Finally, after more than 2½ weeks, the Washington Post’s “reader representative” replied to my email pointing to a dubious claim in the newspaper’s front-page obituary last month about journalist Helen Thomas.
I asked the obituary’s author, Patricia Sullivan, and the newspaper’s reader representative, Doug Feaver, to identify when Thomas posed such a question.
Neither has done so.
Instead, Feaver asserted in his recent email to me: “I see nothing here that deserves a correction.”
Talk about arrogance.
At issue here are two related matters.
One is the Post’s assertion in the obituary published July 21 that Thomas once asked Nixon about his “secret plan” for Vietnam.
The other is the broader notion that Nixon in 1968 ran for president saying he had a “secret plan.”
To the first point: There is no question about what the Post wrote. And there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question.
The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. She did not ask about a “secret plan.”
Feaver in his email to me noted that the obituary did not place the phrase “secret plan” inside quotation marks.
As if that matters at all.
With or without quotation marks, the Post made a claim in the obituary that it hasn’t been able to back up.
Moreover, in asserting the dubious claim about a “secret plan,” the Post effectively has embraced the persistent but historically inaccurate notion about the 1968 election campaign.
That notion is that Nixon said he had a plan to end the war but wouldn’t disclose what he had in mind. Sullivan, the author of the Thomas obituary, has embraced this notion, stating in an email to me in late July:
“I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail. Hence it was dubbed his ‘secret plan’ to end the war, and is widely referenced as such in the news articles of the time, many of which I reviewed while writing this obit (in 2008).”
But that’s just not so: News reports of the time did not “widely” refer to Nixon’s having a “secret plan,” as a search of a full-content database of historical newspapers reveals.
The database covers 1968 and includes content of the Post and several other leading U.S. dailies. Searching the database for “Nixon” and “secret plan” or “secret plans” produces no evidence at all to support the notion that Nixon in 1968 touted or otherwise campaigned on a “secret plan.”
Likewise, the leading book-length treatments of the 1968 presidential campaign — Theodore White’s The Making of a President, 1968, and Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President say nothing about Nixon’s “secret plan.” (Searching the books’ contents through Amazon.com turned up no reference to “secret plan.”)
Had the purported “secret plan” been an issue of any consequence during the 1968 campaign, the country’s leading newspapers and those books about the election surely would have discussed it.
It should be noted that Nixon was asked publicly in late March 1968 about a “secret plan” for Vietnam. He 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.)
So the challenge to the Post remains: If it can identify an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan,” please do so. That would represent a modest but interesting contribution to historians’ understanding of Nixon’s 1968 campaign pledges about the Vietnam War. It would suggest that journalists at the time were openly suspicious about his prospective war policy.
If, on the other, the Post cannot back up the “secret plan” claim — a claim clearly stated in its obituary — then a correction should be made.
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