained, "We're not doing an adequate job of selling our story," and he described Mr. Ziegler as "a superb mechanic but not a designer," presumably meaning in crafting the message rather than peddling it.

Mr. Haldeman wrote several times that Mr. Nixon had told him he was not going to inform Mr. Ziegler about an approaching decision so as to avoid any leak and that he even shut out his press secretary on the announcement of his precedent-breaking trip to China.

Mr. Nixon told Mr. Ziegler, Mr. Haldeman reported, "to treat any skeptic [in the press] with contempt," an order Mr. Ziegler seldom needed encouragement to follow. To the press secretary's credit, however, he was painted by Mr. Haldeman as arguing for more press coverage on occasion, even for the hated Washington Post.

But Mr. Haldeman also wrote that Mr. Nixon had told him he was "taking The Post off the China trip, and that Ron is not to come simpering and arguing about it. They deliberately screwed us, and we're going to get back at them." Mr. Nixon seemed to have enough contempt in him to save some for the loyal Mr. Ziegler.

When the Watergate break-in occurred, Mr. Nixon told Mr. Ziegler, according to Mr. Haldeman, to "just stonewall it," and during the 1972 re-election campaign to impose "total discipline on the press; they're supposed to be used as enemies, not played for help." Mr. Ziegler did his best while reporting on Mr. Nixon's orders that there would be "complete White House cooperation" in the Watergate investigation.

In the end, however, Mr. Ziegler's most significant service to Mr. Nixon was not as his messenger boy in misleading the press but in carrying the difficult news to Mr. Haldeman and domestic adviser John Ehrlichman that the president wanted them to resign over their roles in the Watergate cover-up.

Mr. Haldeman in his diaries cites two Ziegler reports tipping him off, first suggesting that Mr. Haldeman take a leave of absence and then saying Mr. Nixon "told Ziegler to call me and tell me that from the standpoint of the Presidency, and from my own standpoint, I should consider seriously that the P[resident] has no alternative and that I should resign and fight this."

But Mr. Haldeman was not going to let Mr. Nixon off the hook by having Mr. Ziegler do his dirty work for him. When the press secretary said he would inform Mr. Nixon that "you're going to go along," Mr. Haldeman wrote, "I said you can't tell him that, he's got to ask me." The messenger boy's message had to be returned, obliging the sender to convey it himself.

After Mr. Nixon's resignation, his successor, Gerald Ford, gave Mr. Ziegler's job to Detroit News reporter Jerry terHorst, who quit after a month in protest over Mr. Ford's pardon of Mr. Nixon. That was the kind of message Ron Ziegler, who went into California exile with his boss, would never have sent.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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