Today’s Washington Post carries a lengthy obituary about Helen Thomas, lauding the 92-year-old former White House reporter who died yesterday for her “unparalleled experience covering the presidency.”
What caught the eye of Media Myth Alert was the Post’s unsourced claim that Thomas had once asked President Richard M. Nixon “point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.” I sent an email yesterday to Patricia Sullivan, author of Thomas obituary, asking about the unsourced claim; she has not replied.
The only proximate reference I could find to Thomas’s having posed such a question was at a White House news conference on January 27, 1969. Given her seniority, Thomas was granted the first question.
“Mr. President,” she asked, “what is your peace plan for Vietnam?” Peace plan, not secret plan.
According to a transcript of the news conference that the Washington Post published the following day, Nixon focused his response on the Vietnam peace talks then underway in Paris.
The issue here is greater than a possible error in a glowing tribute — so glowing that the obituary waits until the 12th paragraph to mention Thomas’ ugly remarks about Jews, which ended her career in 2010.
The notion that Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 on a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War is a hoary assertion that circulates still, often invoked as telling evidence of Nixon’s duplicity. The claim is of thin grounding.
Helen Thomas embraced the tale, though, writing in her wretched 2006 book, Watchdogs of Democracy?:
“Throughout that campaign in 1968 … Nixon said he had a ‘secret’ plan to end the war. Reporters never got to ask him what it was. Not until he got into the White House did we learn it was Vietnamization — to try to turn the fighting over to the South Vietnamese.”
But Nixon was asked during the campaign whether he had a secret plan to end the war. According to a report published by the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, Nixon replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”
He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s comments were made a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)
A fairly detailed assessment of the “secret war” tale was published in 2000 by William Safire, a columnist for the New York Times and a former Nixon speechwriter. Safire wrote:
“That sinister phrase — secret plan — has resonance to veteran rhetoricians and students of presidential campaigns. In the 1968 primaries, candidate Richard Nixon was searching for a way to promise he would extricate the U.S. from its increasingly unpopular involvement in Vietnam. The key verb to be used was end, though it would be nice to get the verb win in some proximity to it.
“One speechwriter came up with the formulation that ‘new leadership will end the war and win the peace in the Pacific.’ Nixon made it part of his stump speech, and the juxtaposition of end and win — though it did not claim to intend to win the war, but only the peace ….
“When a U.P.I. reporter pressed Nixon for specifics, the candidate demurred; the reporter wrote that it seemed Nixon was determined to keep his plan secret, though he did not quote Nixon as having said either secret or plan. But … it became widely accepted that Nixon had said, ‘I have a secret plan to end the war.’”
The lead paragraph of the United Press International report to which Safire referred stated:
“Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon vowed Tuesday [March 5, 1968] that if elected president, he would ‘end the war’ in Vietnam. He did not spell out how.”
It does sound a bit slippery, a bit Nixonian. But it’s no claim of a “secret plan.” So there seems little substance to the notion, which Thomas embraced in her book, that Nixon campaigned in 1968 on a “secret plan” to end the war.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Helen Thomas and Iraq War: What’s she talking about?
- The Nixon tapes: A pivotal Watergate story that WaPo missed
- Hat-tipping ‘On Language’
- Recalling George Romney’s ‘brainwashing’ — and Gene McCarthy’s ‘light rinse’ retort
- ‘Follow the money’: Why the made-up Watergate line endures
- Who, or what, brought down Nixon?
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- Two myths and today’s New York Times
- NYTimes flubs the correction
- PBS set to embrace ‘mass hysteria’ myth in anniversary show on ‘War of Worlds’?
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