RON ZIEGLER'S great contributions to America were to his country's political vocabulary. As Richard Nixon's press spokesman, it fell early on to him to describe the Watergate break-in as "a third-rate burglary". He is also credited with coining the term "inoperative" for later statements on the scandal that subsequently proved wrong.
In fact, transcripts show he never used the word. After one administration volte-face on Watergate, he declared, "This is the operative statement." A reporter asked if all earlier statements on the subject were therefore "inoperative". To which Ziegler replied in his laconic fashion, "Yes." A political catchphrase had been born, to be heard to this day.
Ronald Ziegler was one of the California-based advertising executives with German-sounding names with whom Nixon loved to surround himself. He first hooked up with the future President as a student at the University of Southern California, after his parents had moved to Los Angeles from Kentucky. In 1962 he went to work for H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, later Nixon's chief of staff, at the LA office of J. Walter Thompson.
At the White House, Haldeman and Nixon's chief domestic adviser John Ehrlichman were known as "the Berlin Wall" for the protective guard they threw around the President. But Ziegler's dogged defence of Nixon as the scandal deepened made him at least a brick in that wall.
At a baby-faced 29, Ziegler was the youngest ever presidential spokesman when he went to Washington in January 1969. But only after the fateful break-in by Nixon campaign operatives at the Democratic Party headquarters on 17 June 1972 did he become a celebrity, as the "third-rate burglary" mushroomed into the biggest political scandal in modern American history.
For many months he gave as good as he got, describing the legendary sleuthing of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post as "shabby journalism" and "a blatant effort at character assassination". But on 1 May came the first contrition, when he publicly apologised to the reporters and their newspaper the day after Ehrlichman and Haldeman had been forced by Nixon to resign. "When we are wrong, we …