At the time when many media pundits and political analysts are tempted to make a Trump-Nixon connection, it is necessary to subject the role of the White House press secretary to the same level of scrutiny that is often applied to the highest office in the land. More than ever before, heads of the state and government are susceptible to public pressure; therefore, the press-presidency relationship is increasingly coming to the fore in policy considerations.
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Control of the presidential image is a task that took a prominent place in Richard Nixon’s White House. An obsession with public relations prompted the president to create the Office of Communications the chief aim of which was to manage a wide range of the administration’s messages (Lee 22). However, the presidency of Nixon was marked by an even more striking shift in the nature of diplomatic news management—the transformation of the role of the press secretary.
Ronald Ziegler was a press secretary whose ability to endure the abrasive personality of Nixon and willingness to downplay the importance of the Watergate scandal in an attempt to protect the president made him more than a spokesman. The slicked-haired official became the administration’s public face and a buffer protecting the president from disgruntled journalists. The aim of the paper is to analyze the Ziegler’s influence on the transformation of the press secretary’s role in the United States. It will be argued that during his stint at the White House, the man perfected the art of obscurantism, thereby degrading the role of the press secretary as a dispassionate and honest conduit of information.
Ziegler was born in a family of a middle-level manager and a nurse in 1939 (“Ronald Lewis”). The future government official attended Dixie Heights High School in Edgewood, Kentucky. Ziegler was a natural football player, which allowed him to obtain a college athletic scholarship at Xavier University in Cincinnati (“Ronald Lewis”). In 1958, his family relocated to Los Angeles, which prompted the young man to enroll in the University of Southern California (“Ronald Lewis”). It was at that time when the man found his first job as a ride operator at Disneyland.
The future government official obtained the first experience of managing public relations during the Miss USC contest (Nelson 167). Several years later, when the presidential candidate Nixon launched his campaign, the talented man was recruited to handle press arrangements at the University’s campus. Ziegler graduated as “a B-minus marketing major” and immediately landed a sales manager position at Procter and Gamble (Nelson 167).
Several weeks later, the man decided to change his career path to become a lobbyist for the Republican caucus in Sacramento, California (“Ronald Lewis”). After many years, Ziegler commented his decision by saying that he had no regrets about entering the world of politics.
In 1962, Ziegler joined the staff of Nixon’s campaign in the capacity of a junior aide (“Ronald Lewis”). The position was not characterized by a high level of responsibility: the man looked after luggage of press members. After the election, he joined an advertising agency in Los Angeles where he worked under a presidential campaign manager Harry Haldeman (Nelson 168). Later, Haldeman invited Ziegler to the White House to serve as a spokesman (Nelson 168).
The Role of the Press Secretary
From the perspective of a president, the assertion of control over the communication with the public is a key element of effective policy-making. It has to do with the fact that successful communication underpins the exercise of power by the legitimatization of authority. According to Seymour-Ure, the presidential power rests on their ability to control the communications agenda (253). A corollary of this assertion is that the loss of control over the press-presidency relationship can undermine the presidential standing.
Whereas the importance of two-way communication in politics is not a subject of dispute or misunderstanding, it is necessary to elucidate the role of a press secretary as a mediator of presidential communication. President Coolidge once famously stated that the public “can’t hang you for what you don’t say” (Seymour-Ure 254). A similar attitude was adopted by Nixon who remarked in a private conversation with Kissinger that “the press is the enemy” (Woodard 188). However, a president cannot remain constantly silent. Therefore, in order for the evasion of the press not to become a subject of comment, the uniquely newsworthy figures such as presidents resort to the aid of communication experts, thereby preserving their mandate of power.
Presidential press secretaries entered the American culture after Ziegler’s attempt to explain Watergate (Klein IX). Approximately at the same time, many political analysts recognized that to serve a president, press secretaries often disregard their another master—the press (Klein XII). It became clear that public relations practitioners such as Ziegler wore a spin doctor’s mantle to protect their employer from observant government-watchers. Even though press secretaries’ styles of information delivery are different, their affinity for spin has become a fixture of the profession after Ziegler had elevated obscurantism to the state of art.
Spin refers to “deliberate shading of news perception; attempted control of political reaction” (Klein 6). Infamous “third-rate burglary” commentary of Ziegler is a paragon of a deliberate misdirection, which became a daily routine at the office during Nixon’s presidency (qtd. in Feldstein 285). The president was keenly aware of the fact that perception of an event often takes precedence over its meaning in the mind of the public. When reflecting on his relationship with the media, he famously quipped that “concern for image must rank with concern for substance” (Sanders 34). In the light of this information, his choice of Ziegler, who had little experience in the sphere of public relations, for the position of the press secretary does not seem reasonable.
Despite his young age and a lack of journalistic credentials, Ziegler was proficient at manipulating news coverage. This ability is a disturbing element of the profession, which has been only fortified by succeeding representatives of the commanders-in-chief. The findings of a study on the effectiveness of the presidential press secretary conducted by Towle point to the complementary association between public relations practitioners’ success and their willingness to side with a president at times of controversy (314). It follows that the performance of a press secretary as a political actor is not commensurate with the amount of information they release to the press but rather with their ability to keep the press uninformed.
Ziegler’s Spin Expertise
Although political spin was widely practiced before Ziegler, the man’s ability to use the public relations machine of the White House to obscure the media perception of the president was perfected to a substantial degree. Instead of providing factual information about the commander-in-chief, Ziegler fed members of the press either the results of his thorough image-polishing efforts or information of little value. In his article on press secretaries, Burkholder maintains that similar to other “caretakers of the Presidential image” Ziegler was proficient in providing “an unending supply of inconsequential news” (37).
When discussing Ziegler’s stint at the positon of the presidential press secretary, a reporter for the New York Times James Naughton remarked that the man was always prepared to “say next to nothing.” The journalist maintained that even if “backed against the wall he will say almost nothing” (Naughton). Ziegler’s’ tendency to withhold perilous to the president information was the recurring theme in the extant literature on Nixon’s presidency.
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For example, during a South Vietnamese incursion into Laos, the secretary was quick to defend his boss by saying that “the President is aware of what is going on; not to say there is something going on” (Hammond 414). The coy statement was issued to dampen the media’s speculation on the invasion. However, the realization of the importance of an impending military operation propelled the press to poke holes in the credibility of the Nixon’s representative.
Misgivings of reporters about the US involvement in the conflict and a subsequent distrust of the president were a testament to the limit of Ziegler’s ability to control the media agenda. A large body of political science studies indicates that despite the fact that press secretaries are in a position to create favorable media coverage, the effectiveness of their public relations strategies subsides with the accumulation of unpalatable presidential actions (Rozell 459).
Thus, even the most talented spin doctors cannot prevent the deterioration of the atmosphere of trust in the presidential relations with the media. This point is beautifully illustrated by Rozell who stated that the end of Nixon’s term was characterized by cynicism and skepticism of the press (454).
Taking into consideration the highly-charged media environment during Watergate, one cannot help but wonder at Ziegler’s ability to address journalists with the minutest amount of sincerity and the highest degree of evasiveness. When approached by members of the press, the secretary never failed to reinforce his falsehoods with an expression such as “to the best of my knowledge” (Naughton).
In a bout of unusual candor, Ziegler confided to a journalist that he was not disposed to “spill the beans on every thing that takes place here,” which was an instance of remarkable gregariousness in comparison with his usual “I won’t take that question.” (Naughton). The press secretary’s steadfast support of the president was a central theme of Ziegler’s methodology of news content management; therefore, his daily briefings were characterized by a lack of content.
Relationship with Nixon
To obtain a good image of Ziegler as a presidential secretary of state, it is necessary to analyze his relationship with Nixon. There is ample evidence pointing to the fact that the man was never forthcoming with the media due to his unfailing loyalty to the president. For instance, Farrell maintains that rhetorical stumbles of the political figure were underpinned by his lack of tolerance for any criticism of Nixon. However, the author adds that Ziegler was never more than a chess piece in the White House (Farrell). Being loyal to a fault, the secretary destroyed his credibility with the journalists. The man’s failure to protect a public mandate of Nixon was a function of the need to discuss topics on which he was not informed.
The presidential representative was not privy to many developments in the Nixon’s White House. As a result, he often functioned as “a human punching bag, someone to take the questions and give back a smile” (qtd. in Towle 308). Therefore, he had to practice the art of obfuscation which was dubbed ‘ziegling’ by the Washington press corps (Archer 117). It can be argued that the secretary’s rise to prominence resulted from his blatant disregard for the American public’s right to know and was mediated by the nature of his relationship with the president.
The Watergate Scandal
A thin fabric of social trust with regard to Ziegler was completely unthreaded during Nixon’s second term. According to Towle, the intensity of media scrutiny of the Watergate scandal almost forced the presidential representative to resign (309). After several months of denial of the White House’s involvement in the scandal, on April 17, 1973, Ziegler acknowledged that his earlier statements on the incident were “inoperative” (Towle 309).
The use of the euphemism was a watershed moment in his career. The mechanistic dismissal of his own announcements on the issue was derided by journalists. Moreover, many members of the press despised Ziegler’s disregard of the public and demanded his immediate resignation (Safire 346). The frustration of the media helped to merge Ziegler’s image with underhanded political tactics in the public’s consciousness.
The analysis of Ziegler’s stint at the White House shows that the man was instrumental in the transformation of the role of the presidential press secretary. A sizeable degree of cynicism helped the political figure to compensate for his lack of linguistic acuity, thereby making media manipulation a mainstay of his approach to the maintenance of a favorable image of the president. It can be argued that to the public’s chagrin, a striking contrast between Ziegler’s comments and reality was often regarded as a yardstick of the success of all succeeding press secretaries. A person whose disregard for the truth was only matched by his blind loyalty to a crooked politician has become a mold for numerous White House officials.
At the time of post-truth politics, it is of utter importance to understand the historical significance of Ziegler as a watchdog of corruption. The role of the press secretary is to inform the public about pertinent developments in the president’s administration and communicate the cabinet’s commentary on political events around the world (Kumar 29). By entering into an unholy alliance with Nixon, Ziegler abandoned his primary responsibility of an information conduit, thereby becoming a spin doctor.
If one were to analyze the rhetoric of the modern presidential press secretaries such as Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders they would quickly discover that it is not dissimilar to Ziegler’s furious attempts to hide wrongdoings of the president. Therefore, the public has to rigorously hold presidential representatives to scrutiny. By doing so, it will be possible to ensure that White House press secretaries show up before the media with guileless depositions of facts instead of poisonous contortions and dishonorable linguistic tricks.
The paper has analyzed the effect of Ziegler’s stint at the White House. It has been argued that the representative of the presidential public relations apparatus set the precedent of using obscurantism as a model of communications with the public. The man’s loyalty to a crooked politician reverberates in actions of the modern press secretaries who are dogged in their protection of the president. By remembering Ziegler’s legacy, the American society will be able to safeguard itself from ‘alternative facts’ and other rhetorical maneuvers of hardline political loyalists.
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