National Press Club

NPC in History: Nixon's the one

July 19, 2019 | By Gil Klein |

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (l) and Carl Bernstein (r) came to the National Press Club on June 5, 1974, to discuss their book "All the President's Men."

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (l) and Carl Bernstein (r) came to the National Press Club on June 5, 1974, to discuss their book "All the President's Men."

Photo/Image: Stan Jennings

Richard Nixon unwittingly transformed the National Press Club.

He had been a regular around the Club, especially when he was vice president, showing up for summer frolics and father-daughter dinners, Club inaugurals and playing the piano at entertainments. In the annual baseball game in the 1950s between the press and the government, Nixon was photographed at bat.

In 1958, he boosted his stature in his bid for the presidency in a luncheon speech where he described his Latin American tour that ended with a vicious demonstration of anti-Americanism that threatened his life. He had kept his cool and returned home to a hero’s welcome. Sitting at the head table for the May 21 luncheon was Nixon’s friend, Sen. John Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Nixon’s last visit to the Club was in January 1960 when he attended the inaugural party for Club President Ed Edstrom of Hearst Newspapers. A photo shows him chatting with Edstrom, actress Maureen O’Hara, and Chief Justice Earl Warren.

But Nixon never returned after his 1960 presidential defeat, and especially after his loss to be governor of California, when he famously said at a press conference, “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.”

The tumultuous 1968 election played out at the Club with a backdrop of the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., as well as the riots in Washington that tore up large portions, crippling the Club’s business as people shunned the city after dark.

The 1968 Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, his running mate, Ed Muskie, Republican vice-presidential candidate Spiro Agnew and American Independent Party candidate George Wallace all took their turns at the Club podium.

But no Nixon. His ensuing administration developed an antagonistic relationship with the press with Agnew famously calling journalists “the nattering nabobs of negativism.” The vice president attacked television journalists as an “unelected elite” who determine what Americans know about national and world news. He broadened his criticism to the New York Times and the Washington Post. And all of that was before the Times published The Pentagon Papers, a massive classified study U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

And then came Watergate. The White House became a bunker designed to keep reporters in the dark.

The Nixon administration’s attacks on journalists convinced 1972 Club President Warren Rodgers, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune-New York Times Syndicate, that the Club must become more involved with press freedom issues. It was fine for the Club to be the nation’s news forum and a place for journalists to socialize, but it had to be part of the dialogue on the essential role of the news media in a democracy.

A new Professional Relations Committee commissioned a study by American University’s School of Communication to examine press-government relations in the first four years of the Nixon administration.

“The Watergate scandals grew and flourished in an unhealthy atmosphere of secrecy, official lies and attempted manipulations of newspapers, radio and television,” the committee reported to the Club’s board on the report’s completion on July 1, 1973. “Moreover, only an administration so insulated from the press and so contemptuous of its reporting function could have ignored the press’ disclosures of scandal over the last year and attempted the complex coverup that is now breaking down.”

The report accused the administration of an “unprecedented, government-wide effort to control, restrict and conceal information to which the public is entitled.”

Chaired by James McCartney of Knight Newspapers, the committee also chided Nixon for holding fewer press conferences than any president in the previous 36 years, further depriving the public of “vital access to presidential thinking on public issues.” \
It charged White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler with shutting down communication between reporters and public officials, and it likened the White House’s communication office to a “propaganda ministry.” It blamed the White House for fostering legal threats to press freedom, in which four reporters were jailed for refusing to identify sources.

Finally, the committee took a swipe at newspaper publishers and network for protesting too weakly against the Nixon administration’s “incursion into press rights, the concealment of information, and the narrowing of news channels.”

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal, talked at the Club on June 5, 1974, after the publication of their book, “All the President's Men.”

The two argued against pack journalism piling on the Nixon administration because it could cause a backlash of sympathy for the president. “There’s a danger of declaring open season on the president and CREEP (Committee to Reelect the President), and it’s easy to lose focus,” Bernstein said.

Right from the beginning in 1972, he said, the administration “tried to make conduct of the press the issue, not the conduct of those we wrote about.” Watergate was not “a media conspiracy to get” Nixon, they said. They called for self-restraint, and respect for people’s privacy.

Anyone looking out of the window of one of the upper floors of the National Press Building at the right moment on Aug. 9, 1974, shortly after Nixon resigned from office, would have seen Marine One, the president’s helicopter, lifting off from the White House South Lawn as Nixon began his journey home to California.

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.