Chuck Colson dies and the free press is ailing…

April 22, 2012

Well first this week it was Dick Clark of American Bandstand fame, and now Chuck Colson, of Watergate fame is dead. Two totally different stories of course.

But just as Dick Clark was a seminal part of my growing up, so was Colson. Well not really Colson himself, but the Watergate scandal he was involved in. Actually I was grown up when it occurred. But I was just out of the Army and beginning my so-called career in journalism. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story about Watergate that eventually brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

That was back in the days when there was something called journalism, not just “media”, and when students still majored in “journalism“, not “communication”  or whatever name they have given it now (there used to be something called “publicity”, which reporters got into to make more money, kind of like prostitution).

Their efforts were made famous in the book and movie “All the President’s Men”. Of course reporters from the New York Times and other outfits did a lot (even more, perhaps) to tell the whole sordid story of Watergate too. It was about a presidency and re-election campaign gone way out of control, with Nixon using the power of his office and the government to stifle or intimidate political opponents or anyone who he or his staff thought might threaten his power.

I did not decide on journalism because of Woodward and Bernstein, though. Actually I thought it might be easier than work at the wood products mill and more suited to my talents or abilities. But that summer of the Watergate hearings, the summer before I entered into the actual workaday field of journalism, I was working in sugar beet and bean fields moving irrigation pipe — I had left the mill job. But every chance I got I listened with rapt attention the live broadcasts of the Watergate hearings. And I knew that something had gone terribly wrong with our democracy but the power of the press had been used in a good way and had set in motion the wheels of government oversight to set things right. And after I had become a newspaper reporter, I recall watching what I considered one of the most historic things I had ever seen — the President of the United States announcing his resignation of nationwide TV. I actually took a picture of the TV tube (I think at a 30th of a second shutter speed), just for my own remembrance (don’t know if I still have it).

Colson did prison time and then found God — that’s the nice thing about sinning, you can always later find God, or at least claim you did — I’m not sure how falsely claiming it will work at the pearly gates, though. Colson may have really been repentant or he may have just been sorry he got caught. I don’t know. Never paid much attention to him.

Nixon was able to regain some of his stature and reputation after time, not all of it. Ironically, I think he was an extremely able politician and leader, but he had a major character flaw (to say the least). And if he had just owned up to Watergate in the beginning I feel certain he would have gotten away with it, but covering up bad activity is sometimes as bad or worse than the actual bad activity and increases exposure to jail time — just ask Martha Stewart.

But anyway, when I watched the movie, “All the Presidents’ Men”, there they were, Woodward and Bernstein (well of course Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing them) hunting and pecking away at their manual typewriters. I never hunted and pecked. I at least used a my modified touch typing method, based on that taught in school, but I used manual typewriters for years. I thought it great that at the little paper where I worked at the time we were no further behind in that score than the Washington Post (my time frame is a little messed up in that the actual Watergate scandal pre-dated my entry into journalism a little bit, I think, but I saw the movie after going to work at a paper).

I often note (to anyone who might care) that newspaper newsrooms moved from manual typewriters to computers, while other offices had already been at least using electric typewriters for years or decades. Once when I was covering the local county board of supervisors meeting during a yearly budget session, the sheriff requested an electric typewriter for jail bookings. When asked by one of the supervisors why they could not just keep using the manual one since it would only be used by deputies not clerical personnel, the sheriff said he did not want to make his deputies labor at those manual typewriters — and you can just picture a deputy or jailer booking someone, hunting and pecking away, like on the old Barney Miller TV Show. I was nearly incredulous. I mean I knew I was headed back to my office to type out my story and many others on an old Royal manual typewriter. But hey, you know, they’re county workers, they get better pensions too.

And back to Chuck Colson and Watergate. Politics is dirty. Always has been. Always will be. And where there are elections (and even where there are not) there is politics — you just can’t take the politics out of politics. Colson and the others probably for the most part did little worse than had been done before and is still being done — except, I think in Watergate President Nixon and his henchmen did cross the line, using the power of government, such as through IRS harassment, and even the disruption of free elections, to thwart our democracy. They thought that because they felt they were supporting the right cause the ends justified the means. That thinking still often prevails today. Actually, it’s really scary. We even have people implying that we ought to do away (and I’m using a euphemism) with our current president (and you can’t get me to believe there isn’t some racism there). Colson is dead. Dirty politics will never die.

P.s.

Watergate made me feel good about the role of the free press in a free society. I was not too surprised to learn that in the small time newspaper owners were not so keen on investigative reporting, especially if it involved advertisers. But I have been saddened that with the advance of technology and competition in news reporting from the internet and the decline of newspaper advertising, the bean counters have taken over much of the larger segment of the free press. There is not as much money or enthusiasm to do real reporting — it’s more like who can be first with the tweet with the most banal comments. On the other hand, with the ability to instantly disseminate information worldwide and the pervasiveness of texting and You Tube and so on, it’s hard for anyone to get away with anything.


Local reporter fails to get Watergate fame…

December 19, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

The death of Deep Throat of Watergate fame brings me back to the time I was assigned to what you might call an investigative journalism piece. It did not bring me fame as it did Woodward and Bernstein, instead it piled on to the frustrations that would bedevil me throughout what I always refer to as my “so-called career in journalism”.

Before I reminisce more, I’ll update anyone who did not take note that it was reported today that Mark Felt who was the former FBI agent and the legendary Deep Throat of Watergate fame has died at the age of 95. Felt was the secret inside source that provided the Washington Post investigative duo of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with so much invaluable info for news stories broke by their newspaper the Washington Post which led to coverage by other news outlets that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon as president of the United States.

During my years as a newspaper reporter I did little to no actual investigative reporting. There was little time and nearly no interest at the outfits where I worked. The closest I ever came was a story I tried to do on a controversy involving a drowned boy, an ambulance driver/deputy coroner/real estate agent (who advertised heavily with our newspaper and threatened to sue it and me if we mentioned his name, on what grounds, I don’t know), and the fact that the boy was not taken immediately to the hospital, and that then he was eventually revived, but died later.

It was quite a story, but we never published more than the minimal details of the immediate incident – no investigative piece.

I was assigned by my editor to look deeper into the matter and I did. Actually, beside the fact that the ambulance driver decided not to take the boy immediately to the hospital, pronouncing him dead at the scene, and then instead stopped and talked to witnesses in order to fill out his coroner’s report, I found nothing too startling, although I guess all that was startling enough.

My investigation was done, as I recall, basically on my own time, in addition to my normal news beat duties, although, since I had a fairly free hand on how I conducted my work, it would be hard to differentiate between normal job time and my own time. I don’t recall I was paid overtime, though.

Except for a weekend drive by, I don’t recall that I did much touring of the actual scene of the incident. But I did make a lot of phone calls and I did do an interview over at the Sheriff’s Department.

I do distinctly remember receiving the phone call from that ambulance driver, who was also the deputy coroner and a real estate salesman, who ran a long list of classified ads in our paper each day.

“If you use my name in your story I’ll sue you and the newspaper,” he gruffly warned me over the phone.

While I was assured by both the editor and the general manager of the newspaper that his threat would not interfere with our reportage, such was not the case.

When I finally submitted my story, the editor told me he would have to first submit it in turn to the general manager (this had never happened before). He did. We kept waiting for the big man’s decision. It never came, or maybe in reality I should say it did come. The result was the story never saw the light of day. I left that job in disgust a month or more after doing that story, not just over that, but many other things.

Sometime after I left, they published an editorial that claimed the newspaper had done an exhaustive investigation on the drowning incident and had concluded there was no wrongdoing. Not only was my aborted story not an exhaustive investigation, I must admit, but the newspaper did not bother to share with the readers what they supposedly found other than, no story here folks, let’s move along.

After being away from town for several years, I came back and served for awhile as a radio reporter. New on the beat, I introduced myself to a honcho at the Sheriff’s Department, one I had interviewed on the drowning story. Either he had a bad memory, a strange sense of humor, or I just don’t make that much of an impression on folks, but he proceeded to let me know something:

“We have a pretty good relationship with the press here, an understanding. A few years ago we had a story about a drowning that was too hot to handle. I lived next to the general manager of the newspaper and we agreed to have the story killed.”


We don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore

July 28, 2008

(copyright)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

It’s often said that everyone remembers where he or she was when Kennedy was shot or on 9/11.

I do, certainly, but I also remember my car radio being on during the Watergate hearings that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. And I remember sitting in the living room and watching Nixon give his resignation speech.

I was never a Nixon fan, but have come to at least understand something more about him through the years. And those two events trigger memories in my mind that have nothing to do with him, but instead my own life and its events, but I don’t want to go into that, except to say that maybe it reminds me of the beginnings of an adult life I have lived that had no real planning. Nixon, on the other hand, was a man with a plan, win elections at all costs and get power. He did that, then was forced to give up the power, lost his prestige for awhile, and then gained it back, at least to some extent, before he died.

What brought this to mind, was that I checked out a DVD of an A&E Biography episode of Richard Nixon from the library the other day. It was a reasonably good summary of his life, telling some of the good and some of the bad. I guess you could say he was kind of like that girl in the nursery rhyme, when he was good, he was, well, pretty good, and when he was bad, he was very, very, bad.

Actually, I followed most of Nixon’s political career from the time I was just a little tyke and he was vice president of the United States, through it all, including his humiliatingly unsuccessful run for governor of California, the one in which he made the cry baby ending with “you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” The biography piece made me understand his sentiments a little bit (no one, especially the press, liked him or gave him an even break). Far from ending his political career, as many thought at the time, it actually may have helped it. From then on anyone who was suspicious of what they felt was an elitist, too liberal media, could identify with pull-yourself-up from- your-own-bootstraps Dick Nixon. He was the hard-working young man, son of equally hard-working, self-supporting parents, who had their own small business. He was among the top in his class, but could not afford to go to Harvard, even though he received a scholarship – living expenses would be too much.

He lost one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history to Jack Kennedy, who was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth and never had to work at a real job (had the handy trust fund), and was handsome to boot.

But both Nixon and Kennedy served in the U.S. Congress together and probably had more in common than not – they were reportedly even friends. They were both World War II veterans, both having served in the Pacific theater. While Nixon served ably as a supply officer, Kennedy commanded a PT boat and may have turned a mishap into a heroic adventure (thanks to the influence of his father) chronicled in print and film, PT 109. Some say it was pure bravery and others just a screw up.

I was too young to have known about Nixon when he was running for congress and then the U.S. Senate. I know he made his reputation as a communist baiter, accusing opponents of being either communists or communist sympathizers. He of course gained fame in the Alger Hiss case, going after a state department employee with accusations of communist espionage. Hiss did eventually do some time on perjury charges. I always heard the story of how he tarred Democratic opponent Helen Douglas in a race for the U.S. Senate as a communist sympathizer. Come to find out, what was left out, is that some in her own party had tagged her with being a communist sympathizer in the primary. Nixon picked up on that tactic and ran with it.

I watched the Kennedy-Nixon debates, but the only thing I really remember is that both seemed to pretty much say the same thing, and they vowed to defend the islands of Quemoy and Matsu against the Red Chinese. Kennedy was more handsome, folks thought (and Nixon was pale from a bout of flu or something). And Kennedy was a smoother talker. But Nixon could give a fairly good political speech and debate performance himself (in fact it is said that listeners on radio thought he won the debates).

And even earlier than that, I now recall, I saw him go toe to toe with the Soviet Union’s Khrushchev in the famous Kitchen Debate. He certainly got the best of that, grinning, country-bumpkin looking fat man, I always thought.

I was unhappy with Nixon over how he drug out the Vietnam War after promising to end it. But in reality I thought he pulled off one of the best tactics in that war and I’ve never seen it get the recognition it should have received. He ordered the mining of North Viet Nam’s major port, Haiphong Harbor. Just as in Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russian supply ships turned around. Nixon proved once again that when you stand up to the Russians, they will blink. Had Lyndon Johnson used and stuck with such tactics, Vietnam, as awful a mistake as it was, might have turned out better. As for Nixon’s infamous incursion into Cambodia, I don’t know. In a war, you have to go after the enemy where you find them (Barack Obama has talked of going into Pakistan).

Nixon never cared for domestic affairs. He loved the world stage, always playing the part of a statesman. He could have contested the razor close and suspicious election of 1960, but thought it best for the nation not to.

His downfall was the Watergate break-in. Seems to me he should have just faced it, blamed it on over-zealous supporters, and put it behind him. I think the story would never have gained legs had it not been for the cover-up, which the secret tapes proved he directed.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton should have resigned out of respect for the office over the Lewinsky affair.

And George W. Bush has managed to make the United States look evil and indifferent to world opinion and at the same time incompetent. Bush has as much as said that he cares not what others think. He is simply the “Decider.”

In today’s atmosphere, Nixon wouldn’t even of had to have resigned. Sure everyone, even his own party and many of his once admirers were fed up with him. But, look at George W. Bush, he just gives a silly smile and presses on, knowing that he can leave his mess to his successor, in what may well be the final revenge on the Democrats and the nation itself for its lack of respect for the “Decider.”

During Nixon’s time, the Republicans, the Party of Lincoln, who freed the slaves, came up with the cynical Southern Strategy of appealing to bigotry, racism and white backlash to replace the Southern Democrats. But Nixon also presided over the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

He fostered better relations with the old Soviet Union and went to Communist China to open diplomatic relations with that nation.

On the down side, Nixon did set the precedent for the presidency as a dictatorship.

The current Bush has outdone him. Bush openly defies the Constitution with his signing statements that proclaim he does not have to follow laws he does not agree with. Bush has presided over an administration that uses warrantless searches, spies on citizens, and throws people into jail without trial or even habeas corpus.

There was a time toward the premature end of the Nixon presidency that some feared he would use the ongoing Vietnam War as an excuse to declare martial law. But even Nixon backed down when he saw the handwriting on the wall and more importantly when some influential lawmakers from his own party visited him in private.

Nixon wrongly used his executive powers to investigate his enemies, sometimes sicking the IRS on them (whether others ever did such things, I don’t know).

Nixon was a loner, dark, and devious, and more of a statesman than the past two presidents could have ever hoped to have been.