Less than a week before President Richard Nixon resigned, White House communications chief Ken W. Clawson was working the phones with a daring plan to save his boss. He hoped that flooding reporters with strategic stockpiles of news from every Cabinet department just might be enough to drive the impeachment news off the front page.
On Aug. 3, 1974, Clawson shared his scheme with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a 1:02 p.m. telephone call. A transcript of this call, like thousands of other Kissinger telephone conversations, was preserved because Kissinger secretly assigned staffers to transcribe them and because the National Security Archive waged a lengthy legal struggle to have the “telcons” declassified and released.
Clawson, who died in 1999, worked the other side of the news divide as a reporter for the Washington Post before joining the White House in February 1972. He was an unabashed warrior for his president. “I’m just one of Richard Nixon’s spear-carriers,” Clawson told the New York Times in February 1974, “and proud of it.”
The Clawson-Kissinger conversation illustrates how government officials regard the press not only as a beast that must be fed but one that could be distracted from the real news at hand if properly overfed. Let’s go to the transcript:
Clawson: Just two quick things. No. 1,I am calling all the Cabinet officers to urge them to have their Departments crank out all of the low level legitimate news we can in the next two weeks. I’m sure I don’t need to explain … you know why. [Ellipsis in the original.]Kissinger: Yes.Clawson: We just don’t seem to be able to get anything into the papers but impeachment. Second, I don’t know if you are aware that we have been holding small press sessions in my office in the last few months with about 15 press people, informal gatherings called “Cocktails with Clawson” because we have booze. We are coming up to #75 in the next week and wonder if we can have you as a guest?Kissinger: Can we hold up on that for the next week and see where we are before you start inviting people?Clawson: Sure, we can wait for a week.
How well did the low-level legitimate-news crank-out plan work? Not so well. The Aug. 4, 1974, Sunday New York Times contained 14 news stories or columns mentioning impeachment, and the Aug. 5 edition ran six. If the Nixon Cabinet carried out Clawson’s order, I can’t detect their efforts in the Times.
Kissinger was smart to postpone the sending of “Cocktails With Clawson” invitations. On Aug. 5, the transcript of the famous “Smoking Gun” conversation was released to the public. The conversation, plucked from the secret White House tapes, proved that Nixon helped organize the Watergate cover-up, and this revelation led directly to his Aug. 9 resignation.
Listen to the “Smoking Gun” tape on the Washington Post Web site, but be patient—it takes the audio about 15 to 40 seconds to kick in. Also, read the raw copy of the Kissinger-Clawson telcon, complete with typographical errors. (Thanks again to ProQuest for access to the telcon collection.) Does Kissinger assign a staffer to transcribe his Tweeter feed? Feel free to transcribe, retweet, or otherwise manipulate my Twitter feed. Send Kissinger tips to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Clawsonin the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.