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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, October 23, 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 23, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 23, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

[404]

HESS: To begin this morning, sir, let's discuss the change in the site of the press conferences from Mr. Truman's Oval Office to the Indian Treaty Room.

NIXON: The President's press conferences as an institution grew and underwent changes. Fortunately, these changes were for the better. This was an important means for the Chief Executive to communicate with the entire nation through the newspapers, radio news, and TV, which, as we all know, is a very powerful media because it combines visual as well as auditory impact. The two seem to have a more powerful impact than just the written word.

So, this was an important means of communication, not only by the President to the Nation,

[405]

but by the Nation to the President. How can you run things adequately if you don't know what's going on? The President is able to learn the mood of the country and the interests of the country through the very simple process of the questions that are asked him at a news conference. So, there's an exchange of communication and information.

I say the changes that have been made are for the better, because we haven't always been that fortunate. Instance, again, the very scanty contacts the Presidents had with the news media in earlier years. There was this rather peevish and fretful manner in which Coolidge handled his occasional press contacts, and Hoover's failure to hold a news conference for many months at one of the most critical periods in our history.

[406]

So, changes did come about. We moved over to the Indian Treaty Room in April of 1950.

The Republicans had gotten to the point where they just couldn't stand it anymore. The Democrats had been in power sixteen years. They were doing everything that they possibly could to get back in the White House. It was all on a basis of "all is fair in war and politics."

I think I pointed out that in this free exchange of questions and answers in the President's Oval Office, there was no identification of the questioner at all. You would fight for the privilege of asking the question. By the moment one questioner had been answered by the President, you would chime in just as fast and as loud as you could to ask your question. Invariably, three or four would be doing this same thing at the same time. Things sorted

[407]

themselves out. Usually the pushiest and the loudest would get his question in.

There we would be jammed in this relatively small Oval Room. From here and there in the room a question would pop out. If a correspondent happened to be six feet six, his head would jut up above the others and the President could see who he was, but if you were five feet five, you were buried in the crowd. The only possible means that he had of knowing who was asking the questions was if he was able to see the few in the front of the row that he knew, or if some fellow was six foot six. Sometimes the President was able through long familiarity to recognize the voice.

Now, why did identity become important to the White House? This was a period, as I've said, of an intense fight for power. While the Truman administration through its own peccadilloes

[408]

and failures, may have deserved much of the criticism that descended up on it, there was a great deal that it did not deserve that was purposefully fabricated or dug up by the political opposition, who were trying to end this long period of power by the Democratic Party.

Correspondents, of course, are not independent people, free to make their own decisions or do as they please. They work for a living like everybody else. Their security is involved. Regardless of their personal feelings one way or another, they have to mirror the opinion and desires of the editors they work for. They are given orders to do thus and so. If they don't want to play on the team, they have to get off.

So, the President's press conference, among many other things, was a forum for loaded questions.

[409]

Questions were often pointedly put for partisan purposes. They went beyond just trying to bring out factual news objectively. Sometimes questions can be asked that are not venal at all, but the results may be highly embarrassing to the presidential administration.

Now I don't say that this should not be. It's not my province to take one side or the other of an issue of this type. It's not my province to defend the President, or his prerogatives. Whoever is in there, could do it a lot better than I could do it for them.

I relate this simply so it will be known why identification is important to the White House. There was a question that was asked at a news conference on August 5, 1948, which long afterwards turned out not to be loaded at all, but which at the time seemed to be a highly loaded question because of the result.

[410]

A reporter on the Columbia, Ohio, Dispatch, named Harold Stacy, was sent into Washington by his paper for a brief visit. Perhaps this was a little reward for him. In any event, he attended the Truman press conference in the White House on that date.

It was the only press conference he ever attended. He was taken around and shown the town. He went home to Columbus and that was it.

A couple of days before the news conference, Congressman Richard Nixon, a Republican Congressman from California had opened hearings in the famous Hiss-Whitaker Chambers case. This was billed as an investigation by Congress into alleged Communist espionage in our Government and the workings of the Soviet Government's secret intelligence people in this country. They wanted to discover if American traitors were

[411]

actually holding important positions in our Government.

Alger Hiss, who was a relatively young Foreign Service officer in the State Department, was in a post of great importance, where he had access to our Government secrets. (Incidentally, he was a member of the Roosevelt staff at Yalta.) Hiss was being accused of having passed secret Government papers to Whitaker Chambers, who was a principal witness and a confessed, longtime Communist agent.

The Communists were tagged "Reds." These were the first in a long period of investigations of alleged communism in Government, which finally wound up in the hearings that were conducted by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy. This was the beginning, so it was somewhat of a sensation.

In the course of the press conference,

[412]

this Ohio reporter, apparently eager to get a question in, so he could write a dispatch under his own by-line, popped out, "Mr. President, do you regard these hearings as a ‘red herring?’"

His idea, which he didn't fully state, was: "Are these hearings a 'red herring' dragged across the path to cover up the fact that the Republican controlled Congress refused to approve your anti-inflation program?"

The President immediately responded: "Yes, you can quote me, they are using it as a 'red herring' to keep from doing what they ought to do."

No one at the conference knew who asked the question nor paid much attention to it at the time, but when a few hours had passed, and this had gotten into the Republican newspapers, it became an overnight sensation. The quote was taken out of context.

[413]

The President simply had acknowledged that this was a red herring. The meaning of the phrase "red herring" was even ignored. It was made to appear that the President, in effect, was acknowledging that there was communism in Government and that some of the people in his administration and in the previous Roosevelt administration were traitors who had sold out their country to the Russian Government.

HESS: Merely by the use of the word "red."

NIXON: That is it. The meaning of "red herring" is well-known by anyone who has ever gone through grade school. So you don't have to go to the dictionary, but the Republican press instantly seized upon it, and began to attack the President, and certainly did not go to the dictionary, because their interpretation of it was meant to embarrass the President.

[414]

This was the beginning of what the White House considered a necessary change in location. It was also, to a considerable extent, the beginning of changes in the manner of handling presidential press conferences.

The reason that I was impressed by this as a beginning was because some months later, Charlie Ross called me into his office and asked me did I recall what reporter had asked this "red herring" question. Well, I didn't, and I told him so. Charlie said, "Well, Bob, do you mind trying to find out? You have access to other reporters and that would make it simpler and less obvious than my doing it."

So, I said, "No, Charlie, I'll be glad to. You help me; I'm glad to help you, anytime."

So, I began a search. I went to the back copies of the local newspapers, and the

[415]

embarrassing question was there. But I could not tell who asked it. As I say, when you wrote stories in those days, you didn't usually acknowledge that some reporter had asked the question. This was a question at the news conference, period. So, I began to ask questions of reporters that I was pretty sure had been at the news conference that day. As I've said, this question came from way back in the room, and I was standing in front of the President's desk, as usual with my back to the rest of the reporters, and I had made no note of the voice. But I began asking questions. I went to each of what we call the "regulars"--those who you knew attended every press conference.

No one that I talked to had any idea who had asked that question. I was positive that it wasn't one of the Government press people because they weren't supposed to ask questions. Each

[416]

of the Government departments and agencies sent an employee in the press department to attend the press conferences so they could go back and acquaint their bosses, firsthand, with what had gone on in the President's conference that day. As I say, they were there to listen and not to participate.

Because no one knew the identity of this reporter, I began to wonder whether this was a highly loaded, purposefully planted question. Of course, this was one of the things that Charlie Ross and his staff were beginning to wonder, because they had by this time taken a very brutal beating in the Hiss-Whitaker Chambers hearings, which had become a sensation. Really these hearings turned out to be the thing that made Dick Nixon a national political figure, just as later the crime hearings on the

[417]

Hill brought Senator Estes Kefauver into national prominence on the TV and made him Stevenson's vice-presidential running mate.

So, I then began to use a fine-toothed comb. Mind you there were at that time, well over a thousand newsmen in Washington. A hundred and fifty to two hundred attended the President's press conferences in that room. By that time, I could have well dropped it and just gone to Charlie and said, "Look, here's what I've done, and this is what I've come up with," and then dropped it, but I was just sort of getting my back up about my inability to uncover the identity of the man. Also, it was beginning to sound like a story to me. As a story, I couldn't use how Charlie fitted into it at all. This was in confidence naturally, but I was beginning to smell a larger story that had no bearing on the

[418]

Charlie Ross end of it.

HESS: It looked more and more like a plant.

NIXON: It looked like a plant, as you say. It sure did. So, I began going, one by one, to the Washington bureau chiefs of the principal newspapers that covered Washington: The New York Times, the New York Herald-Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Examiner, the Los Angeles Times and/or Herald-Examiner, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Globe Democrat, and so forth, and so on.

The quite logical way to go about it was to go to the most important newspapers first because they are the ones who are always there, and you would expect it to have been one of them. But one by one they went out to the window. Finally I got to the smaller papers, I don't

[419]

mean the country journals, but I mean the papers in cities of lesser size. I finally got around to the Columbus Dispatch. I located the identity of this reporter and found out that he had just been on a one-time visit to Washington and that this was his first and only presidential press conference. This question simply popped into his mind becau