Absolutely No Sense of Humor
By Ken Hughes
Ken Hughes is an Arlington, Virginia-based writer.
The final Watergate tapes released by the National Archives reveal that Richard Nixon refused to let the enormous burdens of the presidency distract him from an important personal project — harassing the Los Angeles Times.
The tapes confirm the view of historians and contemporary observers that Nixon took a hands-on, detail-
oriented approach to tormenting people he disliked. In a single day, October 7, 1971, Nixon ordered Attorney General John Mitchell to have the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raid the Times for illegal aliens, directed Mitchell to check whether Times Publisher Otis Chandler's gardener was a "wetback" and told Mitchell he had ordered Treasury Secretary John Connally to have the IRS investigate every member of Chandler's family.
Not coincidentally, the Times had run a story the day before on an INS raid that nabbed 36 suspected illegal aliens at a company owned by Romana Banuelos, Nixon's nominee for Treasurer of the United States.
Following that story, Nixon, a champion of strict law enforcement, leapt into action — against INS District Director George Rosenberg, who had enforced the immigration laws against Banuelos' employees. Nixon called Rosenberg's boss, the U.S. attorney general:
Nixon: The fellow out there in the Immigration Service..is a kike by the name of Rosenberg. He is to be out. He is to be out. Transfer him to some other place out of Los Angeles. I don't give a goddamn what the story is.
Rosenberg's job security had come to an end, but not Nixon's tantrum:
Nixon: There's one thing that I want done and I don't want any argument about it. I want you to direct the most trusted person you have in the Immigration Service that they are to look over all of the activities of the Los Angeles Times — all, underlined. And they are to send their teams in to see whether they are violating the wetback thing.
Now let me explain, 'cause as a Californian, I know. Everybody in California hires them. There's no law against it, because they are there, because — for menial things and so forth. Otis Chandler — I want him checked with regard to his gardener. I understand he's a wetback. Is that clear?
Mitchell: Yes, sir.
The alert reader might notice that Nixon used the "wetback" slur while angry over criticism of a Latina nominee. Nixon was a man of great sensitivity — to criticism if not to irony.
Later that day, Nixon told Mitchell: "We're going after the Chandlers, every one, individually, collectively, their income tax. They're starting this week. Every one of those sons of bitches."
Nixon was notorious for responding badly to press criticism, but generally not this badly. The Los Angeles Times was special. Nixon had begun his career as a protégé of Times Political Editor Kyle Palmer. As David Halberstam wrote in "The Powers That Be," Palmer "nurtured, protected and tutored" Nixon almost like a son.
The Times often printed stories that made Nixon seem heroic and ignored unflattering facts. When the existence of a Nixon "slush fund" threatened his vice presidential candidacy in 1952, for example, the Times did not cover the biggest story in the country for two days. The first Times article to mention the scandal was devoted to Nixon's denial of the accusations against him: "SEN. NIXON'S DEFIANCE OF SMEAR HAILED."
But the Times had changed by the time Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962.
Chandler had become the publisher, and he decided to give Nixon and his Democratic opponent equal coverage. Instead of just printing Nixon's accusations, Times reporters asked him for facts to back them up.
When Nixon said he was running for "governor of the United States," the Times printed the slip, reminding voters that Nixon wanted the governor's job as a stepping stone to the White House.
Taken all together, the changes in the Times' coverage gave Nixon reason to feel he was being treated like nothing more than a candidate for public office. He was deeply offended.
During Nixon's angry "last press conference" following his defeat, he lashed out at the Times for reporting the "governor of the United States" gaffe. He then spent years living down that press conference, presenting himself as a calm, mature "New Nixon" who had risen above petty recrimination. The New Nixon got elected, but the Old Nixon governed.
"I want to go after this goddamn Los Angeles Times," Nixon told his assistant, H.R. Haldeman. "I want the whole goddamn bunch gone after."
Nixon's desire for revenge apparently went unsatisfied. There was no unusual IRS activity regarding Chandler family members and no immigration raid on the Times, according to Chandler. "I don't think that any of those things that he asked for on those tapes ever transpired," says Chandler, who retired as the Times' publisher in 1980 and now sits on the Times Mirror board of directors. "I guess cooler heads prevailed."
But Haldeman had assured Nixon that the administration would pester the Chandlers. "Mitchell says they're going after them with a special task force," Haldeman said on October 11, 1971. "We'll just harass them."
"I love that," Nixon replied.