The Media: Flacks for History
August 1, 1974
WASHINGTON, D.C. — I sat for half an hour in the Judiciary Committee room last week and enjoyed a splendid view of the trousered area of a free-lance photographer. He was straining over me to take pictures of Caroline Kennedy. That’s not quite the story I’ll be telling the grandchildren. To them I’ll say that Granddad was there when history was made.
I only hope they don’t question me too closely on what sort of history I thought was being brewed, because after reading the papers, watching television, watching the committee members, watching journalists watching the committee members, I have an uneasy feeling that I was observing a con game all the more ultimately unconvincing because it came dressed as Destiny.
It was — and still is — a con game in which politicians and journalists, under the snouts of the TV cameras, read each other lines in a vast drama of pretense and played to an audience they created, even as they addressed it — “The American People.”
Just after my half hour in the Committee room, still groggy from a day of watching TV, I sat in a local saloon, having a few drinks and mulling over the problems of the Media and Impeachment. As the drinks grew more and more agreeable I suddenly realized I was sitting next to a whole table of Adjectives, also resting up awhile from the day’s business. There was no doubt about it. “Historic” was flushed, and clearly the worse for wear. “Listen,” he said to “Awesome,” who was looking pale and over-worked after the Supreme Court decision, “you think you’ve been through something. I knew things were going to get rough last Wednesday. Did you read Harriet Van Horne?”
“Awesome” and “Anguished” nodded moodily as “Historic” began to quote in a sing-song voice. “The Judiciary Committee sits tonight in the eye of history, the destiny of the President and the future of the nation bound up in their deliberations.” “And that’s not all,” groaned “Historic,” “do you know how she went on? ‘It’s an enormous, shattering event in history we are living through. A man’s fate, a nation’s character, our posterity’s pride in its forebears, all are involved. We, the people, are now on trial along with the President. There ought to be rhetoric appropriate to the occasion.’ ”
There was a thoughtful silence. All the Adjectives knew what had happened to their Noun friend “The American People”: hours of over-work; sudden collapse from sheer exhaustion; mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. “You know something?” said “Dignified,” “They wouldn’t even let him out of the committee room for a drink. Said there might be an emergency.”
“Well, I’m fed up,” said “Historic.” “I can stand it when James Naughton uses me as a casual pickup for leads in the New York Times. You know the sort of thing, ‘The House Judiciary Committee began its historic, final deliberations tonight…,’ which is what he said on Wednesday, or ‘The Judiciary Committee’s final deliberation, only the second in the nation’s history to be directed at the possible impeachment of a President and the first to be televised nationally,’ which he said on Thursday. I can stand that kind of thing. But I’ll tell you who I can’t stand. That fellow Haynes Johnson on the Washington Post.… After all, he’s meant to be one their best reporters.”
The mere mention of Johnson’s name seemed to provoke “Historic” to some sort of seizure. He started grappling at his throat and then slumped forward over the table. “Anguished,” “Inevitable,” “Inexorable,” “Traumatic,” “Agonized,” “Exhausted,” and even bustling little “Specific” all clustered round, fanning him with copies of Roget’s Thesaurus. It was too painful a sight and I slipped quietly away from the awful scene.
Back in the press room the next day, I took a quick look at Johnson’s Thursday article in the Post to see why “Historic” had got so worked up. What I found was a specimen of “This Is the Big Day” journalism so perfect I trust it will be posted in journalism schools for many years to come. “For historians,” began Johnson in a throat-clearing manner, “who will record the day, let it be noted that on July 24, 1974, Washington was not entirely preoccupied with the court and the Congress and the impeachment of a President.… Throughout the city the trivial and the ordinary grist of government went on as usual.”
Now it is more or less an infallible rule of this kind of writing that life goes on as usual. But Haynes is too practiced a hand to dally for long. “As a cab pulled up at the curb, the flag was flying at half staff in memory of Earl Warren. The driver looked at the crowd massed before the marble steps in the long lines twisting around the corner and out of sight, and said: ‘They’re waiting where the history’s going to be made.’ ”
Thank God for cab drivers. Actually Haynes Johnson had a particularly fortunate day in this regard because toward the end of his article he manages to flag down another true son of Polonius. “On the way back downtown a cab driver volunteered his thoughts on the day. ‘Eight to nothing,’ he said. ‘Man, he should have known better. He can’t ever appeal that. My, My, My.… Man I feel for him. He put his own self in the trap. He’s got to give up now. You know, those Supreme Court Judges, they’re a pretty fair bunch of people. But I’ll be pretty glad when this thing is over. I’m so tired of Watergate I don’t know what to do.’ ”
I was just mentally nominating Johnson’s cab driver for the Vox Populi award of the year, when an insistent voice started hammering into my eardrums at close range. It was no fantasy, but a genuine journalist sitting near me.
“I need a rhetorical flourish for a lead,” he said. “Now, can I say ‘Waldie of California, Cohen of Maine, Flowers of Alabama’? You know, with no Christian names. Do you think I can do that?” Across the table, crowded with typewriters screwed down to the wood surface, some colleague nodded.
“Who’s that?” I asked a lady journalist.
“That’s Johnny Apple,” she said.
Johnny Apple is, I imagine, better known to readers of the New York Times as R. W. Apple. Apple’s function, in the New York Times, seemed during the week to be similar to that of Haynes Johnson on the Washington Post. His role was to distill the proceedings into compact and colorful prose.
Already, on that Thursday morning, the Times bore witness to his response to Johnson’s mighty challenge, cab-driver and all, in the Post. “The 150-odd spectator seats were filled, the 38 exhausted members of the House Judiciary Committee were in their places, and everyone — from the youngest page to the most grizzled and cynical of the politicians and reporters — knew that this was a very special night, one of those rare moments that really deserved to be called historic and momentous.”
Actually the rest of that particular article was not so bad, but Apple’s queries about rhetorical flourishes sent me scuttling for the Times the next morning. He’d gone overboard. “There was Fish of Dutchess County, New York, with the aristocratic intonations of a Franklin Roosevelt or an Averill Harriman; Dennis of Indiana, with the flat talk of the flatlands, talking of the Supreme Court. Wiggins, Waldie, and Danielson, speaking in that neutral accent characteristic of their state… Rodino of New Jersey, his speech tinged with the harshness of Newark and Bayonne and Jersey City; Flowers of Alabama, comfy, down-home.…” What with there being no fewer than 38 members, all of whose voices would presumably need adjectival decoration, I feared for Apple’s resources. But he pressed to his main theme, which was in fact the theme of the day: the New South.
A word on Themes of the Day: everything that happened toward the end of last week was more or less known in advance. In an excellent article in the New York Times on Tuesday, July 23, before the Great Public Debate began, David Rosenbaum computed the votes for and against impeachment. Checked against the final votes for the first article of impeachment, taken on Saturday evening, he was almost exactly right. His only error was to class Froehlich of Wisconsin as “Leaning Against Impeachment” whereas in fact Froehlich came out for impeachment.
There was, therefore, no way in which the debate was anything but a foregone conclusion. The business of the media, therefore, was to concoct the rhetoric rather than the reality of a debate which was in essence a public relations exercise.
The leitmotif was evidently “the inexorable march toward impeachment,” but even halfway through the week we were searching for a Leader, and lamenting that no one man was available to take history’s vast burden on his shoulders, hypnotizing the nation with spouts of compelling verbiage.
James Reston charged at the theme: “On the whole, members have been solemn and dull, and have spoken for themselves, or for or against Richard Nixon, but who will ‘Speak for America’?” He concludes by quoting his old friend, “ ‘Greatness is lying in the streets of Washington these days,’ Henry Kissinger said the other night, ‘and somebody may pick it up.’ In other words: Somebody may ‘Speak for America.’ But it hasn’t happened yet in Congress.”
But since, plainly, no one was speaking for America along the lines proposed, the answer was to go over to the opposite tack and claim that everyone on the Judiciary Committee was speaking for America, with the exception of vulgar McCarthy-like villains like Sandman of New Jersey, harsh accents of Cape May included. This is the “Twelve Angry Men” approach to life: keep on gabbing long enough and everyone will turn out to have a heart of gold.
There is an intervening patch of ground between these two options, which involves “agonizing dilemmas.” We had two splendid agonizing dilemmas last week. One belonged, of course, to Tom Railsback, who narrowly beat out Cohen of Maine as the most agonized and dilemma-ridden man of the Committee. He did everything: “spoke with emotion,” “choked with emotion,” “let his words spill out in an agonized torrent,” and above all did what agonizedly dilemma-ridden politicians are meant to do, which is to refuse to state whether they have made up their mind.
Then of course we had the Republican from Maryland, Hogan, who hastened the inexorable tide by announcing on Tuesday that he would vote for impeachment. The Boston Globe asked rather cynically whether his decision was helped along by publicity given to the fact that among his assets in his forthcoming race against Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel he had an unreported fund of $4000, and had hired John “Fat Jack” Buckley, who formerly spied on Muskie, to probe into Mandel’s affairs for him, and whether a Washington Post editorial wondering whether he had learned the lessons of Watergate had hastened the agonizing decision along.
All that kind of coarse talk was forgotten by Saturday morning. Haynes Johnson, as usual, put it well. “Hogan, tightly in control, his voice husky and at times close to breaking, recognized he would have to live with his actions for the rest of his lifetime…” It’s an irrefutable law of journalism that anyone whose voice is husky and at times close to breaking cannot be all bad.
After the moment of dilemmas we finally arrive at the Twelve Angry Men solution. Haynes Johnson was equal to the occasion. On Saturday he weighed the committee in the balance: “The representatives speaking with such uncustomary eloquence before an audience of millions fully recognized that they, as well as the President, are on trial.” He was satisfied. “At this point they are rising splendidly to history.”
But he reserved his full thunder for Sunday, in an immense article announcing his conversion to New Conservatism (new conservatism is always all right, since only later does it become ordinary, dreary old conservatism). And at the article’s conclusion he sounded the trumpet: “These men and women (on the committee) are not being seen as Southerners and Northerners, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. They are believed as people of integrity who put principle before party and nation before region. Whatever their differences, they are echoing our oldest tradition: the healthy suspicion of power.”
Even this effusion paled beside the Sunday ruminations of Joseph Kraft — a man who is the best argument I know of against the freedom of the Press, uniquely combining in his single person all the disadvantages of literacy. “From the crucible of impeachment there now emerges a new national consensus on the Presidency. It combines Southern constitutionalism and the progressive idealism of the West with Eastern liberalism. It puts into discard the imperial and military features of the Presidency which grew so prominent in the course of the American rise to international pre-eminence.” This truly staggering overture culminated in a similarly unctuous finale: “The effort of the White House to divide the Congress and the country has failed. It is fit that impeachment comes on the heels of the unanimous Supreme Court decision to limit executive privilege. And the country now moves toward impeachment united as rarely before.”
It was Kraft’s prose that finally confirmed me in the impression that the media were losing control in the great P.R. exercise (a) to hustle Nixon out of office and (b) to invent the idea of a unified “American People,” unafflicted by serious division, which only needs impeachment to find true happiness. How else to explain the delinquencies of a previously excellent reporter like Johnson? How else to explain that the press systematically ignored the evident fact that some of the famous detailing of “specifics” on Saturday was not that convincing? How else to explain that we were told next to nothing about the actual political pressures operating on people like Wiggins, Nixon’s defender from California, or Sandman, his defender from New Jersey? Even these gentlemen were somehow subsumed in prose harmonies about the dignity — quiet dignity of course — of the democratic process.
This is not to say that Nixon is not a crook and a liar, like other Presidents past and no doubt future, but to point up the noisome rhetoric of the media over the last days. The actual reporting of who said what to whom, and who fixed what with whom, seems to have been excellent. It’s the keynote material that’s been jarring.
Apple at least had a sense of realism last Sunday when he said that the evidence’s “appearance in newspapers and on television also helped to generate a sense of momentum toward impeachment that communicated itself toward the members. As one of them said, it is harder to cast a politically dangerous vote ‘when you don’t feel you’re part of the tide of history.’ ”
Ah yes, the tide of history! What everyone did last week was to make up their minds which way it was flowing. On Tuesday, July 23, NBC did not give live coverage to James St. Clair’s press conference, outlining his defense of the President. On Wednesday CBS evening news did not give live coverage to St. Clair’s delivery of Nixon’s response to the Supreme Court decision. On Wednesday evening a vice-president of CBS told John J. O’Connor of the New York Times that “we like to maintain control of our own product.” Both networks had chosen not to accept the opportunity of live coverage of Presidential announcements. As O’Connor remarked, “a number of broadcasting figures say the importance of those decisions for TV journalism can hardly be exaggerated.” Nor, one might add, would such decisions have been made if the tide had been clearly flowing the other way.
What the tide has done is to throw everyone into such a state of adjectival catharsis about History and some ethereal vision of America that it’s hard to read the newspapers or watch television without actually levitating. Only occasionally did some reporter bother to bring one down to earth. It took Tom Wicker to remind us last week that one of the things the Supreme Court did was to define executive privilege as empowering the President to hold on to “military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets.” In Saturday’s Washington Post William Greider bothered to go through the issues that the Committee is allowing to fade out of the impeachment articles: the milk deals, ITT, campaign financing, San Clemente, Cambodia, and possibly even the President’s taxes. He quoted Wiggins, after listening to a tape of a conversation about the milk deals, as saying, “It sounded like a Republican or Democratic caucus … the name of the game has not been impeachment on those issues — the name of the game has been the publicity of the investigation.” Greider quoted Robert Drinan as saying it would be futile to bring up Cambodia for a vote. “It would just be tabled. History may look back and decide we did the right thing for the wrong reason. Should we impeach the President for unlawful war-making?” Many members said that if Nixon got impeached for unlawful war-making, then his predecessor should have got the same. No one seemed to get around to the notion that this might not have been such a bad idea either.
So come next election time Nixon may be out of the way, but one thing the Crucible of Impeachment is not about to produce is any change in the way politicians raise money, or how candidates get illegal gifts from corporations, or how ambassadors pay up for their jobs. There was a great deal of invocation of the American People last week, but not too many specifics about the litigation affecting them going on just round the corner from the Rayburn Building, about strip mining, or about occupational safety or about consumer protection.
We are bobbing now on a tide of verbiage. Wednesday a week ago I counted 40,000 words in the New York Times on impeachment or legal briefs appertaining to it. Higher and higher raged the flood, as newsmen and politicians urged each other toward the finishing tape. The baton changed from hand to hand. “There’s no doubt about it, he’s gone,” said Tip O’Neill on Wednesday. “It’s all over bar the shouting,” said the Wall Street Journal the next day. On Friday “support for the President is wilting away,” and by Saturday John Rhodes was “agonizing over how he will cast his vote,” and “studying the tapes.”
On Sunday the Washington Post came up with two detailed articles recounting the rush of rats down the gangplank from the White House. Woodward and Bernstein reported the collapse and despair of Nixon’s staff. Three White House sources, they say, agree that Judge Sirica will find “additional gaps, unexplained noises, and other problems” with the 64 tapes liberated by the Supreme Court. Lou Cannon got down to specifics. At the San Clemente Inn, apparently, White House staff aides and Secret Servicemen were summarily evicted 10 days ago by Paul Presley, the owner and longtime friend of Mr. Nixon. “ ‘To the San Clemente Inn, there is no more White House, and to the White House there is no more San Clemente Inn,’ said Presley, who complained that various concessions to White House needs — including the use of the banquet room as a press center — had cost him $100,000 during Nixon’s Presidency. ‘We treated them like Jesus Christ because they were the White House,’ Presley said.… What the decision reflects, more than any abandonment of Mr. Nixon, is the growing realization of those tied to the economy of the Western White House that there is very little profit left in the present administration.”
I’d rather listen to Presley than to Joe Kraft. Indeed I’d rather listen to another banker friend of Nixon who told Cannon, “I expect he’ll be impeached and removed from office, but I’m not too worried about it. Ford strikes me as very sound.”
I suppose we ought to end with the authentic voice of the media. On Thursday night, squatting amid the cigarette butts on the pressroom floor I found myself watching the end of NBC nightly news. It will be remembered that Ehrlichman used to ask how will it play in Peoria. Needless to say, NBC had sent Bob Jamieson along to Peoria to find out.
Jamieson: “What do people here think now?”
Man: “In general, I think that people are very critical, very critical of the President, very critical of the Congress, very critical of the press. There’s nothing good about — we hear — the whole thing is a bad scene.”
Jamieson: “…So, how would it play in Peoria? It’s too early to tell, but it does seem that opinion here has begun to shift and if Peoria, as the Nixon administration believes, is the real America, then even in the real America, he may be in trouble. Bob Jamieson, NBC News, Peoria, Illinois.”
If you say so, Bob.
But don’t just leave us there in Peoria. What we need, and what was missing from so much of the coverage, was a sense of political reality beyond “the unfolding drama.” When we hear that someone like John Rhodes is “agonizing” over the tapes, we should not just be told that Rhodes maybe is going to find room in his heart for a vote for impeachment, we should be given the feeling that a whole change-over of political power is already taking place. All those Midwestern Republicans are not merely thinking of the transcendent beauty of the Constitution. They are wondering when to take to the lifeboats, or transfer to the Good Ship Ford. Will Kissinger be having public breakfasts with Ford soon? What are the new power alliances going to be? Will Mel Laird be the new Haldeman/Ehrlichman? Who will get the jobs?
The drama should not be abandoned to History. Just as those motel owners round San Clemente see which way the wind is blowing, so do the politicians on the Hill whose stout Republican virtues we have been hearing so much about. Soon we’ll have another President, claiming executive privilege. Soon we’ll have more lamentation that power has slipped too far in the direction of the White House. Soon, saving the hopes of Joe Kraft, we’ll be detecting “military features” in the disposition of Presidential power as secret diplomacy and secret wars continue. Ford, after all, is a practiced hand at cover-up, since this was one of his functions on the Warren Commission. Ford is not an archangel of democracy and the new life, but a tough old politician, and right now a lot of other tough old and tough young politicians are fixing to jump on his wagon.
Lost in a morality play half its own invention, the media are once again in the old familiar position of not looking quite far enough beyond the end of their noses. What price “awe” and “dignity” and “a unified people” in a year or so?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 15, 2019