PRESIDENCY AND THE PRESS:
NIXON TO CARTER
The liaison between a president and the press is frequently
characterized by the opposing forces of mutual benefit and
conflicting interests. The president and the press derive
mutual benefit in that the president needs to connect with
the public, whereas the press needs access to the president
to keep their patrons apprised of political events. The conflict in interests lies in the need for the president to control
his image and set the agenda for his administration. These
opposing forces were particularly evident in the presidency
and press relations of the terms served by Richard M.
Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter.
Richard M. Nixon
By the time he arrived in the Oval Office, Richard Milhous
Nixon had extensive dealings with the press and had experienced both successes and failures. Prior to his election as
the president, Nixon had a long record as a politician and
had run as a vice-presidential as well as presidential candidate. This background is important to understanding his
relationship with the press.
During the 1952 campaign, while running with Dwight
D. Eisenhower as a vice presidential candidate, Nixon came
under criticism over charges he had received $18,000 in
illegal campaign contributions. Nixon countered his critics
on television. On September 23, he told television audiences
in his famous “Checkers Speech” that the charges against
him had been politically motivated and that his kids were
keeping “Checkers,” a cocker spaniel given to them by a
Texas businessman. The performance kept Nixon on the
Nixon fared less well when he ran for president in 1960
and appeared with his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts
Senator John F. Kennedy in a series of televised debates.
In the first debate, televised live from Chicago, Kennedy
came across as young and witty and Nixon, suffering from
a swollen and injured knee, seemed uncomfortable and
haggard. Later analysis of the content of the debates shows
little substantive difference, but the visuals went in favor of
the tanned and relaxed Kennedy. Nixon was to remember
the campaign of 1960 with much irritation and blamed the
press for favoring Kennedy.
These experiences resulted in two distinct strategies
that Nixon used in his dealings with the press. The first
was to circumvent press coverage and speak directly to the
public. The second was to approach the press itself with a
high degree of wariness. We can see the Nixon press strategy of circumventing the press in action in the telethons
his campaign utilized both in the 1968 and the 1972 elections. This helped him bypass the press and go directly to the people with his ideas and message. His mistrust of the
press led him to engage in a campaign of discrediting the
As president, Nixon created a special press office for
the executive branch and named Herbert Klein, the communications director. He appointed Ronald Ziegler as
his press secretary. Ziegler had little experience with the
press and over time correspondents turned increasingly
to his assistant, Gerald Warren, for information. Ziegler
later replaced Klein as communications director during
Nixon’s second term and Warren then was appointed as
After seeing the decrepit state of the pressroom, the president commissioned the construction of a new pressroom in
the West Terrace. The West Terrace Press Center allowed
reporters to observe visitors to the president’s office. Nixon
seized the initiative as president, holding his first conference immediately after taking office and five more in the
next five months.
The relationship between the press and the president
increasingly degenerated as the correspondents grew impatient with the lack of information coming out of the White
House. The administration, for its part, blamed the media
for displaying excessive liberal partisanship. Two episodes,
in particular, serve to illustrate the opposition between the
press and the president: the Pentagon papers and the Watergate affair.
The Pentagon papers, commissioned by the secretary of
defense and involved the work of numerous scholars, traced
the increasing involvement of the United States in Vietnam
over a period of three decades. The New York Times was
able to obtain a copy of this report and began publishing it
in serial form. The Nixon administration obtained a temporary restraining order against the New York Times, to which
the paper vehemently objected although it did suspend its
publication. Meanwhile, the Washington Post also obtained
a copy of the report and began publishing it. The Nixon
administration moved against the Post also. Eventually, the
Supreme Court affirmed the right of the newspapers to publish the Pentagon papers and both the Times and the Post
Nixon had even less reason to like the press as the Washington Post started reporting on the Watergate burglary
and the events behind it. The June 17, 1972, break-in at the
Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate office
complex in Washington, D.C., created a growing controversy that would doom the Nixon presidency. Other papers,
including the New York Times, joined the Post in reporting
that members of the Committee to Re-elect the President
had been implicated in the burglary. Televised Congressional hearings in the spring of 1973 probed “what the President knew and when he knew it.” The nation was transfixed
as a succession of witnesses testified, and eventually it
was revealed that taped Oval Office conversations implicated Nixon in a criminal cover-up. This bombshell led
to impeachment proceedings against Nixon during which
he resigned. This episode made heroes of the two young
reporters who first broke the story, Bob Woodward and Carl
Bernstein. The long-term effect, however, as one commentator put it, was that after Watergate, every president was
guilty until proven innocent in the press.
Gerald R. Ford
Gerald Rudolph Ford, who became president when Nixon
resigned, was the only man in American history to serve
as president who had never been elected president or vice
president. Since both Nixon and his original vice president,
Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign from their offices,
Ford was coming into office without a mandate, and possibly without the respect that accompanies the individual
elected to the office.
Still, Ford did possess a likable personality that won him
much needed good will, even though he was under a cloud
due to his loyalty to Nixon. Ford was not a newcomer on
the political scene. He had served as the House Minority
Leader since 1963 and was generally well-liked by the press
for his openness and down to earth candor. As a vice president, he continued a pattern of easy camaraderie with the
press, gave many interviews, and frequently talked off the
record with reporters.
In Ford’s initial address to the American people he
assured them that “our national nightmare is over.” In a
news conference, Ford equivocated on whether he would
consider pardoning Nixon of charges stemming from the
Watergate investigation. However, on September 8, 1974,
in a nationally televised Oval Office speech, Ford gave
Nixon a presidential pardon. He told Americans that he
firmly believed in “equal justice for all Americans” but that
“Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough.”
Although Ford hoped the pardon would end “years of bitter
controversy and divisive national debate,” his decision only
extended and deepened the dispute, undermining the fragile confidence the nation had in his presidency. His newly
appointed press secretary, Jerald F. terHorst, resigned in
Ron Nessen, who had considerable journalistic experience in network news at NBC, replaced terHorst as press
secretary. In his memoirs, Nessen acknowledged rocky
relations and mutual distrust in his relations with the White
House press corps. Ford became a national laughingstock,
cast as a stumbling bumbler by comedian Chevy Chase on
the highly popular television show Saturday Night Live.
Ford struck back, hiring a personal television director and
joke writer. He also worked to create a better rapport with
the White House press. Unlike Nixon, Ford would usually
conduct his press conferences in the East Room in a more
relaxed atmosphere and would informally meet with the
Ford was dogged by image problems. When he fell down
the steps of Air Force One and later injured himself during
skiing it seemed to play to public perceptions that he was
physically uncoordinated and out of his depth. In reality,
he was one of the best athletes ever to occupy the White
House. He had been the starting center on the University
of Michigan football team, was an ardent golfer, and led a robust life filled with physical activity. But the public would
not be persuaded. When, in 1976, Ford referred to Poland as
a free country in a televised presidential debate (Poland was
actually part of the Communist bloc), his fate was sealed.
The pardon, his image, and a debate mistake cost him the
election in a razor-thin defeat.
Former peanut farmer and Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter’s relationship with the media was complex. To many,
Carter owed much to the press, particularly television, for
helping him to connect with the American people during
his presidential campaign. Once elected, it was the media’s
consistent and intense attention to the many challenges
that faced his presidency that were blamed for Carter’s low
approval rating and failure to be re-elected.
Carter’s candidacy was greatly helped by his image of
an honest farmer from Georgia. After the resignations of
both Nixon and his vice-president, the perceived honesty
and anti-establishment stance of Carter was welcomed by
the voters. Carter was well aware of the significance of the
media and made a concerted effort to court the press, even
hiring a media consultant Gerald Rafshoon.
Once in office, Carter brought with him many Washington outsiders to the political stage, including Joseph
Lester Powell Jr., his press secretary. “Jody” Powell, as he
came to be known, was only thirty-three and had no journalistic experience. However, he had been with him since
Carter’s days as governor of Georgia. This long association
worked in favor of Powell as it lent more credibility to him.
Powell was also generally well-liked by the press correspondents, although the drawn out media attention on the
troubles besetting the administration did eventually strain
the rapport. Another asset for Carter was Rafshoon, who
is credited with advising the president to turn his attention
to the regional press and for helping improve his dismal
approval ratings. Carter was not helped by other members
of his staff, however. Bert Lance, the director of the Office
of Management and Budget, resigned under a cloud of
Carter did try to use the media to make his case to the
public through strategic and clever use of the media, particularly television. He usually held two televised press
conferences per month and took advantage of photo opportunities to connect directly with the public. As his approval
ratings continued to drop, however, Carter announced that
he would cease these conferences and would focus his
attention on the regional press.
Two major problems facing Carter that led to these
media troubles were the Middle East oil crisis and the Iran
hostage standoff. A sharp downturn in oil export from
the Middle East led to a serious energy shortage at home,
leading to long lines at gas stations and higher prices. The
public demanded immediate action, but Carter was slow to
move. He did have an energy bill but the public heard little
about it. To find a solution to the problem Carter retreated
to Camp David for a ten-day conference with leaders from
all walks of life. At the end of the ten days, Carter made a
thirty-minute speech outlining his plan. Critics scoffed at
the image of a president before a fireplace urging Americans to “turn down their thermostats.” The speech produced
little momentum for the president’s policy.
On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants captured 53
Americans in Tehran and held them hostage for 444 days.
Ironically, it was Carter who initially directed the media’s
attention to this crisis. He had meant to build public support in favor of pressuring the Iranian government for the
release of the hostages. But then, as the standoff remained
unresolved and the media remained riveted on the issue, it
became the greatest burden for the Carter administration.
Through the efforts of Algerian negotiators, the hostages
were released after President Ronald Reagan was sworn in
to office in January, 1981.
In the end, Carter could not overcome his image problem, nor the overwhelming public feeling that double-digit
interest rates and double-digit inflation meant that the
nation was headed in the wrong direction. In the 1980 election, Carter’s opponent, Republican Ronald Reagan was a
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PRESIDENCY AND THE PRESS: