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Daniel Schorr and Nixon’s Tricky Road to Redemption

Nixon portrayed himself as a victim of the press. But from the 1952 Checkers speech through his post-presidency, he proved to be an able manipulator of the media.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives.” While Fitzgerald might have been one of the Jazz Age’s premier novelists, he was hardly a soothsayer. One could argue, based on the past fifty years alone, that American culture offers countless second chances to the deserving and undeserving.

Thirty years ago this March, Richard M. Nixon, demonstrated this very fact when Nixon released what Marvin Kalb and others describe as the “Who Lost Russia?”  memo: a successful attempt by Nixon to consolidate decades of rehabilitation transforming him from disgraced former president to wise, foreign policy sage. The memo, which he disseminated in secret and then leaked to the press during the 1992 presidential campaign and followed it with a well-publicized foreign policy conference touting the former president, outlined a series of steps the United States might take to stabilize a teetering former Soviet Union.  Tracing this path, and the means by which Nixon traversed it, offers insights into our current media, its relationship with political figures, and the politics of the modern age.

The Road to Redemption

Nixon long portrayed himself as a victim of the press. However, as Kalb points out, spanning from his 1952 Checkers speech to the Nixon memo in 1992, “the press had been an indispensable tool for Nixon.” In the years following his resignation from office, Nixon courted  reporters and politicians out of the public’s view  through correspondence, memos, private dinners and lunches, while maintaining a public presence through books, opinion pieces, and travel.[1] 

Nixon’s  multipronged approach included dialogue with elected politicians such as Jack Kemp. In 1981, Congress was debating the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill when Nixon wrote  Kemp using three of his favorite rhetorical devices: Winston Churchill, war, and football. Admitting he lacked expertise in economics, Nixon managed to reference the famous British leader who “once wrote that in war there is a time for audacity and a time for prudence but never for both at the same time,” noted Nixon. Had the Germans not gotten “cautious” at the First Battle of the Marne, Nixon argued, they would have won the battle and World War I. The time, he told Kemp, was not for reserve but audacity.

He concluded with one of the most strained football metaphors in recent history. It’s the last minute of the fourth quarter and the ball is on the 30-yard line, Nixon wrote. Do you run the ball or throw a bomb? Nixon made it clear which one he preferred, “Let us hope that the bomb connects!”[2]  You can find letters like these scattered across the papers of officials from the era.