The Missing Honeymoon
From the earliest days of the new administration, it was clear that there would be no peace between the staff of President Richard Nixon and the Washingtonbased news media. Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler claimed later that press relations were normal, even cordial, in those first few months in 1969, but it is obvious that no other president had entered the White House determined to go to war immediately with the news media and correspondents. If relations were normal, they were so only on the surface, and even that tentative congeniality would be gone by November 1969. Every previous American chief executive who took office in the twentieth century found that handling the press was a most difficult task, but each at first attempted to pacify the journalists, whose words could greatly affect public perceptions. Even Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who regarded reporters as nuisances, proffered conciliatory gestures and some modest concessions upon taking office. Usually, this was at the behest of the press secretary, who himself had been a reporter and who understood that news flow was a two-way street where the president had to provide information and answers in order to promote programs and ideas.
Fluctuations in the relationship between correspondents and White House staff started before Nixon took office. During the Lyndon Johnson administration of 1963–1969, a change of press secretary every year and the dissemination of deceptive information about the Vietnam War strained relations, altering the correspondents’ perceptions of the press office and the White House. Unlike Nixon, though, Johnson spoke frequently with reporters. The problems resulted not necessarily from truculence or silence, but from Johnson’s heavy-handed tactics and overbearing manner. This, coupled with reporters’ negative stories about Vietnam, brought friction and mutual mistrust, but a modicum of civility still existed.