Water Man Spouts

Sunday, May 13, 2007


"The letter-writing campaigns generated by the White House were designated to give the impression to the recipients of the letters of a broad base of support for positions advocated by President Nixon, while the letters also served as a vehicle for publicizing the Administration’s position on various matters." – The Senate Watergate Report; Chapter III: Use of the Incumbency – Responsiveness Program; page236.

All politicians understand the need to use the media to their best advantage. Politicians hire media advisers to help them during their campaigns and while serving in office. A large part of the media consultants’ jobs involve the high-profile things that we associate with the politician; in a campaign, for example, these include commercials, speeches, press releases, and the "spin" after debates. All of these are the professional attempts at "perception management."

Another type of media manipulation involves the organized effort to work behind the scenes, to create the image of public support for a politician, or the politician’s position on a specific issue. These efforts attempt to make the public support appear separate from the campaign headquarters or the politician’s office. Two examples would be individual’s support from the grass-roots level, or groups/organizations that are not affiliated with the politician/campaign.

Even a brief introduction to the art of media manipulation could be the stuff of a fun college course. If we were to conduct such a course at our internet hedge school, we might start with one of the more interesting examples that involves the Nixon administration. While we can all agree that this was a gang of criminals posed a serious threat to our Constitutional democracy, it is possible to learn some lessons of value by studying their operations.

H.R. Haldeman served as President Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff, and Assistant to the President. (All the President’s Men; Bernstein & Woodward; page 9) Jeb Stuart Magruder served first as Haldeman’a aide, and Deputy Director of White House Communications, then as the Deputy Campaign Director of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). (All the President’s Men; page 10) Together, they would be in charge of the media manipulation during the beginning of Nixon’s first term.

In an October 11, 1969 memo to Magruder, Haldeman wrote about the need to organize a program of "sending letters and telegrams, and making telephone calls to the senators, blasting them on their consistent opposition to the President on everything he is trying to do for the country. This program needs to be subtle and worked out well so they receive these items from their home districts as well as other points around the country." (Senate Watergate Report; Exhibit 000; page 237)

Three days later, on the bottom of a Magruder memo to Haldeman, the president’s Chief of Staff wrote, "this was an order, not a question, and I was told it was being carried out and so informed the P." The "P" is, of course, President Nixon. (ibid)

Two days later, Haldeman followed up with another memo to Magruder: "This should be reported orally – or at least in a confidential memo." (ibid) The Senate Watergate Committee identifies a number of areas that the Haldeman operation was focused on. They included attacking moderate republican senators who opposed Nixon on some issues; the three who were identified were Goodell, Percy. And Mathias. Other issues that they focused on included attempts to support Nixon’s nomination of Harold Carswell to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Nixon’s speech about the attacks in Cambodia in May, 1970.

Magruder would then seek the help of Patrick Buchanan. Senate Committee Report; interview with Magruder, 10-1-72; p.1; page 237) At the time, Buchanan was an Assistant to the President, and one of Nixon’s top speech writers. (The Final Days; Bernstein & Woodward; page 9)

Also involved was Betty Nolan, who was hired by the RNC in May, 1970. Her duties included the letter-writing campaign. She reported to RNC officials, and to Magruder at the White House. (Senate Committee; interview with Nolan on 9-3 & 28 - 73, p. 3; page 237)

Originally, the letters that she wrote were "signed" by people within the operation, using false names. Nolan would claim that she couldn’t recall who suggested this. This changed under Buchanan. Nolan would write anywhere from 35 to 70 letters per week, and distribute them to people around the country to sign and mail, primarily to publications. Buchanan had found that the White House and RNC could find enough people willing to put their name to letters-to-the-editor by using "volunteers" from groups such as the Young Republicans.

Letters were sent to newspapers in general, and to some specific individuals. The operation attempted to influence Washington newspapers, and also Katherine Graham and Eric Sevareid. One of Magruder’s top aides, Ron Baukol, noted in a memorandum to Charles Colson that they viewed having two or three printed from every 30-35 sent as being successful. He noted the operation was being expanded "slowly, so the security of the program will not be breached." (Senate Committee Report; Exhibit 000; page 238)

The same Senate Committee exhibit contains a note that Gordon Liddy sent to John Mitchell on 5-15-72: "Betty Nolan hit four of the senators with 195 letters. In addition, early yesterday morning she had over 70 letters sent to the New York Times protesting its May 10 editorial" Liddy also noted all "staffers were instructed at the May 11 staff meeting to write similar letters to the Times."

Another figure playing a role in this operation was E. Howard Hunt. In his testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee, Donald Segretti told about a 5-8-72 call from Hunt, stating that Nixon was preparing to take "very decisive action in Vietnam," and that they needed to be prepared to counter the "expected reaction of the peace groups." Segretti, an attorney recruited to conduct political "dirty tricks" to sabotage the democrats in the 1972 campaign, contacted two other operatives in Florida to set up tables in public places, to have citizens sign telegrams of support to be sent to the White House. Segretti also sent two telegrams "that contained several hundred false names" to the White House; these were used to claim the President enjoyed wide support among the majority of people across the country.

These later operations often involved "citizen’s committees," which were used to manipulate the media and public perception, by making it appear that there were grass roots organizations, distinct from the administration, that supported Nixon’s policies. The Senate Watergate Committee Report has an additional section on the uses and abuses associated with these "citizen committees."

It’s interesting to note that while Patrick Buchanan was focused on having individuals send the prepared letters to newspapers, television stations, and politicians, that two figures associated with intelligence – Liddy and Hunt – focused on "front" groups. Those individuals interested in using the power of letters to influence newspapers’ editors, reporters, and readers, can find valuable lessons in the Nixon White House’s operations.


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