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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, October 20, 1970

Oral History Interview with
Robert G. Nixon

News correspondent with the International News Service, 1930-58; served as editor of the service for a time. He first came to Washington, D.C., in 1938 where he served as their State Department and foreign relations correspondent. He was a war correspondent, attached to the British army in France and Belgium, 1940, during invasion of the low countries; evacuated from Dunkirk but later returned to France; evacuated with remnants of the British army from Brest, June 20, 1940; covered London Blitz, 1940-41; war correspondent, attached to United States forces in European theater of operations, 1942-1943; correspondent in Northern Ireland, United Kingdom, and Mediterranean theater, participating in North African invasion and campaign. Covered Casablanca conference, 1943; Quebec conference, 1944; and Potsdam, 1945. Washington correspondent covering the White House beginning in 1944.

Bethesda, Maryland
October 20, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Nixon Oral History Transcripts]


Notice
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened December, 1978
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with Robert G. Nixon

Bethesda, Maryland
October 20, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess

[215]

HESS: Mr. Nixon, when we stopped yesterday, you were relating an incident about Charles Ross.

NIXON: Yes. I believe I was saying that Truman had made a very courageous decision. It may have been Greek-Turkish aid, the Marshall plan, or some domestic thing. So I told Charlie that I thought Truman was turning out to be good for the country.

Charlie smiled and said, "Bob, do you really think so?"

You can read all sorts of implications into that remark, but it illustrates how down the middle of the road Ross was as a Press Secretary.

HESS: Did it sound as if he did not think that Truman was good for the country? What did he

[216]

mean by that?

NIXON: You have to draw your own implications. It seemed to me that he was saying: "So many of our colleagues don't think so, how come you do?" At the same time he might have been implying that he wasn't too sure himself. This illustrates how calm and even Charlie's press contacts were.

He was unlike Joe Short. He did not let his intense partisanship on behalf of the President interfere with his even-keel handling of press relations.

I always had the feeling that when Ross gave Truman his opinion, he laid it on the table and let it lay. He did not press. He would tell the President what he believed, make his recommendation, and then let the President make up his own mind.

HESS: Did Mr. Ross seem to have better personal

[217]

access to the President than Joe Short did?

NIXON: I would certainly say so. Good heavens, they had grown up together out in Independence. They lived a block or two away from each other, and they graduated in the same class. They had a lifetime friendship. Truman came to Washington as a Senator in 1936, and Charlie was here as a Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They were closely associated again, for a period of years, on the Washington level.

These were some of the reasons why Truman asked Ross to be his Press Secretary. I might add that in accepting this post, Ross was making a considerable sacrifice. He was making around $30,000 a year with the Post-Dispatch. In going over to the White House, he dropped to $10,000 a year. As we all know, trying to live in Washington on $10,000 a year is very difficult

[218]

to do.

So, for all these reasons, Charlie had this very close access to the President. There was a rear door to Charlie's office that opened into a hallway. So, when he wanted to see the President, he would simply go out that door and up the hallway. I dare say that he never knocked on the President's door. That's how intimate and close their relationship was.

On the other hand, Joe Short had only been associated with Truman off and on as a Washington newsman. He had been one of the little handful of reporters that accompanied Truman on his campaign in the '44 election. Little of Truman's campaign ever appeared in the newspapers because he was completely overshadowed by Roosevelt.

I remember Truman later telling me that he drew crowds of two or three dozen, all over

[219]

the country. He was quite amused and chuckled about it. His campaign was rather subdued, and, as I say, greatly overshadowed by the Roosevelt campaign. But he valiantly went back and forth across the country, just as he did later in the '48 campaign, when his crowds, I might add, were considerably larger.

There is a little anecdote that you might like to hear. The campaign was so subdued, and his speeches drew such small attendance that he said that sometimes he felt that he was talking to the air. The little group of five or six newsmen with him formed what they called their "hard rock club." (Truman was the head of it.) The term came from the deep mines in Montana--silver or lead or something. But anyway, in hard rock, it's pretty hard going to work with a pick. They had a jeweler make some little gold picks, as pins to wear on their

[220]

lapels. Much later, after I had been with Truman in the White House for a while, he made me an honorary member of this little group, and said, "Bob, I think you had ought to be a member. You've been doing a little hard rocking too."

It was natural that Ross would have this very close access to the President. Joe didn't have as close a relationship. I'm sure that when Joe went down the hall to see the President that he very probably always went into Rose Conway's office and asked Rose if the President was occupied.

HESS: You mentioned that Mr. Short was highly partisan. Can you recall an incident when that attitude may have manifested itself?

NIXON: It did on quite a number of occasions. We must remember that a news correspondent in Washington or anywhere else for that matter,

[221]

has freedom of the press. Maybe sometimes it's just a little too free, but it's a basic constitutional guarantee. Without violating confidences, or being otherwise unethical, a correspondent has the right, the privilege, and the duty, to report and write as he sees it.

But Short frequently would get quite angry if someone wrote a story about the Truman administration which he thought didn't put the President in very good light. A newsman can't operate under such conditions. There was one occasion that involved me.

I was called into Short's office one day. I had written an article that appeared, among many hundreds of other newspapers, in the Washington Post. Short didn't like the story. He felt it was embarrassing to the administration, and to himself.

[222]

Now, I recall what it was. For years and years there had been no access to the White House transcript of the President's press conferences--with the possible exception of the three press association men, including myself, at the White House. If we needed, for the sake of accuracy, to check the stenographic record of some certain portion of the press conference we could get permission to go to Jack Romagna and get him to read to us this portion of the transcript.

I learned that suddenly the Russian correspondent for Tass, the official Soviet news agency, was being permitted to see this transcript. I was a little astonished. I said to myself: "This is news." So I wrote it, and printed it.

This had been an action taken by Short on his own. He was purple. He was angered that

[223]

I had reported this, and our conversation went back and forth with some steam. I reminded him that I didn't have to get his permission to report news. I didn't have to come to him for confirmation, because I had confirmation. All I needed to know from him was, was he saying the story was true or not true.

As I say, things got pretty heated. He threatened to take away my official White House identification card. If you have this card, you can come and go as you please in the White House. If you don't have it, you can't get through the gates that are guarded by White House police. In other words, Joe (whether he realized it or not) was threatening to take an action that might have cost me my job.

I was taken a little aback, but I wasn't going to let him get away with that if I possibly could. By that I mean, I wasn't

[224]

going to let a threat from him control my future news coverage of the White House just to please him and get him off of my back. I didn't feel I could operate under such conditions. So, I just smiled at him and said, "O.K. Joe, why don't you just do that?"

Well, that stopped him. He saw very plainly that I was reminding him that the entire Hearst organization would be down his throat before he knew it.

Newspapermen and editors are very jealous of their prerogatives of freedom of the press. If this took place, it could balloon into the old question of freedom of the press. The press of the entire nation could have let the White House know that they didn't care for that type of handling of press relations. It could have been a great deal more harmful

[225]

to the Truman administration and to Joe Short than one little story or more such as I had reported. So, this was an illustration of the manner in which Short tended to handle things.

HESS: Do you think other newsmen found him difficult to work with also?

NIXON: Many of them have said just that to me. They remarked frequently on how much Short changed after becoming Press Secretary of the President, with all of the prestige and power that went with it. This type of thing in Washington is known as "Potomac Fever." I say in all charity, that this change did harm Short's actions as Press Secretary. To do that job properly, it's always best to keep your blood pressure down.

HESS: While we are discussing press secretaries, how effective was Mr. Eisenhower's press

[226]

secretary, James Hagerty? What would be your evaluation of Mr. Hagerty?

NIXON: Jim conducted what I allude to as a "fiction factory." He was an extremely good press Secretary--extremely efficient.

Eisenhower was not a very dynamic President. He was not a doer. Despite his prestige, he conducted eight years on the order of what Mr. Truman in the '48 campaign called the do-nothing Republican 80th Congress.

Eisenhower didn't want to rock the boat. He wanted the presidency conducted on a subdued basis in which the economy of the country would go on evenly--which is not a bad way to do it. But there are times when very important and sometimes drastic decisions have to be made. As I say, Eisenhower's conduct of the presidency was on a rather subdued key. That meant there wasn't any news unless events made it news.

[227]

In contrast to the rather dreadful view by the public of the Truman administration at various times, Eisenhower's eight years were made to smell like a rose. He could do nothing wrong, and even if he did, it was quickly forgiven. This was made possible by Eisenhower's tremendous prestige, his big boyish smile, and his whole personality. But it was really due, in fact, to Jim Hagerty.

Hagerty operated on the basis of making the sun shine 24 hours a day. Jim would go up to Gettysburg with Eisenhower and he would conduct two press conferences a day--one in the morning and one in the afternoon and sometimes more. He made every tiny little thing that the President did sound like it was news of tremendous and terrific importance. I don't like to use the word "fabricated," but he magnified. He made little things look big,

[228]

and newsmen are always hungry for news. He kept this, what I called the "fiction factory," going day and night.

It made Eisenhower look awfully good in the nation's press. The publishers, all more or less Republican-minded, were so dazzled by a Republican President being in the White House for the first time since 1932, that they would front page anything that had the Eisenhower name on it. It also kept the newsmen busy enough so that they didn't have to go around looking under the rug.

Hagerty was, for Eisenhower, an excellent handler of news. He was a news manager. He managed the news, and this was something new. This hadn't happened under Truman at all, and I don't say that this is the way to do it because I don't like managed news. I don't like fictional news. An objective approach

[229]

to what goes on is the way to report events. Truth and facts are not always easy to come by.

Hagerty's way of handling Eisenhower's press relations was very effective for a President who liked to spend his evenings playing bridge, and his days on the golf course. That was the way Eisenhower liked to do things. He detested desk work. He got away from the White House as often as a person possibly could. He would go out to the Burning Tree Country Club or down to Quantico to the Marine base, where they have a beautiful golf course. He invited professionals like Ben Hogan to play with him and spent hours and hours of the day playing golf.

HESS: During his administration did you have very many opportunities to have personal conversations with President Eisenhower?

[230]

NIXON: No, I did not.

HESS: Did anyone else?

NIXON: I don't know of any other reporters who did.

Eisenhower's relationship with newsmen was a hundred and eighty degrees away from Truman's close and friendly relations with newsmen that he knew and liked.

HESS: Did you have the feeling that his attitude was more or less the officer-enlisted men?