Nixon Papers Reveal War on Media, Kennedys and Modern Art

Nixon's penchant for political espionage is evident in latest release of papers.

January 11, 2010, 4:19 PM

Jan. 11, 2010 -- To political junkies and inveterate Nixon-haters, the continuing release of the 37th president's papers and recordings have long been known as "the gift that just keeps giving." With every batch that has been periodically made public, the political and foreign policy views as well as the personalities of Richard Milhous Nixon and his closest aides have become clearer.

Today's release from the National Archives and the Nixon Library is no exception.

Nixon's war with the Washington Post was well-known. His attorney general, John Mitchell, once warned that the Post's publisher, Katharine Graham, was "gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer…" Today's newly released material recounts a meeting Jan. 12, 1973, between Nixon aide Charles Colson and Bob Ellsworth, an investment banker for the Post. The banker is concerned about the Post's financial situation. Ellsworth also worries that the administration is bent on hurting the Post and other enterprises owned by the Post Company.

In a memo to Nixon describing the conversation, Colson says, "I told Bob that the Post had brought this on itself, that they had completely broken it off with us. He said that was not the case, that Kay Graham was being very cooperative, understood the problem, and that they felt that [Post executive editor] Ben Bradlee was perhaps responsible for the unfair coverage of the administration... He said 'you would be surprised' to find out how cooperative and agreeable she really can be."

Colson later tells Nixon, "I suggested that perhaps we might see some evidences of good faith. Maybe the Post could show us something like a few obviously friendly editorials on how well the president is handling the Vietnam War, perhaps a firing of Bradlee, and some straight coverage for a change, maybe they could start putting the Watergate case back inside the paper where it belongs instead of blasting it across the front pages."

Colson says, "Clearly the Post is very, very worried." But, as it turned out, not worried enough to cave in to White House pressure. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein continued to file their Watergate stories, and Ben Bradlee continued as executive editor of the Post until his retirement in 1991.

Nixon Details Dislike of News Media

Nixon's dislike of the news media was not, of course, just limited to the Washington Post. In a detailed, 30-page memo on politics and the media to his chief of staff, H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, Nixon complains (and this was November 1970, long before Watergate) that the media are hostile to him, and he advocates finding a plan to divide "the hostile working press."

Although, as a rule, Nixon hated leaks, he thought they could be used to his benefit. He suggests giving "calculated leaks to our friendly reporters, and don't limit them to newspapers -- sometimes we might give one to ABC network, for example."

He also worries that the public believes he may be loafing when he goes on vacations or weekend trips to Florida. He blames this and other public relations problems largely on "the virtually insurmountable problems we face with the media."

In his private memo to Haldeman, Nixon hints that he realizes he may have a personality problem with the public: "The people like a warm president and a competent one, but they also want one who is a courageous, bold leader who will step up and hit the hard ones. I am inclined to think that we have a pretty good record in that respect, but even in the foreign policy area, where the record is outstanding, it just hasn't come through."

For those truly interested in Nixonology and Watergate, the newly released material has plenty of detail but few real revelations. The nuggets include more on the Nixon campaign's infamous dirty tricks. Also, there are discussions that lead to G. Gordon Liddy being chosen to run the secret intelligence operation that culminated in the Watergate break-in.

More detail, too, on a "mole" hired to keep tabs inside the 1972 campaigns of Democratic candidates. The mole, a journalist referred to as "Chapman's friend," kept an eye on Sen. Ted Kennedy's amorous activities. The mole also talked privately to Democrats about other Democrats.

Hubert Humphrey, for example, had little good to say about the man who would later win the Democratic nomination, George McGovern: "If he (McGovern) was left to talk and negotiate with world leaders, he would get all flustered, be totally on the defensive and we would have a man who would be almost mum and on the defensive. His welfare proposals are a school boy's dreams."

Nixon Seeks Purge of Kennedy-Era Modern Art

Nixon on culture, architecture, etc. In a memo to Haldeman, he writes that "..those who are on the modern art and music kick are 95 percent against us anyway. I refer to the recent addicts of Leonard Bernstein and the whole New York crowd. When I compare the monstrosity of Lincoln Center with the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, I realize how decadent the modern art and architecture have become.

"This is what the Kennedy-Shriver crowd believed in, and they had every right to encourage this kind of stuff when they were in. But I have no intention whatever of continuing to encourage it now."

"P.S.," Nixon added, "I also want a check made with regard to the incredibly atrocious modern art that has been scattered around the embassies of the world."

Nixon does not write of anyone coming uninvited to his White House dinners, but in a couple of memos he expresses strong views on who should be invited. In a 1970 memo to aide Alexander Butterfield (who would later famously reveal the existence of the Oval Office taping system), Nixon is upset that some people he wanted invited to a dinner were not and vice-versa: "Once again we seem to be rewarding our enemies and ignoring out friends."

Donald Regan would later serve as Ronald Reagan's Treasury secretary and chief of staff. But Nixon, in 1970, was unimpressed and saw no need to invite him to dinner: "Don Regan of Merrill, Lynch is so-so. He is a power on the Street but a number of people on Wall Street have done much more for us than Regan."

Finally, regarding Washington Post publisher Graham, mentioned above, who died in 2001, Nixon found it necessary to invite her to a Medal of Freedom dinner, but clearly had to hold his nose while doing it. Nixon said he would personally select the people to sit at his table and at his wife's table. He added in a memo to Bob Haldeman, "...put Kay Graham at a table as far away from our tables as possible and preferably at one where there is no VIP whatever."

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