Invitation To A Funeral

Today, on the day of his burial, the U.S. networks will interrupt their usual fare to carry live coverage of Richard Nixon being lowered into the earth.  It will be a solemn and respectful vigil, made all the more poignant by the fact that “respectful” is not how one would have described relations between the media and Richard Nixon while he was alive.

The NBC commentator John Chancellor once observed that “Other administrations have had a love-hate relationship with the press.  The Nixon Administration has a hate-hate relationship.”

Chancellor made that remark in January 1973, in a Newsweek cover article on “Nixon and the media” that ran just days before Nixon’s second-term inauguration as president – and just days before G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt and five others were due to stand trial for the burglary and wiretapping of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate hotel.

Given what was to come, with hindsight the Newsweek article seems something of an oddity.  Because it wasn’t about how the media were out to get Nixon.  It was about how Nixon was out to get the media.  With hand-wringing concern, it detailed a series of White House assaults on the journalistic establishment, from budget cutbacks at PBS to the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo for their part in the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

What a difference a matter of months would make.  If there was a war between Nixon and the media, there’s no doubt who won.  As the Watergate cover-up unraveled, relentless media revelations would eventually hound Nixon from office.  Today, this would doubtless be denounced as a media feeding frenzy, but the fact remains that a profoundly cynical and amoral power-monger was unseated via the glare of public scrutiny.  Sometimes, the feeding frenzies of the press are justified.

In the years that followed, Nixon did his best to cast himself as an elder statesman, but none but the most die-hard conservatives was really buying it.  He would pop up from time to time on the geopolitical stage, but invariably as an embarrassment that refused to go away.  In life, he never did shake the stigma of his disgrace.

That’s what makes the retrospective coverage on the occasion of his death all the more intriguing.  The Americans invest enormous symbolic capital in the office of the presidency, so that the death of even a disgraced president becomes a state occasion to be marked with reverence.

The result is that the period between his death and his burial has become a brief window of grace in which to eulogize a man who was all but vilified while he was alive.  In an awkward exercise of recuperation, if not rehabilitation, the American networks have been repeatedly reminding us that the scandal of Watergate should not be allowed to overshadow Nixon’s achievements as a politician and statesman.  These are the same media outlets, remember, who were so instrumental in his downfall.  You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to detect the undercurrent of guilt in the torrent of commentary over the past few days. 

Yesterday, for example, CNN ran an item on the editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, who still refuses to concede Nixon anything.  Conrad insisted above all that Nixon was a liar, plain and simple, who had attempted to subvert the U.S. constitution.  But in the context of all the carefully worded eulogies, CNN managed to make Conrad look like the bitter, angry crank, not the person he was talking about.

In at least one respect, then, the wily old Milhouse has been proven right.  Now that he’s dead, the press don’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.  From here on in, that’s for the historians to do.eg

CBC Radio April 26,1994