I remember this day 40 years ago so clearly. The whole nation was expecting Richard Nixon’s resignation. But it took me by surprise.
As a student journalist, I followed with fascination the biggest story of my college days, the Watergate scandal that was engulfing the presidency of Richard Nixon. A House committee was considering impeachment and I was fascinated and eager to see how it all worked out. Then I missed the conclusion.
Mimi and I married on Saturday, Aug. 3, 1974. These days many honeymoons come weeks or months after the wedding, but we headed north for a cabin in Minnesota just a few hours after the wedding. The Monday of our honeymoon, the “smoking gun tape” was released, proving Nixon’s deep involvement in the cover-up. Well, my bride and I weren’t paying attention to the news that day.
In fact, we didn’t pay any attention to the news at all for the next few days. We enjoyed our rustic cabin and the beautiful lake. We didn’t have a TV in the cabin and we didn’t go to town for a newspaper. And this was two decades before the Internet was an option. My bride didn’t need to tear the cellphone out of my hand to unplug for a few days (though that has happened a few times since).
Finally on Thursday, Aug. 8, we decided to surface and go to the lodge nearby for dinner and a game of pool. As we were playing pool, a TV played in the background, but we paid little attention. Until we heard John Chancellor say something about the “Ford administration.” (Mimi recalls that she heard Chancellor and that I slammed my pool cue on the table, saying something unkind about Nixon, after she told me. The pool-cue memory is probably accurate, but I’m not sure you can trust all her details 40 years later.)
I took it very personally that Tricky Dick had resigned when I wasn’t even looking. We, of course, scrambled to catch up, buying the Minneapolis Tribune (above) and Duluth Herald (below). Hard to believe this was 40 years ago, but we just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary, of course.
When we got back to Iowa, I was pleased to find that my parents had saved a copy of the Des Moines Register for me:
Observations on those 40-year-old front pages:
Damn, 8-column pages were huge!
The Tribune’s banner headline, “President resigns,” is weaker than the Des Moines and Duluth headline, “NIXON RESIGNS,” both because the Trib used the title, rather than the name, and because the Register and News-Tribune used all-caps.
I wondered first whether the Tribune was the old afternoon paper, which would have had second crack at the story (but would not likely have been delivered to northern Minnesota, where we were honeymooning). But I quickly confirmed my memory that the Tribune was Minneapolis’ morning paper and the Star was the evening paper. (They merged in 1982, becoming the Star Tribune.) I can see a “President resigns” headline in an evening paper if the morning paper had “Nixon resigns.” But I can’t understand why you’d go that way with the morning headline.
The Tribune and the Register gave the whole front page over to the resignation, while Duluth had two local stories and an international wire story on the cover. Bad call by Duluth. I don’t care if your emphasis is local news. When a story dominates conversation and attention the way this one did in every community, give it the attention it deserves, the full front page. The Tribune apparently bumped from the cover that day’s installment of a series on juvenile justice, which had to settle for a reefer to the story on Page 13A.
One thing that stands out today about those Minneapolis and Des Moines front pages is the number of staff Washington correspondents covering the story: Jim Risser, George Anthan and Richard Wilson for the Register and Frank Wright and Finlay Lewis for the Tribune. I joined the Register a little over three years later. Wilson, who started the Register’s Washington Bureau in 1933 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1954, had retired in 1970 but still wrote a syndicated column. His 1974 byline on that historic day identified him as a Register Washington correspondent. I’m presuming that he could contribute when he felt like it and who wouldn’t feel like it on that day? Wilson’s column ran on the editorial page and he also wrote an analysis for Page One.
Jim and George were in the Register’s Washington bureau for my whole first hitch with the Register, 1977 to 1985 (Jim left the same day I did in ’85 to lead the Knight Fellowship program at Stanford). I remember at least three other Washington correspondents at that time, plus columnist Donald Kaul, who worked out of the Washington Bureau. I don’t think they all worked there at the same time, but I think it’s safe to say we had at least five people in the Washington Bureau for most, if not all, of my first hitch at the Register. It might have been more, especially if you counted Wilson, in 1974.
When I worked at the Register, we had a close (but sometimes competitive) relationship with the Star and Tribune. The Des Moines and Minneapolis newspapers were owned by different branches of the Cowles family and were close but competitive like family members are. The Minneapolis Washington Bureau was bigger than the Des Moines bureau (or so we heard frequently in Des Moines). I’m not sure about the Minneapolis staffing, but no one covered the White House regularly for the Register (they primarily covered agriculture and the Iowa congressional delegation). But our people were credentialed and jumped in to cover big stories. And this was one of the biggest.
The Register’s Washington bureau dwindled over the years and finally was folded into the Gannett Washington bureau. The Star Tribune has only one Washington correspondent, Jim Spencer.
The Register used file mugs of both the incoming and outgoing presidents. The Tribune used a photo of Nixon giving his resignation speech on television and a photo of Ford speaking earlier in the day. Both were better choices than the News-Tribune’s local photo of local people watching the announcement on televisions in a department store. The only images of Nixon on the front page were tiny talking heads on the TVs. The local photo would have been fine below the fold (there is no art below the fold, and, as I’ve already noted, local stories that didn’t belong). That “NIXON RESIGNS” headline demanded a Nixon photo.
The only whole paper that I saved was the Register, and it has a full page of Nixon photos inside and a half-page of Ford pictures, all from the archives. The only fresh photo the Register had of either man was a back-page official White House picture of Nixon hugging his daughter, Julie Eisenhower, after telling the family of his decision.
The famous photo of Nixon waving as he boarded the helicopter to leave the White House didn’t come until the next day.
My favorite art was not a photo, but Frank Miller cartoons through the years, a half-page display of eight cartoons on Page 7 and then two more — a fresh one and a 12-year-old cartoon that was timely again — on Page 10 with the text of Nixon’s resignation speech. Frank was a great cartoonist and Nixon gave him a lot of material.
Jim Risser had the best lead of the three people writing the lead stories, straightforward and clear, just 14 words. That’s not surprising. Jim, a two-time Pulitzer winner, needed less editing than any reporter I ever edited. He shared the byline here with George Anthan, a great reporter. But I’m sure that was Jim’s lead:
Wright’s lead for the Tribune was more labored. While I prefer Risser’s simple lead, I’m OK with the last part here, noting how quickly Nixon’s presidency changed directions. But the “irresistible blight” was overwriting and ignored how long Nixon did resist the blight.
Especially when writing leads, more is not better. Jim’s lead at 14 words was stronger than Wright’s at 28 or Broom’s at 26. I’m guilty of writing long leads sometimes, too. I rewrote the lead on this post after writing this section. It’s easier to spot the too-long lead by someone else.
The Tribune had the strongest front-page local story, a Robert Franklin interview with a Twin Cities Watergate figure, Kenneth Dahlberg. If you’ve read the book or watched the movie “All the President’s Men,” you may remember that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were trying to find out why a $25,000 cashier’s check from him ended up in the bank account of Bernard Barker, one of the Watergate burglars. Dahlberg was a Nixon fund-raiser. Woodward (played by Robert Redford in the movie), called Dahlberg and asked him about the check. Dahlberg said he handed the money over to Maurice Stans (former Commerce Secretary, who was finance chairman of Nixon’s re-election effort). Dahlberg told Woodward/Redford, “I’ve just been through a terrible ordeal! My neighbor’s wife has been kidnapped!” (which was true).
Dahlberg also came up in the “smoking gun” tape. White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, told Nixon about the Dahlberg check and Nixon asked, “Who in the hell is Ken Dahlberg?”
That was a great local angle to pursue for the Tribune and a worthy front-page story. I love this quote in the Franklin story, explaining why Dahlberg worked for Nixon’s re-election: “I kind of had the idea, right or wrong, that if McGovern was president I might see what’s his name — William Kunstler — as attorney general and Jane Fonda as secretary of state.” (Conservatives trying to scare each other about liberals is not a new feature in American politics.)
The local story in the News-Tribune is just dreadful. It carries no byline so I can’t blame the writer by name. It may be the worst “man-in-the-street” story ever written in reaction to a historic event. The first 13 paragraphs quote a guy who would vote for Nixon again. I’m not saying that guy shouldn’t be in the story, but to give him more than half the story before the jump was nuts. A reaction story should convey a variety of views, not give one person that much space. If he was representative of most of the reaction, which I doubt, it’s OK to lead with him. But move on to someone else. Kenneth Dahlberg is worth several quotes (he got eight from the Tribune). This 21-year-old student got seven quotes. Atrocious news judgment by the reporter and the editors.
And the student was the only person named in the story. Other people quoted are “one downtown shopper,” “a dental assistant,” “a saleslady,” “another shopper” and so on. A similar story didn’t quote anyone by name. A local reaction story needs names. This story shouldn’t have been published, much less on the front page.
We sometimes romanticize the good, old days of newspapers, especially now when the whole industry seems endangered. And this was a great time for journalism, when the Washington Post helped bring down a corrupt president. But when you take a close look at old newspapers, you find yourself cringing pretty often, too.
If the journalists responsible for this were identified, I’d Google them to try to contact them and get some reaction. If you know someone from the News-Tribune at the time, please tell them I’d welcome a response, if they were involved or can shed some light.
The Register handled its local stories just right. None was good enough to merit the front page, so the editors didn’t force a local story on Page One (though a brief noted that Ford would be visiting the next month). Cover stories are all on important topics: A look at Ford’s record from Congressional Quarterly (the same story was on the Tribune front page); a wire news story on Ford’s press conference after Nixon’s speech (I’ll bet photos from that press conference ran in metro editions of both the Register and Tribune; the events unfolded right on deadline for the early editions of both papers that I got); a wire story with Special Watergate Prosecutor Leon Jaworski saying he had no immunity agreement with Nixon.
The local stories inside were good, though, and the bylines brought back a lot of memories: Excellent journalists I worked with for many years:
- Gene Raffensperger wrote a story on Nixon’s time stationed in Ottumwa, Iowa, in the Navy for eight months during World War II. (Yeah, I know, a navy station in Iowa.) Raff was a Register legend who served as city editor and sports editor. But he was best known for his quest as a reporter to reach every county courthouse in Iowa. But a mere toe-touch in the courthouse would not be enough. Raff’s ambition was to use the restroom facilities in every courthouse in Iowa, which has 99 counties. A colleague developed a map to chart Raff’s quest. I believe he retired without reaching his goal, but he certainly entertained us along the way.
- Jerry Szumski wrote a sidebar, with remembrances from Ottumwa neighbors and an image from the 1943 Ottumwa city directory, recording Richard and Pat Nixon as residents (she was a teller at Union Bank and Trust). I was Jerry’s editor a few years later and played softball with him for several years. We’re Facebook friends today.
- Chuck Offenburger, who hired me to my first journalism job at the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1971 and moved to the Register the next year, wrote a story for Page 12 about the reaction in the little town of Henderson, Iowa. I’m pleased to report that Chuck quoted people by name. Chuck was named the Register’s “Iowa Boy” reporter a few years later and became one of the most beloved and recognized people in Iowa. He’s now an Internet entrepreneur and we remain friends. He invited Mimi and me to participate (and we did) at a Writers’ Jubilee for last year’s Shenfest back in Shenandoah.
An unnecessary “keeper” typo
Sometimes the big typos will sneak by copy editors who catch every stray comma in the body type. This front page was displayed for decades in the elevator lobby on the fourth floor of the Register’s old downtown Des Moines building. I don’t think I ever passed it without a smile about the “specal section” promo. I didn’t smile smugly, but with that-could-have-been-me sympathy for whatever copy editor(s) wrote the reefer and proofed the front page. Journalists know when we are working on historic front pages that will be “keepers,” stored away for decades as I’ve done with these. We want everything to be perfect. And when an error happens in big type, it stands out for decades as a reminder of our imperfection. We had no spellcheck back then, just sharp-eyed editors. And even sharp-eyed editors let one slip past now and then. (BTW, I just rechecked my headline for this post, in case anyone checks it in 10 years. And Mimi caught several of my typos.)
What’s especially unfortunate is that it wasn’t really a special section. In newspaper jargon, a section comes off the press folded all together, separate from the rest of the paper. But the extra coverage of the Nixon resignation was inside the A section. And it wasn’t just six pages. The back 10 pages of the 14-page A section were dedicated to Nixon-Ford coverage.
Other Nixon-resignation front pages?
Did you save a Nixon-resignation front page? I welcome you to share it here, with or without your commentary.
David Lewis commented below and I asked him to share photos, so he emailed them with this further comment:
In the summer of ’74 at the Register, I was on the “corporate staff” at the Register, along with Jim Hopson and Charlie Edwards. We analyzed and managed various projects for the top execs (like I headed up the conversion in classified to a front-end system that allowed us to take ads on computers!). I knew Norm Rosenberg well, and on the 9th, I persuaded him to let me have a couple of the lead stereo plates. I think each side of the cylinder plate weighs around 70#. But when put together, they make somewhat of a circle and inspire interesting conversations with a plant between them.
No journalist of our era could ever forget the coverage and impact of Nixon and Watergate on our lives.
Oh, as you can see, I’m still enjoying the business. (I used to refer to my job as being in the “newspaper business,” but like the term instead that I am in the “content engagement business.”)
David A. Lewis,
Group Publisher, Wick Communications