WASHINGTON — Ron Nessen has been around the block. As an NBC News reporter, he made multiple trips to Vietnam, where he was wounded by a grenade. He went on to cover the White House during the administration of President Richard Nixon. Shortly after Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment from the Watergate scandal, Nessen went to the other side of the West Wing and became press secretary for Republican President Gerald Ford.
In an interview with Yahoo News earlier this month, Nessen shared his memories, his thoughts on President Trump’s embattled press team, and his fears for the White House. Nessen said he believes the relationship between Trump’s administration and the press corps is the worst he’s seen since Nixon famously feuded with the media and played fast and loose with facts.
“I think probably this is more like a press attitude toward Nixon than any other president since then, I think. I really do. I really do,” Nessen said.
Trump’s press team has been at the eye of a storm during his four months in office. The president has reportedly grown frustrated with negative coverage of his administration, and there are constant rumors of an imminent shakeup in the White House messaging shop. The first real change came on Monday, when news broke that communications director Mike Dubke had resigned.
Among press secretaries, there is a tradition by which a West Wing spokesperson will leave a bulletproof vest with a letter for their successor as they leave the White House. This practice seems to have started with Nessen, who led more than 500 briefings while serving as press secretary from September 1974 until January 1977. After his last briefing, Nessen returned to his office.
“I wrote a note to my successor, Jody Powell, and attached it to the blue, brocade bulletproof vest I had received from friends in the Justice Department,” Nessen said.
The letter said, “‘Jody, I hope you won’t need this. Good luck, Ron.’”
Nessen said he didn’t realize it had subsequently become a custom. Yahoo News asked what he would write if he could leave a note for Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer.
“Well, I think I’d probably say the same thing. ‘I hope you won’t need this.’” said Nessen with a laugh.
Nessen has been avidly watching the briefings led by Spicer and his deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Does he think they need the vest? You bet. And he doesn’t just mean as a gag gift.
“I worry that Trump is so unpopular and so controversial and so forth. I really worry that somebody’s going to try and take a shot at him. … I have no inside information and I don’t know whether the Secret Service shares that view or not but, you know, I worry about that,” said Nessen.
He said those fears are based on his personal experiences and “the two cases actually where people took shots at Ford.”
There were two attempts on Ford’s life during his presidency, although in one case the would-be assassin, Manson family member Lynette Fromme, didn’t actually get off a shot before she was tackled by a Secret Service agent. White House press secretary James Brady was severely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan. Brady’s death in 2014 was attributed to his injuries. The White House press room is named in Brady’s honor.
Spicer and Sanders have faced major questions about their credibility during their time speaking on Trump’s behalf. Spicer has made demonstrably false statements behind the podium. Sanders’ initial statements about Trump’s controversial decision to fire FBI Director James Comey were later directly contradicted by the president. Trump addressed the issue on Twitter, where he suggested his team is not always going to be on top of his thinking. The president, who has made attacks on the media a cornerstone of both his campaign and presidency, also threatened to cancel the daily White House press briefings, a possibility that has been raised several times during his administration.
“As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” Trump wrote, adding, “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”
For his part, Nessen said being familiar with the president’s thinking was essential for him as press secretary.
“I guess my theory of the job as press secretary was that my role was to answer the questions from the press as the president himself would answer them if he were there. You know, the president was too busy every day in the Oval Office to answer reporters’ questions,” Nessen explained. “One of the things that I asked Ford when he asked me to take the job, was that I really needed a meeting with him every morning before my White House briefing with reporters.”
At those meetings, Nessen and his team would present Ford with the questions they expected to face from the press in order to get a sense of how the president thought they should be answered. But the press secretary doesn’t always give a straight answer.
“If it’s something that’s still going on … that the White House feels that it shouldn’t be publicized quite yet, I think you have to say … ‘On that issue, we are in the midst of making some decisions and as soon as those decisions are made, I will, report that to you and give you the background on it.’ You have to say something like that,” Nessen said.
It wasn’t a foolproof system. If he got something wrong, Nessen thought it was important to make a correction as soon as possible.
“I believe that if you made a mistake or said something that was wrong … you had to go out there … and tell the press, you know, ‘I want to correct something that I told you. I had the wrong information and here’s the accurate answer to your question.’ Or, something like that,” said Nessen.
Nessen is adamant that Ford never asked him to lie.
“I don’t have any recollection of him asking me to say anything that wasn’t true,” said Nessen. “Part of that was just that’s who Jerry Ford was.”
The word Nessen uses to describe the relationship between Trump’s team and the White House press corps is “difficult.”
“I do think that there’s a very strong ‘anti-Trump’ feeling in the press and maybe … there’s an ‘anti-press’ feeling in Trump,” said Nessen.
He said the media’s problems with Trump stem in part from his administration’s reputation for stretching the truth.
“if you don’t answer the questions honestly, you undermine your credibility and that really hurts,” said Nessen, before adding, “[Trump] tends to be a little more conservative than most of the reporters are, and I think that’s a factor. So, I think that’s why the atmosphere is so, you know, tense and critical of each other.”
Nessen described the White House’s threat to cancel the briefing as a “terrible idea” that would only exacerbate these tensions.
“It will only alienate the press more than it’s already alienated,” he explained.
Nessen said ditching the daily press conference “sends the wrong signal” and would raise questions about the Trump administration and what “they feel they have to be so secretive about.”
“It hurts his reputation and I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” said Nessen.
Overall, Nessen said, it’s “very complex” to judge the performance of Trump’s press team.
“Sometimes it takes the president and his staff a little while to sort of, you know, get situated and fit in and understand what the needs and demands are and so forth,” he said.
Spicer and Sanders have both been mocked with sketches on “Saturday Night Live” satirizing the combative daily press briefings. Nessen knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of an “SNL” skit. The show debuted during Ford’s administration, and one of its early bits involved Chevy Chase mocking Ford as clumsy. Nessen hasn’t seen the “Saturday Night Live” skits featuring Spicer and Trump.
“I haven’t watched that show for a while,” Nessen said with a laugh.
Ford and Nessen both went along with the joke.
“Ford had three teenage kids in the White House and they watched ‘Saturday Night Live,’ so they knew about this and Ford knew about it and they asked Ford to be the guest host,” recounted Nessen. “And he thought that wasn’t proper for a president to be a guest host, so he asked me, why didn’t I do it?”
Nessen ended up going on the seventh episode of the first season. He was the first political figure to host the program. Although Ford declined the gig, the president taped an opening with the show’s tagline, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”
“Some of the people on the Ford staff didn’t think I should have gone on the show and taken part in making fun of Ford and I guess, in hindsight, maybe I think that they were right, but I had a pretty healthy ego in those days,” said Nessen, laughing.
Nessen joined the White House at a tumultuous time. His predecessor, Jerald terHorst, left the press secretary job after one month in protest of Ford’s decision to issue a pardon to Nixon for the string of crimes that led to his pending impeachment. Nessen kept returning to the pardon during our interview. At one point, he called it “the major thing that happened.” And Nessen admitted Ford “never did restore his reputation after the decision.”
Ford always insisted his decision to pardon Nixon was an attempt to heal the country after the divisive Watergate scandal. Nessen said Ford was “hurt” by the impression many had that “it was a deal he had made” in which Nixon allegedly promised to make him vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in exchange for the promise of a future pardon if the charges mounted. For Nessen, time has vindicated Ford. He pointed out the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation gave Ford its Profiles in Courage Award in 2001. The prize was presented to Ford by the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, who originally opposed the pardon but said he had come to feel Ford made the right decision.
“I thought that was really, really amazing, you know,” said Nessen.
While he thinks the years have improved Ford’s standing, Nessen doesn’t downplay how devastating the move was for the president’s reputation.
“He never recovered from the pardon of Nixon,” Nessen said. “I mean, it was so unpopular.”
More and more of Trump’s opponents, including some Democratic members of Congress, are bringing up impeachment as questions swirl about Trump’s ties to Russia and his handling of the probe into Moscow’s efforts to interfere with last year’s election. Nessen said he thinks the current president could indeed be removed from office, but he doesn’t expect Trump to take Nixon’s route.
“I don’t think Trump is going to resign. Now, maybe he’s going to be charged and dismissed or whatever you call that. But I just don’t see him resigning,” said Nessen.
And if we do see the president removed from office, given his experience watching Ford’s stock crash after pardoning Nixon, does Nessen think Trump’s successor should pardon him? He’s not sure.
“That’s a tough question. That is a tough question,” said Nessen.