When Nixon Met the Press
Just because he was paranoid doesn’t mean the media wasn’t out to get him.
Phil Potter was one of the finest journalists of his generation. He served as a war correspondent during World War II, got wounded covering the Korean War, and was one of the few reporters who tried to hold Sen. Joseph McCarthy to basic standards of fairness and accuracy during the Red scare of the 1950s.
In 1947, Potter was in Greece, covering the civil war between communist and government forces for the Baltimore Sun, when a delegation of U.S. congressmen arrived. He was particularly impressed by young Richard Nixon—a California freshman who had insisted on traveling to the combat zone for a firsthand look at the war. “Nixon came up where the action was while the others…stayed down in the fleshpots of Athens,” Potter recalled, admiringly. “There was a curiosity and an energy to him.”
Potter’s favorable view of Nixon faded, however, when the journalist returned home and took over the “Red Beat” for the Sun. He came to view then-Vice President Nixon as a sneak and a hatchet man: playing fast and loose with facts, smearing foes with innuendo, painting them as communist dupes. By 1960, covering the presidential election, Potter was openly rooting for John F. Kennedy to defeat Nixon. “We’re going to get the son of a bitch now,” a startled colleague heard Potter declare, after Nixon fared poorly in a presidential debate.
The national press corps was much like Potter: they loved Nixon, and then they hated him. Understand that, and Nixon’s implosion makes sense. It’s a media story, in more ways than one. First there’s the largely forgotten opening chapter: Nixon’s spectacular rise – he went from House freshman to the vice presidency in just six years – was built on exceptionally favorable notices in the press. “As typically American as Thanksgiving,” the Washington Times Herald raved, after Nixon was elected to Congress. “[I]f he bears out his promise, he will go far.” Then the media turned on him, and helped the Democrats drive him from office.
In both fueling Nixon’s early career — and then destroying him later – members of the press abandoned professed standards of objectivity. And Nixon’s innate wariness, in turn, evolved into arrant hatred. In the end, this dysfunctional relationship helped fuel a national tragedy. It put the country on the road to Watergate
On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon resigned the presidency, a skip ahead of near certain impeachment. Forty years later, unlocked archives – at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, the papers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the University of Texas, and the hundreds of interviews of leading political and journalistic figures conducted by the late David Halberstam for his books on the Cold War era, which were opened this spring at the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University – confirm, with often startling candor, the mutually hostile attitudes of Nixon and his pursuers.