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Crisis? What crisis? Tom Brokaw recalls the Watergate era

By Bob D'Angelo


The U.S. presidency is now a reality show. And the media snatches pieces of information like so many fish chasing breadcrumbs on a lake. Bombshell here, bombshell there. The nation is polarized.

The opening line from the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” sure seems prescient: “Everywhere, I hear the sound of marching, charging, feet, boy.”

Has there ever been such turmoil surrounding a president of the United States?

Why, yes. It was dubbed Watergate, and it dominated the news beginning with the “third-rate burglary” on June 17, 1972, until President Richard Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 9, 1974.

Its effects are still felt, but everything seems more magnified now. Can you imagine what Watergate would have been like if Twitter and Facebook had been around in the 1970s? CNN? Fox News? Shudder.

During the Watergate era, events were covered by newspapers and the three major television networks. Dan Rather (CBS), Tom Jarriel (ABC) and Tom Brokaw (NBC) were the White House correspondents that Americans watched on a nightly basis.

Rather has written several books about the era, most notably 1974’s The Palace Guard and 1977’s The Camera Never Blinks (which is more of an overall look at Rather’s career).

Last year, Brokaw put together a memoir about his time reporting the White House beat for NBC News. The Fall of Richard Nixon: A Reporter Remembers Watergate (Random House; 2019; hardback; $27; 229 pages) is a chatty, reflective look at a turbulent time.

Brokaw’s timing was good. The book hit the shelves just as Congress was considering impeachment hearings on President Donald Trump. The Fall of Richard Nixon has short, punchy chapters that are gossipy and fun, but add nothing new to the Watergate narrative. It has all been written before. But this is a delicious look into the inner workings of Washington society and the challenges facing television correspondents.

Among the White House TV correspondents, Brokaw, now 80, was new, arriving in Washington during the summer of 1973. Brokaw, then 33, was replacing veteran news correspondent Richard Valeriani, who was changing beats to become NBC’s chief diplomatic correspondent.

That does not mean Brokaw was a wide-eyed bumpkin. But he certainly had to make a name for himself early, “pedaling hard to establish credibility.”

The White House beat, Brokaw writes, “was at once an intense, bewildering, and fascinating professional and personal experience.”

At least Brokaw did not have to deal with social media.

“We did not feel forced … to react to every ‘omigod’ from the vast universe of social media — factual, mythical, malicious or fanciful,” Brokaw writes. “In contrast to President Trump, President Nixon was seldom seen and rarely heard.”

Brokaw does concede that the relationship between TV correspondents and White House senior staff members “were not as testy” as they are today, noting that “we’d occasionally share a drink or a tennis match.” Brokaw added that the tension was “always present.”

He’s right. I just cannot imagine Jim Acosta and Jared Kushner sharing a drink, or Kaitlain Collins playing a tennis match with Kayleigh McEnany.

But Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, had no problem with inviting Brokaw to a meal (“Lemme buy you lunch”) and then calling him “a disappointment.”

“We thought you’d come to the White House with a fresh attitude, but you’ve jumped right in with the Georgetown,” Ziegler told Brokaw.

That elicited a note from Ethel Kennedy, who was sitting nearby at the same restaurant and sent it to his table.

“Hey kid, I guess this means you’re not coming to Hickory Hill for dinner tonight,” Brokaw recounts Kennedy writing.

“Ziegler got to it before I did, read it, flipped it to me, and said, ‘I rest my case,’” Brokaw writes. “And then, to his credit, he laughed.”

The irony here is twofold. Brokaw had not been invited to dinner. More interestingly, during Nixon’s first term, his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, had offered Brokaw the job of daily White House secretary. Brokaw declined.

As a reporter in California, Brokaw “seldom wore a tie off the air.” Washington was a different situation, and he gives the reader a taste of the Washington-Georgetown dinner party circuit. Brokaw and his wife, Meredith, rubbed elbows with power brokers on both sides of the political spectrum.

Washington, Brokaw writes, has changed, and journalists simply do not have time to mingle.

Journalists “are too busy filing every political utterance, every large or small development, on the endless conveyor belt of digital media.”

Brokaw throws in anecdotes about Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, almost as asides. Biden, as a rookie senator, “launched into a kind of campaign oration” while absentmindedly reaching for an object in front of him and tossing it like a baseball from hand to hand. That brought a rebuke from Sen. Edward Kennedy, who said, “Nice job, Joe, but next time leave things where they are. That was a Faberge egg you were tossing around.”

Those jeweled eggs, created in Russia between 1885 and 1917, are rare — and fragile.

The Trump story is even more of an aside. Brokaw recalls reading a 1973 article about the future president denying that the real estate company owned by his father, Fred Trump, did not violate the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

“His future as a president of the United States was as unlikely as his claim that his father’s company didn’t discriminate against Black tenants,” Brokaw writes.

Brokaw does draw parallels to presidential reactions about press coverage. Nixon, for example, criticized reporters by complaining that “I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting in twenty-seven years of public life.”

“Sound familiar?” Brokaw asks, parenthetically.

CBS News correspondent Robert Pierpoint then asked a follow-up question, Brokaw writes: “What is it about the television coverage … that has so aroused your anger?”

“Don’t get the impression you arouse my anger,” Nixon retorted. “You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.”

Brokaw throws in two reporting tricks he used to confirm stories. In one, he relates how Ken Clawson, Nixon’s deputy director of communications, thought Brokaw was “easy pickings.”

To confirm a memo he saw about how organizations favorable to Nixon were going to call in after the president’s speech with favorable reviews, Brokaw poses as a White House staff member.

“Hey, it’s the White House. You guys all set with the call-in after the president’s speech tonight,” Brokaw asks.

“Yessir, we have the phone bank all set up.”

The ensuing story irked Clawson, but the irony is that Brokaw was not being set up. The memo had been carelessly discarded.

The second trick came in August 1974, when Brokaw was trying to confirm that Sens. Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott, and Rep. John Rhodes, were planning to visit Nixon to let him know that the president would not survive an impeachment hearing.

“An uptight editor said, ‘You’ve got to get a second source,’” Brokaw writes.

As a longtime copy editor, I am with the NBC editor on this one. You have got to have at least two sources.

Brokaw decides to call Barry Goldwater Jr. and says, “Hey, Barry, this is really something, isn’t it? Your dad coming to the White House to give the president the bad news?”

“Barry says, ‘Yeah, how about that?”

“That counted as a second source!” Brokaw writes.

OK, it’s not Woodward and Bernstein, but it is still interesting. The NBC editor’s reaction is lost to posterity.

I wish there had been more of these types of stories in The Fall of Richard Nixon. Brokaw teases readers but leaves them wanting more. Still, it’s a nice insight into the life of a White House correspondent. The book comes in light at 229 pages, but it is still a reminder that political crises are nothing new.

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