New Nixon Documentary Highlights How Easily the White House Can Mislead the Press

“The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy.”

380450 26: President Richard Nixon in the Oval office February 19, 1970 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
See more stories about...
Sarah Mimms
Aug. 4, 2014, 10:04 a.m.

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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5147) }}

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.

What We're Following See More »
WEST WING REDUX
Allison Janney Takes to the Real White House Podium
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Carolyn Kaster/AP

STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
3 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
4 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
7 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
×