load_file('header', 'header.htm'); $tpl->load_file('footer', 'footer.htm'); $tpl->register('header', 'pageClassification, pageTitle, pageType, pageKeywords'); $tpl->register('footer', 'lastUpdated'); $tpl->parse('header, main, footer'); $tpl->print_file('header'); ?>
In the following excerpt from John Ehrlichman's 1982 book, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years, the former Domestic Affairs chief recounts the conflicts he had with Dan Rather, who was a White House correspondent for CBS News at the time.
Later, Ehrlichman recounts an incident in which Rather tried to make trouble with Ehrlichman's parole officer after Ehrlichman criticized Rather's professionalism at a press conference.
So we went up to the Edwardian Room of the Plaza for breakfast, along with John’s producer. About halfway through the eggs we were joined by John’s boss Richard Salant, the President of CBS News. No one had said anything to me about Salant’s joining us. But he was welcomed; I figured Hart had passed the word to Salant to join us, and that was all right with me.
Salant thanked me for coming up to do the interview and we talked a little about its content. Then he asked, “How are our people at the White House doing?” I took that to refer to Robert Pierpoint and Dan Rather, the two CBS Television regulars.
I’d had the quality of the CBS coverage on my mind at that time. A domestic-policy story they had recently carried was dead wrong. That was upsetting, but I was doubly upset because no one from CBS had checked the story in advance with my staff or me. If someone had, perhaps the story could have run correctly, or at least with two versions of the facts.
So when Salant asked me, I told him. I said, substantially, that I rarely heard from his people. I said it was my impression that Dan Rather was consistently critical of our domestic-policy initiatives. I said I had the impression that Dan Rather failed to check his stories, for one of two reasons: either he had a bias or he was lazy. From my standpoint, I said, it appeared that he was just lazy.
Salant replied that Rather had been brought to big-time television news from a Texas station as a result of diligent work during a hurricane. I had heard that story, I replied, and it had always seemed a long jump from covering a horse stranded in a flood to covering the White House. I made it clear that I didn’t think much of Mr. Rather’s diligence. By way of contrast, the reporters for the other networks and many of the print journalists were in and out of my office all the time. Some had regular appointments to come in just before their filing deadlines to check their facts. Jack Sutherland of U. S. News & World Report; Herb Kaplow, then of NBC Television news; James Gannon of The Wall Street Journal; John Osborne of The New Republic, Joe Alsop; his brother Stewart; Lou Cannon of The Washington Post, John Leaccocos; George Herman of CBS Television, for example, were my regular visitors. But not Dan Rather.
My talk with Richard Salant has found its way into the folklore about Richard Nixon and the press as an incident in which the White House staff set out to get Dan Rather fired1.
On June 8 a syndicated Washington political columnist, Marianne Means, erroneously reported that I had “paid a surprise visit on [Richard] Salant in his Manhattan office.” There, she said, “President Nixon’s principal assistant for domestic affairs demanded recently that CBS News President Richard Salant fire the network’s veteran White House correspondent because the President did not like the way he reported the news.... Ehrlichman denounced CBS reporter Dan Rather as a biased observer who sounded like ‘an arm of the Democratic National Committee’ and who ‘did not give sufficient emphasis to the President’s accomplishments.’
“Ehrlichman insisted that Salant get rid of Rather. What Salant replied privately to Ehrlichman is not quite clear....”
The New York Times, The Evening Star and The Washington Post got right on Marianne’s story. A White House aide trying to get Rather fired would be a big story.
But alas, Marianne Means’s story didn’t check out; the CBS people who were interviewed agreed that I had done no such thing. The Times said:
The report, made in a syndicated column by published in The Washington Star here today, was also denied emphatically by [CBS] network executives here.
The Post reported:
Both Ehrlichman and William Small, CBS Washington Bureau Chief, told essentially the same story of a meeting between Ehrlichman and Richard Salant, president of CBS News. Small said that Ehrlichman was “very critical” of Rather but at no time did he suggest that Rather be fired or transferred.
The Star (Marianne Means’s home paper) carried my statement in full, in the longest story of the three. Its final paragraphs said:
William Small, CBS news director in Washington, confirmed Ehrlichman’s version today after talking with Salant and Rather. Small said, “at no time did Ehrlichman ask that Rather be fired.
Within minutes of my return to Washington from New York, I was told that my secretary had a call from Dan Rather saying he wanted to come see me. Bob Haldeman and I agreed that it would be a good idea for a third person to be present, and he volunteered. He was curious as to what Rather might say.
Haldeman felt I should know if Rather had ever requested to see me for an interview or to check a story, and whether or not I had turned him down. So I had Jana Hruska check the careful records she kept. They showed that Dan Rather had never made a request to see me and been turned down. Moreover, it had been more than a year since ha’d asked to talk to me.
Rather was given an appointment, and came in. Haldeman and I talked with him for perhaps twenty minutes, during which I told him just how I had happened to talk with Salant, the question Salant had asked and just exactly what I had said in response. I told Rather I thought he was careless in what he reported on CBS, that the danger to the public was that he sounded as if he had checked his facts but that I knew he had not. I told him I was availableas I had always beenand that he could continue to feel free to call or come in to question me.
For the next two or three weeks, Rather did call or come in a couple of times a week. But in those contacts I could not help contrasting his professional ability with that of the real reporters among the White House regulars. John Osborne, for example, invariably came to an interview with such a depth of understanding of his subject that I found I could learn from him. And Osborne’s technique reminded me of some of the great old cross-examiners I used to watch in the courtrooms back home.
I had the feeling that Dan Rather was asking his obvious questions because my talk with Salant had called his bluff. He was in my office because he had to be, to satisfy CBS, not because any sense of journalistic professionalism required it.
In a few weeks Rather stopped calling, and he went back to his old way of doing things.
But as Watergate heated up in the spring of 1973, the Salant-Ehrlichman story began to appear again. One magazine article carried Rather’s version of his conversation with Haldeman and me, along with Rather’s claim that he had not “seen much of Ehrlichman at the White Housebecause Ehrlichman would not see him.”
Before long Rather was moving around the country (plugging a book he wrote with the help of a collaborator) telling interviewers that the Nixon White House had tried to get him fired. In spite of what Salant and the other CBS people had said, Rather found it to his advantage to adopt the discredited Marianne Means version of the episode, because by then, Rather had become a part of the Nixon story. His smart-aleck comments during White House press conferences had caused some professional journalists to criticize his obvious lack of objectivity. Rather’s answer was that Nixon and his people had been out to get him for years, as evidenced by the Marianne Means story.
I HADN’T REALLY thought much about Dan Rather from the time I left the White House until after I got out of prison. During that time he’d been removed from the CBS White House assignment, and I had lost track of him.
But when I signed a contract with the Mutual Broadcasting System in the summer of 1978 I went to the Chicago convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. Mutual wanted to announce my upcoming series of commentary broadcasts there, to attract the maximum press attention. On August 20 I held a press conference and talked about what I hoped to accomplish with The View from Here on Mutual. About thirty reporters and six or seven television cameras were there, among them CBS Television news.
A print journalist asked me if it was true that I’d tried to get Dan Rather fired back in 1971. So I settled back and fully told the story of Salant’s joining us at breakfast and of his question and my answer. I said I had not tried to get Rather fired; I felt then and had always felt that CBS had an absolute right to post anyone it wanted at the White House. But I also had a right to my opinion about the competence of the person the network chose. So when Salant asked me, I told him: his man Rather was slanted or lazy. Then I finished by telling about Rather’s sudden but brief diligence after my talk with Salant.
At the end of the press conference several reporters came up to the table with follow-up questions. Finally, one of them leaned over and said quietly: “I’m from CBS Television [the reporter gave me his name]. I’ve worked with Rather for years. You’re right. He’s just plain lazy.”
The questions and my answers at the press conference were carried widely. Some were about Nixon, some about the press and my new radio series; and some, of course, were about my opinion that as a White House correspondent, Dan Rather was lazy.
During this time &emdash; in fact, for two and a half years after my releaseI was on parole. At first this meant that every time I left Santa Fe I had to obtain the permission of Norman Mugleston, my parole officer. And every time I returned home from a trip I was required to call him to check in.
When I returned from Chicago I was told to come and see my parol officer for a talk. This was the first and only time I had been called on the carpet as a parolee.
“I don’t know any other way to tell you,” Mugleston began, “except to give it to you straight out.”
I couldn’t imagine what he was leading up to, but he was more troubled than I had seen him before. “You had a press conference in Chicago three days ago.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Evidently it was very controversial.” Mugleston leafed through some notes, then looked up at me.
“No, not really,” I said.
“Well, I haven’t read the transcript, nor do I intend to,” he began.
“I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one,” I interrupted. “In any case, what does what I said in Chicago have to do with my parole?”
“The Parol Commission would be concerned if the travel which they permit youlike this trip to Chicagoinvolved conduct on your part which led to lawsuits. That kind of thing could be bad for your psychefor your rehabilitation,” Mugleston explained.
“Did you make some charges against Dan Rather?” he asked. “He is complaining that you made false charges against him while you were on permitted travel in Chicago.”
“Well”I shook my head“first, the answers I gave to the question about Rather were completely true. In fact, a colleague of his was there and agreed with what I said about him.” I then told Mugleston about my chance meeting with Richard Salant nine years earlier and the substance of our conversation.
“As your parole officer, I would be very concerned if you became controversial,” Mugleston said.
“Look, Norm, whatever I say or do is bound to be controversial. I’ve just signed a contract to be a radio commentator, and I’ll be saying my opinion on the radio everyday. And if someone asks me a question, I can’t do less than answer it truthfully. What brought up all of this? Where does it come from?”
“Mr. Rather called the Parole Commission in Washington, D.C. They referred him to my boss and then Rather called me. I talked to him for quite a while.”
“What does he want of you?” I asked. “Is he trying to get my parole revoked or is he merely interested in shutting me up?” I recalled with irony Rather’s claim that I had tried to make trouble for him in 1971.
“Mr. Rather did not threaten you.”
“Well, you have to admit there is a bit of coercion in all of this when you, in your official capacity as United States Parole Officer, call in one of your parolees and tell him that you are concerned about his conduct in criticizing Dan Rather. I think perhaps the chairman of the U.S. Parole Commission should write me a letter saying what limitations there are on my conducton my right to speakon what I can and can’t say about Dan Rather, or anything else.”
Mugleston backed off a little. “The chairman is not involved in this.”
“Well, whoever is involved, I’m feeling threatened; obviously, Rather called the Commission and then your boss and then you to make trouble for me. He’s trying to shut me up, and he’s using his clout with you and the rest of the Government to threaten me. What do you suggest I do?”” I asked.
“You can do whatever you wish,” he replied defensively. “I want you to understand that I do not intend to threaten you.”
I told Mugleston I was upset because all my past dealings with him had been so satisfactory. It sounded as if he were letting Rather use him, and that bothered me. In any case, he could tell the Parole Commission or Rather or anyone else that unless my lawyer advised me otherwise, I intended to answer questions about Rather or any other subject as forthrightly and truthfully as I knew how, whatever the consequences.
Nothing more was heard from Rather, CBS or the U. S. Parole Commission about my voicing my dissatisfaction with Rather’s past journalistic diligence or fairness.
But Tom Brokaw came to Santa Fe in the spring of 1979, about six months after the Rather-to-Mugleston episode. I taped an interview with Brokaw for the Today show (plugging my second novel, The Whole Truth, which had just been published), and then my wife Christy McLaurine, Brokaw and I went to dinner. Brokaw had been NBC’s White House correspondent, in competition with Dan Rather, during some of the time I worked there. Tom and I reminisced some at dinner about those days and the people we had known, so I brought up Rather and told Brokaw of the CBS man who had come up to me after the Chicago press conference to corroborate what I’d said about Dan’s laziness.
Brokaw nodded. “CBS approached me,” he said. In 1971 CBS had decided to let Dan “move one” and had offered Brokaw a substantial sum to move over from NBC to cover the White House for CBS, in Rather’s place.
Probably my comments to Salant saved Rather’s job for him, as I now put the facts together. The
CBS executives could not appear to be knuckling under to White House criticism, so once I’d
spoken to Salant, they couldn’t move Brokaw in and Rather out, whatever they thought of