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
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.

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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.

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