The obituary stated that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank” about “his secret plan to end the Vietnam War.”
I have asked the obituary’ author, Patricia Sullivan, when and where Thomas posed such a question, but Sullivan has not offered a direct reply.
As noted in a Media Myth Alert post on Sunday, the nearest reference I could find to Thomas’ having raised such a question was at a White House news conference on January 27, 1969. According to a transcript the Post published the following day, Thomas asked:
“Mr. President, what is your peace plan for Vietnam?” She did not ask about a secret plan.
The issue here is larger than a likely error in a front-page obituary.
The more important issue centers around the notion that Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 saying he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. That notion is historically imprecise. Yet it circulates still, as evidence supposedly of Nixon’s duplicity.
There’s better evidence of his duplicity than the “secret plan” chestnut. Simply put, Nixon did not tout a “secret plan” for Vietnam during his 1968 campaign.
I sent Sullivan an email a week ago (when the obituary was posted online), asking when and where Thomas had questioned Nixon about a “secret plan.” Five days later, Sullivan replied by email, saying:
“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).”
I sent Sullivan a follow-up email, asking again when and where Thomas questioned Nixon about a “secret plan.” She has not replied to that query.
Meantime, I consulted a database containing full-text content of leading U.S. daily newspapers, and found almost no reporting in 1968 and early 1969 about Nixon’s having, or claiming to have, a “secret plan.”
The combined search terms “Nixon,” “secret plan” and “Vietnam” produced only three returns — an advertisement taken out by Democrats, an article about Nelson Rockefeller’s plans to run for president, and a brief wire service item in the Post that quoted a Democratic congressman as urging Nixon to discuss his “secret plan” on Vietnam. The search period was January 1, 1968, through February 1, 1969, a time span covering the 1968 campaign, Nixon’s inauguration, and his news conference in late January 1969. Newspapers in the database include the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.
Searching the same period for “Nixon,” “secret plans” and “Vietnam” produced one return, an article published in the Los Angeles Times in which Nixon insisted he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for ending the war.
The article further quoted Nixon as saying:
“If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s comments came a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.).
The database search makes clear that Nixon’s having a “secret plan” was not, contrary to Sullivan’s claim in her email, “widely referenced” in news articles at that time.
Additionally, neither The Making of the President 1968 nor The Selling of the President — major book-length treatments about the 1968 presidential election — contain the phrase “secret plan” or “secret plans.” (Neither phrase turned up in applying the Amazon.com “search inside” feature to those books.)
If Sullivan can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon “point-blank” about having a “secret plan” on Vietnam, then that would represent an interesting if modest contribution to our understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists then suspected he was less than candid and forthcoming about his intended war policy.
If, on the other hand, Sullivan cannot identify such an occasion, then a correction seems in order.
A far more searching and clear-eyed assessment of Thomas and her journalism was offered in Jonathan S. Tobin’s essay for Commentary magazine.
“Thomas’s prejudice was not a minor flaw,” Tobin wrote, referring to her anti-Semitic comments. “It was a symptom not only of her Jew-hatred but also of a style of journalism that was brutally partisan and confrontational.”
Thomas, he wrote, deserves a “share of the credit for the creation of an ugly spirit of partisanship that characterizes much of the press.”
More from Media Myth Alert:
- WaPo, Helen Thomas, and Nixon’s ‘secret plan’
- Helen Thomas and Iraq War: What’s she talking about?
- Vomit humor and scandal: Inane ‘Drunk History’ TV show promotes Watergate media myth
- Didn’t: A Watergate primer
- Inflating the exploits of WaPo’s Watergate reporters
- A media myth eruption: WaPo, Watergate, and Nixon’s fall
- The journos who saved us
- No ‘rock-em,’ no ‘sock-em': What ails WaPo?
- 10 weeks on: Still no word from WaPo about apparent digital scrubbing of Lynch articles
- ‘You might bring down a government’: Sure, that happens
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism