In late 1971, the media portrayed Richard Nixon as a combatant in the war for women’s equality, pushing forcefully to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court of the United States. But in reality, as his secret recordings reveal, Nixon never intended to seat a woman on the bench at all. As he would time and again during his presidency, Nixon used the media to promote a false narrative about himself. And the press was never the wiser.
The episode is one of many dissected in director Peter Kunhardt’s new HBO documentary, Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words, released this week just ahead 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. Using only the secret tapes recorded by the president and media accounts from the time, the documentary offers a unique and personal perspective on one of the most studied presidencies in U.S. history, undiluted by modern analysis.
What emerges is a portrait of a deeply paranoid president, convinced that his “enemies” — most frequently, the press — were out to get him. And of course, eventually, they did.
Whereas most documentaries following the Nixon presidency focus on the Watergate scandal and the press’s involvement in his ultimate downfall, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are mentioned just once in “Nixon by Nixon.” Instead, the film uncovers the troubling ways in which the Nixon White House would manipulate reporters and just how much the press got wrong. The documentary raises questions about just how much the media can truly know, much less report, about any administration.
Take, for example, Nixon’s nominations to the Supreme Court. In September, 1971, two Supreme Court justices announced their resignations, giving Nixon an opportunity to shift the Court’s ideological lineup. His staff floated a list of possibilities to the press, including two women, either of whom would become the first female to serve on the Supreme Court.
The Nixon administration signaled publicly that the president would name Mildred Lillie, then a judge for the Second District Court of Appeals, to one of the seats. But listening to Nixon’s secret tapes on the matter, it becomes clear that both women were included merely to gain favor with the press and female voters ahead of the 1972 election.
But the media obsession over Lillie and her potentially historic appointment became too much for Nixon. In a recorded phone call, Nixon asks Attorney General John Mitchell to float some other names to the press, telling Mitchell: “I would like to sorta get off the woman kick if we can.” He even mentions the possibility of adding some Jewish names to the list, despite frequently using a four-letter slur in reference to them in his private phone calls and telling staff, in a separate conversation: “Most Jews are disloyal. You can’t trust the bastards.”
In the end, the American Bar Association ruled Lillie unqualified for the position and media reports portrayed Nixon as having suffered a minor defeat.
But the recordings make it clear: Nixon had no intention of appointing a woman to the Court. He repeatedly characterized women as too “emotional” for such a position and spoke repeatedly with Mitchell in the days leading up to the ABA’s decision to insure that the association would find Lille not qualified for the job. “He’s aware of the fact that we’re going to have to put it on them?” Nixon asked Mitchell, referring to then-ABA president Lawrence E. Walsh. ” “¦ Let them take the rap for the women.”
Two days later, Nixon nominated two white men: Lewis F. Powell Jr. and William Rehnquist. In media footage, Nixon makes the announcement as if with a heavy heart, promising that one day soon a woman will serve on the Supreme Court. The crowd applauds.
This is the disturbing theme of Nixon by Nixon: that the president who told Henry Kissinger, “The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy,” was so often able to subvert the media establishment. It wasn’t just Lillie. Media clip after media clip from the era is followed immediately by a secret recording of the Nixon White House directly contradicting it, on everything from his connections to the Watergate scandal to the war in Vietnam.
Of more concern, the media tactics that Nixon employed in his White House have become standard practice for administrations since, as Medill journalism professor Jon Marshall writes for The Atlantic:
Nixon and his staff ultimately bungled their efforts to silence journalists, and he paid the price with his resignation. In contrast Obama, Bush, Reagan and other successors have used Nixonian tactics more skillfully, and with less criminal intent, to control the media as they present a slicker image to the public than Nixon could ever manage. The result is a nation that knows less than it should about what its government is really doing.
Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words premieres on HBO tonight at 9 p.m.