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On April 24, President Nixon orders US and South Vietnamese troops to secretly invade the “Parrot’s Beak” region of Cambodia, thought to be a Viet Cong stronghold. The decision is controversial. Nixon knows that many senior military officials, as well as his Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, will oppose the operation, so he carefully keeps Laird ignorant of the invasion plans. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger privately alerts Laird to some of the less controversial elements of the operation (but not the use of US forces in the invasion), and Laird recommends advising Congress of the imminent military action. Kissinger says Nixon will handle that himself. (Nixon only tells one Congressman, Senator John Stennis (D-MS), the hawkish chairman of the Armed Services Committee.) As the evening wears on, Nixon repeatedly calls Kissinger’s office, barking out contradictory orders and hanging up, as he flip-flops on whether to actually go through with the plan. “Our peerless leader has flipped out,” Kissinger tells his staff. Nixon calls Kissinger with further orders and tells him, in a slurred, perhaps inebriated voice, “Wait a minute, Bebe has something to say to you.” Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, Nixon’s longtime friend and millionaire political and personal financier (who has been thoroughly informed of the operation when many senior government and officials have not), takes the phone and says, “The president wants you to know that if this doesn’t work, Henry, it’s your ass.”
Staffers Resign - Kissinger, who has himself kept his staff ignorant of the invasion, tells one staffer, William Watts, to coordinate the National Security Council’s work on the invasion. But Watts, outraged at the secret invasion of a neutral nation, refuses. “Your views represent the cowardice of the Eastern establishment,” Kissinger snaps. Watts comes towards Kissinger as if to strike him, then turns and walks out of the office. Watts resigns his position minutes later. Kissinger’s military aide, Alexander Haig: tells Watts: “You can’t resign.… You’ve just had an order from your commander in chief.” Watts retorts, “F_ck you, Al, I just did.” Two other Kissinger staffers, Anthony Lake and Roger Morris, also resign over the invasion.
Others Informed - The plans are finalized by Nixon and Kissinger, with Rebozo sitting in on the discussion. Only on the evening of April 26 do Laird, Secretary of State William Rogers, and other Cabinet officials learn of the plans to invade Cambodia. Rogers is horrified; Laird is ambivalent, but furious that he was left out of the decision-making process. The invasion takes place on April 28. Congress and the press learn of the invasion on April 30. (Reeves 2001, pp. 199-206)
Roger Ailes, the senior media consultant for the Nixon administration (see 1968), writes, or helps write, a secret memo for President Nixon and fellow Republicans outlining a plan for conservatives to “infiltrate and neutralize” the mainstream American media. The document will not be released until 2011; experts will call it the “intellectual forerunner” to Fox News, which Ailes will launch as a “fair and balanced” news network in 1996 (see October 7, 1996). John Cook, the editor of the online news and commentary magazine Gawker, will call the document the outline of a “nakedly partisan… plot by Ailes and other Nixon aides to circumvent the ‘prejudices of network news’ and deliver ‘pro-administration’ stories to heartland television viewers.” The document is entitled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News.” Ailes, currently the owner of REA Productions and Ailes Communications Inc., works for the Nixon White House as a media consultant; he will serve the same function for President George H.W. Bush during his term. Ailes is a forceful advocate for using television to shape the message of the Nixon administration and of Republican policies in general. He frequently suggests launching elaborately staged events to entice favorable coverage from television reporters, and uses his contacts at the news networks to head off negative publicity. Ailes writes that the Nixon White House should run a partisan, pro-Republican media operation—essentially a self-contained news production organization—out of the White House itself. He complains that the “liberal media” “censors” the news to portray Nixon and his administration in a negative light. Cook will say the plan “reads today like a detailed precis for a Fox News prototype.” The initial idea may have originated with Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, but if so, Ailes expands and details the plan far beyond Haldeman’s initial seed of an idea. (Roger Ailes 1970; Cook 6/30/2011) In 2011, Rolling Stone journalist Tim Dickinson will write: “This is an astounding find. It underscores Ailes’s early preoccupation with providing the GOP with a way to do an end run around skeptical journalists.” (Dickinson 7/1/2011)
Focus on Television - Ailes insists that any such media plan should focus on television and not print. Americans are “lazy,” he writes, and want their thinking done for them: “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.” Ailes says the Nixon administration should create its own news network “to provide pro-administration, videotape, hard news actualities to the major cities of the United States.” Other television news outlets such as NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and PBS News, are “the enemy,” he writes, and suggests going around them by creating packaged, edited news stories and interviews directly to local television stations. (Years later, these kinds of “news reports” will be called “video news releases,” or VNRs, and will routinely be used by the George W. Bush administration and others—see March 15, 2004, May 19, 2004, March 2005, and March 13, 2005. They will be outlawed in 2005—see May 2005.) “This is a plan that places news of importance to localities (senators and representatives are newsmakers of importance to their localities) on local television news programs while it is still news. It avoids the censorship, the priorities, and the prejudices of network news selectors and disseminators.” Ailes and his colleagues include detailed cost analyses and production plans for such news releases. In a side note on the document, Ailes writes: “Basically a very good idea. It should be expanded to include other members of the administration such as cabinet involved in activity with regional or local interest. Also could involve GOP governors when in DC. Who would purchase equipment and run operation—White House? RNC [Republican National Committee]? Congressional caucus? Will get some flap about news management.”
Dirty Tricks - Ailes suggests planting “volunteers” within the Wallace campaign, referring to segregationist George Wallace (D-AL), whose third-party candidacy in 1968 almost cost Nixon the presidency. Ailes knows Wallace is planning a 1972 run as well, and is apparently suggesting a “mole” to either gather intelligence, carry out sabotage, or both. (Wallace’s plans for another run will be cut short by an assassination attempt—see May 15, 1972.) Ailes also suggests having his firm film interviews with Democrats who support Nixon’s Vietnam policies, such as Senators John Stennis (D-MS) and John McClellan (D-AR). Though Stennis and McClellan would believe that the interviews were for actual news shows, they would actually be carried out by Ailes operatives and financed by a Nixon campaign front group, the “Tell it to Hanoi Committee.” In June 1970, someone in the Nixon administration scuttles the plan, writing: “[T]he fact that this presentation is White House directed, unbeknownst to the Democrats on the show, presents the possibility of a leak that could severely embarrass the White House and damage significantly its already precarious relationship with the Congress. Should two powerful factors like Stennis and McClellan discover they are dupes for the administration the scandal could damage the White House for a long time to come.”
Volunteers to Head Program - Ailes writes that he wants to head any such “news network,” telling Haldeman: “Bob—if you decide to go ahead we would as a production company like to bid on packaging the entire project. I know what has to be done and we could test the feasibility for 90 days without making a commitment beyond that point.” Haldeman will grant Ailes’s request in November 1970, and will give the project a name: “Capitol News Service.” Haldeman will write: “With regard to the news programming effort as proposed last summer, Ailes feels this is a good idea and that we should be going ahead with it. Haldeman suggested the name ‘Capitol News Service’ and Ailes will probably be doing more work in this area.” Documents fail to show whether the “Capitol News Service” is ever actually implemented. (Roger Ailes 1970; Cook 6/30/2011)
Television News Incorporated - Ailes will be fired from the Nixon administration in 1971; he will go on to start a similar private concern, “Television News Incorporated” (TVN—see 1971-1975), an ideological and practical predecessor to Fox News. Dickinson will write: “More important, [the document] links the plot to create what would become Television News Incorporated—the Ailes-helmed ‘fair and balanced’ mid-1970s precursor to Fox News—to the Nixon White House itself.” (Cook 6/30/2011; Dickinson 7/1/2011) A former business colleague of Ailes’s will say in 2011: “Everything Roger wanted to do when he started out in politics, he’s now doing 24/7 with his network [Fox News]. It’s come full circle.” (Dickinson 5/25/2011)
President Nixon, still attempting to circumvent the courts’ insistence that he hand over relevant tapes of his White House conversations (see July 13-16, 1973) to the Watergate investigation, offers a compromise: He will personally prepare “summaries” of the tapes for Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, and allow Senator John Stennis (D-MS) to listen to the tapes and authenticate the summaries’ accuracy. In return, Cox must agree not to subpoena or otherwise seek further tapes or other records of Nixon’s conversations. Cox will refuse (see October 19-20, 1973). (Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007)
After Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox refuses President Nixon’s offer of a “compromise” on the issue of the White House tapes (see October 19, 1973), Nixon orders (through his chief of staff Alexander Haig) Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refuses the presidential order, and resigns on the spot. Haig then orders Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refuses, and resigns also. Haig finally finds a willing Justice Department official in Solicitor General Robert Bork, who is named acting attorney general and fires Cox. (Of the firing, Bork tells reporters, “All I will say is that I carried out the president’s directive.”) White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler announces that the Office of the Special Prosecutor has been abolished. FBI agents are sent to prevent Cox’s staff from taking their files out of their offices. Ziegler justifies the firing by saying that Cox “defied” Nixon’s instructions “at a time of serious world crisis” and made it “necessary” for Nixon to discharge him. After his firing, Cox says, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.” The press dubs Cox’s firings and the abolishment of the OSP the “Saturday Night Massacre,” and the public reacts with a fury unprecedented in modern American political history. In a period of ten days, Congress receives more than a million letters and telegrams (some sources say the number is closer to three million), almost all demanding Nixon’s impeachment. Congress will soon launch an impeachment inquiry. Former Washington Post editor Barry Sussman writes in 1974 that Cox’s firing was not a result of impetuous presidential anger. Nixon had been more than reluctant to accept a special prosecutor for Watergate. Cox, named special prosecutor in the spring of 1973, had quickly earned the ire of White House officials and of Nixon himself, and by October 7, Nixon had announced privately that Cox would be fired. (Kilpatrick 10/21/1973; Sussman 1974, pp. 251; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007)
In his first interview session with former President Richard Nixon about Watergate (see April 13-15, 1977), David Frost asks about what then-chief of staff H. R. Haldeman knew on June 20, 1972 (see June 20, 1972), when he and Nixon discussed Watergate in the conversation that would later be erased from Nixon’s secret recordings (see November 21, 1973).
Avoiding Questions - Nixon tries to accuse Frost of putting words in his mouth; Frost refuses to be baited. Nixon then uses diversion, addressing not the June 20 conversation, but instead spinning out a discourse focusing on his lack of advance knowledge of the break-in and accusing the media of pinning unwarranted blame on him. Frost lets him speak, then focuses again on the conversation: “So we come back to, what did Haldeman tell you during the eighteen-and-a-half minute gap?” Nixon dodges the known material in that conversation—the suggested “public relations offensive” to evade criticism and investigation of the burglary, and instead says that he and Haldeman were worried that the Democrats had bugged the Executive Office Building.
Questions about Stennis's Hearing - He tries to segue into a digression about charges of Democratic eavesdropping from the 1950s, but Frost pulls him back, and asks why he offered to allow only one senator, Mississippi Democrat John Stennis (see October 19, 1973), to hear the tapes. Stennis was “alas, partially deaf and very old.” Frost notes that the sound quality of the tapes was often poor, and adds, “If you and [Nixon’s personal secretary] Rose Mary Woods could not hear them clearly, Senator Stennis was not an ideal choice.” Nixon tries to turn Frost’s question into a challenge to Stennis’s intellect and even his integrity, but Frost repeats: “His hearing is crucial. You’ve just said so.” Nixon retorts that he has never noticed a problem with Stennis’s hearing, and even if Stennis had hearing problems, “[a]fter all, there’s an invention called hearing aids…” Frost is clearly enjoying Nixon’s marked discomfiture, but is unaware that he is making a gaffe of his own: Stennis has, by all accounts, perfectly good hearing. However, Nixon knows nothing of Frost’s error, and writhes under Frost’s relentless questioning about Stennis’s alleged inability to adequately hear everything on the tapes. (Frost’s gaffe will not be noticed at the time and will first be revealed in James Reston Jr.‘s 2007 book on the interviews, The Conviction of Richard Nixon.)
Who Erased the Tape? - Frost focuses on the question of who exactly erased the June 20 tape. It has been determined that only three people could have possibly erased the tape: Stephen Bull, Nixon’s assistant; Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary; and Nixon himself. No one was ever indicted for the crime of destruction of evidence because Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski was unable to determine who of the three might have actually performed the erasure. Nixon tells Frost that it could have been rogue Secret Service agents who erased the tape, but that charge falls flat under its own weight of implausibility. Bull had offered to take a lie detector test in denying that he erased the tape. And if Woods had erased the tape, it would have undoubtedly been by accident. The tape was subjected to at least five separate manual erasures, making an accidental erasure unlikely at best. That leaves Nixon as the most likely suspect. Nixon refuses to admit to erasing anything, and Frost says, “So you’re asking us to take an awful lot on trust, aren’t you?”
Avoiding Perjury Charges - After further dodging and weaving, Nixon finally falls back on a legal reason why he won’t answer the question: he had already testified under oath to a grand jury that he had not erased the tape; that Woods most likely erased the tape by accident. Being pardoned for his crimes during his presidency by Gerald Ford (see September 8, 1974) wouldn’t cover his lying under oath after his resignation, he says, and he isn’t going to give a jury a chance to charge him with perjury. (Reston 2007, pp. 118-122)
Interview Airs in May - This interview will air on US television stations on May 4, 1977. (Television News Archive 5/4/1977)
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