Press Box

Dick and J. Edgar Diss Kay Graham

Eavesdropping on a Nixon-Hoover telephone call.

Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee in 1971

President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover surely collapsed from gossip hangovers after concluding a seven-minute-long telephone call on July 1, 1971.

An audio clip and transcript of the conversation was posted to the Web this week by the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. According to the program’s Ken Hughes, the National Archives made this conversation available to the public in October 1999, but Hughes believes this is the first time a transcript and sound clip of it has been published.

Let’s go to the tape! 

First Nixon and Hoover trashed the Supreme Court for having vacated the injunction to ban publication of the Pentagon Papers.

“You know, those clowns we got on there, I’ll tell you, I hope I outlive the bastards,” said Nixon. One of the “bastards” was Justice Potter Stewart, who voted against the injunction.

“What in the hell is the matter with Stewart?” Nixon demanded.

“Well, Stewart is a very wishy-washy individual,” responded Hoover.

His Ugliness, J. Edgar Hoover

Hoover then claimed that muckraker Jack Anderson—“that skunk”—had copied the Pentagon Papers at the offices of the Washington Post. But the claws didn’t really come out until the chitchat turned to Washington Post Co. monarch Katharine Graham. Hoover had seen Graham on television the night before and thought she looked awful.

Hoover: I would have thought she’s about 85 years old. She’s only about, I think, something like 57. Nixon: Oh, no, I know that. Yeah. Hoover: And I had an idea she was a great deal older when I looked at her last night. She’s aged terribly. Nixon: She’s a terrible old bag. Hoover: Oh, she’s an old bitch in my estimation.

For the record, Graham was a mere 54 years old at the time, and judging from photographs, she was still a pretty hot number. The 75-year-old Hoover, on the other hand, resembled nothing more than sun-rotted, wormy calabash.

What possessed Nixon and Hoover to carry on like this? I leave it to Hoover mavens to explain his Graham problem. But Nixon’s hatred of the Post is legendary. It may have taken root in the late 1940s, as he became one of editorial cartoonist Herblock’s favorite subjects. Scholar Stephen J. Whitfield writes that Herblock first drew Nixon in 1948 as one of three Puritans burning a witch—the witch being the Statue of Liberty.

Nixon’s antipathy for the Post and Katharine Graham could have easily been related to the political activism of her husband, Philip Graham, who preceded her as Post publisher: He was a major Democratic Party power broker. But I can find no record of Nixon directly lashing out at him.

In 1952, the Post editorial page called upon Nixon to leave the presidential ticket over what was described in the press as a secret political fund. Herblock continued to pour it on, penning a 1954 cartoon that showed Nixon climbing out of a sewer. The cartoon was still extracting pain from its target 25 years later, when Nixon published his memoirs, RN. He “resented being portrayed as a demagogue or a liar or as the sewer-dwelling denizen of Herblock cartoons in the Washington Post.” Also in 1954, Nixon canceled his home and office Post subscriptions in reaction to a critical editorial the paper wrote about him.

Nixon’s hatred of the press fully manifested itself when he became president and immediately assigned Vice President Spiro Agnew to hammer the media in a series of speeches. But there is no denying his special animus for the Post, which he regarded as overtly liberal in its news coverage. 

He was convinced that the Post had it in for him,” Henry Kissinger told Graham for her memoir, Personal History. Kissinger professed not to know where Nixon’s hatred came from but said that whenever the Post ran an unfavorable article about him, he’d send notes prohibiting his people from talking to the paper.

Nixon and his people loved to make the political as personal as possible. A year after this Nixon-Hoover conversation, Attorney General John Mitchell warned Post reporter Carl Bernstein over the phone that Graham would find her tit in a wringer if the Post published its latest scandalous findings.


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