- Some highlights from this interview
- Writing the Agnew speeches
- Why Americans rallied around the speeches
- Nixon's view on the press
- Is the media as biased today?
Buchanan worked in the Nixon administration as a speechwriter and aide to the president and wrote several famous speeches for then-Vice President Spiro Agnew in which Agnew questioned the biases of the mainstream media, attacking them as a "small, unelected elite." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 28, 2006.
How did you meet Richard Nixon?
I met Richard Nixon [in] 1954 [for the] first time when I was a caddie at Burning Tree Country Club. I was in his twosome carrying a golf bag around late one afternoon.
But I met him in St. Louis in '65, which would be about 10, 11 years later. ... I had been three and a half years an editorial writer, and I was having some difficulty with my publisher. I went over and met him, and introduced myself in the kitchen to him, and I told him if he were going to run in '68, I'd like to get aboard earlier. ...
I got a call from Nixon's office -- invited me to come up and see him in New York, sent a plane ticket. I went up and was interviewed for three hours straight by Nixon. At the end of it, he said, "I'd like to hire you." I said, "You'd better call my publisher, because he doesn't know I'm here." So that's how I got aboard.
So you're from a newspaper background?
I was Columbia School of Journalism 1962, and I did three and a half years as an editorial writer in St. Louis. I had started, obviously, doing obits, but then, because I had an economic writing fellowship, they moved me to the business desk for about six weeks, and there was an opening on the editorial page. So I was very fortunate. ...
In November '69, Nixon delivered a speech about the "silent majority." What was happening in the country that made you write those lines and give those words to the president? What were you responding to?
I think those are Nixon's. You've got to give Nixon credit for his own lines, the great "silent majority" and the rest of it. But I'd recommended the speech because there were about 300,000 [anti-war] demonstrators in October and another 500,000 expected, who did arrive in mid-November. ...
I sent Nixon a memo saying that it was really time he was going to have to stand up and go to the country and use the bully pulpit of the presidency if he wanted to maintain a coalition behind his policies on Vietnam. And he did that, and his speech was a startling success.
But when it was over, the instant analysis from the networks and [former U.S. diplomat and Democratic adviser] Averell Harriman, they all jumped on the speech, cut it up, and the commentary was all negative. So Nixon told us to respond and write letters to the editor.
“The battle between the White House and the national media is the battle over who controls the national agenda.”
I sent him a memo through [Nixon Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman saying: "This isn't going to do it now. We ought to go directly after the networks themselves, take them on in public, in a high forum. The vice president [Spiro Agnew] ought to do the speech, and I will write it." I got back a little note at the top of that memo, which I still have, which said: "P has seen. Go ahead." That was the president.
So I went ahead with the draft, and I sent it over to the president. He invited me over to the office, and he started editing it himself. I was a little concerned, because the language flowed, and you don't like anyone fooling with your work. But at one point in the draft -- he had his glasses on as he was editing, and he took his glasses off, and he said, "This will tear the scab off those bastards."
Now, who are "those bastards"?
I think it is the columnists and commentators who were carving him up and denying him the right to fulfill the commitment he had made to the American people to gain peace with honor in Vietnam.
You called them an "elite," an "unelected elite."
Uh-huh. Small unelected elite.
Who do you mean? Who is this elite?
It would be the small group of editors, commentators, columnists, but with regard to the network, it is the anchors and the dozen or so people behind them who select what went on the evening news, which was the primary source of information then for two-thirds of the American people. So what we did in those two speeches I drafted for Agnew -- the second was about The New York Times and Washington Post, but the first on Nov. 13 in Des Moines was a direct assault on the networks and their denial to the president of the United States of his capacity to communicate directly with the American people and win them over to his policies. As we said at the time, there was a very small group of people who were deciding what two-thirds of the American people saw as news.
And Agnew asked, "Is it not proper to ask, what are their biases? What are their prejudices? What do they bring to the table as they choose and select what the American people will see as news?" ...
It was a tremendous success, and in response to the speech, something like 50,000 telegrams of support for Agnew went directly to the networks. If you look at the Time and Newsweek and I think U.S.News [and World Report], the cover of the magazines that next week had all of the anchors on. We had elevated the issue of network power and network bias for the first time in American history, and it was a startling success. ...
[The networks] would come back and say they put the speech on the air.
(Laughs.) I think it was one of the worst mistakes they ever made. Listen, it would not have had the impact had it not gone on all three networks. It would not have had the impact. If you hadn't had that enormous audience that they had, their captive audience, they delivered to them these addresses that basically took them apart. And the audience which had listened to them agreed with us.
In the speech, Agnew says that the people have a right to make up their own minds without having a president's words and thoughts characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics before they can even be digested.
This sounds a lot like what President Bush is saying today.
I wouldn't really get too much into what Bush is saying, because there's such multiplicity of sources today. Networks don't have the power they did. I mean, you've got Fox; you've got MSNBC, CNN, C-SPAN, the three networks. Sometimes the networks don't cover his speeches.
But what we were talking about then, what Agnew was talking about, was instant analysis. In other words, the president would finish speaking, and they would start chopping it up rather than let the American people make [up] their own mind about what it was he had said to them. ...
Let me give you a Bush line: "I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people." That's really your line.
He sounds like Pat Buchanan 35 years ago. Uh-huh, you do; there's no question about it. Look, a president's got an obligation to communicate with the American people. ...
That's why when you say "go over the heads of them," we would go over the heads of national television, Nixon would. In the Reagan era, we would bring in the anchors from local [media], what we called "regional media," from, say, the Midwest, and bring in all the anchors into lunch with Reagan, and we would have briefings for them. Then Reagan would speak to them and he'd take questions at lunch, and the national press would be outside of it. In that way, all of these individuals would take back segments to their local districts.
That's the whole war -- the battle between the White House and the national media is the battle over who controls the national agenda. ... The real power of the left was in the national media. ...
So this is an ideological battle?
It was a political and philosophical battle. ...
You found an issue to mobilize people around -- the disaffected, the silent majority. This was all part of a political strategy.
No, the attacks on the media were not part of a preconceived strategy. ... We didn't come into the White House saying, "I'll tell you what: This fall, let's launch some attacks on the national networks." We had an agenda we wanted to implement, and the principal impediment to that objective in Vietnam was the mass demonstrations, given aid and comfort and support by the liberal media which was attacking the president constantly. At the same time, when he would speak to the country, as soon as he would finish, they would reinterpret everything for the listener so that he would not go away carrying with him what the president had told him.
They were standing on our windpipe, and that's why we went after them. ...
So you didn't really know what the reaction was going to be to Agnew's speech. But you discovered that it was an issue, something people could rally around.
After the Agnew speech, there was a national explosion over the issue. On the covers of Time and Newsweek they had the network anchors. It was the number one story all week long. It was the hottest story in the country. And the fact is, the vast majority of the American people agreed 100 percent with us. The networks were inundated with telegrams denouncing their bias.
So what had happened was, the cordite was all out there; we just ignited it. And there's no doubt that the public responded because the public already believed what Spiro Agnew had said. ...
I really want to get back to this idea of an elite. "That elite," you've written, "is using that media monopoly to discredit those with whom it disagrees and to advance its own ideological objectives." Who is this elite, and what are their objectives?
By the time we'd come to office, their objective[s] were two: It was to break Nixon's policy on Vietnam; and in Watergate, it was to break Nixon and bring him down. We succeeded in Vietnam in winning the battle with the media. In Watergate we failed. Because of Nixon's mistakes, then they brought him down. ...
So this is the bias that you're referring to in the Agnew speeches?
Look, the liberal bias, you could cut it with a knife. Back in the 1960s, it was hard to find a conservative in the national media. ... In 1972, they took a survey of who you voted for of the national press: Eighty-five to 95 percent went for [Sen. George] McGovern when Nixon was winning the biggest landslide in American history. I mean, what was that? (Laughs.)
Well, maybe they would say, "We knew more about him as president, what he was doing."
Could be. Sure.
And that this media monopoly that you talk about, ideological monopoly, really hadn't communicated to the American public.
Why did they all vote for Mondale, too?
So you're just saying that's the way it is.
Sure. Look, if you go to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, with the exception of the Fox News table, you're not going to find a lot of conservatives there. And that's a very large group.
So it's continued to this day?
It continues to this day. But with regard to the establishment media, it is the citadel of American liberalism. It's what's left. That's where the real power is, and it continues to this day.
But if they don't win elections, they don't own the media?
Well, let me say this: If the media turned against the Democratic candidate, he would never have a chance. We conservatives can beat them at times, and at other times we can't. But if the media ever abandoned the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, I don't think it's got much base in the country.
The Democratic Party?
The liberal wing of the party doesn't have much base in the country.
So if things reverse -- because in my memory, most newspapers and media before television were dominated by Republicans, by conservatives mostly. They never endorsed Franklin Roosevelt.
Let's come up the to modern era, when I was raised. Let's go down: The Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal and Constitution [sic], even the Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, Denver Post -- not a single conservative paper there, not one. All the big ones, the major newspapers, the networks, the White House press corps -- overwhelmingly liberal, left of center. I don't think they'll deny it. They don't deny it anymore. Probably wouldn't do them any good, because I think we persuaded the country, or the country was persuaded. What Agnew did was tell them what they already knew in their hearts. That's why they got the response we did. ...
Walter Cronkite has written that ... stories on the front page of the country were almost without exception exactly what it was on the networks' evening newscast. And the editors of those mostly Republican-owned newspapers then weighed the news and came to the same conclusions as the broadcast editors did.
That's Mr. Cronkite's view. But the point is, when Vice President Agnew spoke to the country -- and it was the first time he had ever spoken on national television -- the response was extraordinary. ...
That tells me that the American people had come to their own conclusions, and all Agnew did was articulate what they saw and what they believed. Cronkite had an opportunity every night after that to challenge that, as did his successors.
What has happened is that we have won this battle. We have won this war to the point where the American people, when they look at the network news and someone says, "That's the way it is," they say, "No, that's not the way it is; that's the way [Dan] Rather or Cronkite or some of these other fellows think it is, or believe it is, or want us to believe it is."
What the networks had done was to try to create a sense of skepticism and disbelief about Nixon and what we were saying. What we said is, "Have that same skepticism and disbelief when you watch the network news." And they did, and they do now.
And so Nixon got a landslide in '72.
Nixon got a landslide in '72 despite all that support from the media for McGovern. Nixon was in touch with middle America in 1972. ...
When I came to the White House -- I won't mention his name -- there's a columnist [who] later on came to see me in the White House, and he said: "What you've got to understand is that we are the adversary press. In other words, we are your adversaries."
I said to him: ... "Why? We'd been elected. Nixon's been elected to carry out a certain agenda on Vietnam and domestically. Why should the press be our adversary?" And he said: "Well, that's our function now. We're the adversary press."
If someone decides they're going to be our adversaries, it seems to me within our rights to deal with them as an adversary. I think that [was an] idea which Nixon already had and a lot of us did not when we first went to work for Nixon. Nixon had more journalists working for him than any president before him. We didn't have that attitude, but I think by the time Nixon left office, virtually all of us did. …
William Safire wrote in one of his books there was a "conspiracy on the part of the Nixon administration to discredit and malign the press that was encouraged, directed and urged on by the president himself."
That's inexact. But there's no doubt. Look, when I came with Richard Nixon, he told me, "The press is the enemy." I did not believe it, or I argued, "Look, there's a number of people that don't like you, but there's a new generation that's come along since 1966. It's not 1948," in his case.
But there's no doubt that as we became engaged and in battle and the press became the main adversary -- we did see them as our adversaries, our principal adversaries -- we did go after them and fight back. We did launch pre-emptive strikes. The whole idea, however, was to enable the president [to have the] freedom of action to put into place what he was elected to do. If all things were equal, we didn't want the war with the press. Why would we want it?
You want them to surrender. You want them to be on your side.
We wanted them to get off our back, and if they couldn't get off our back, the thing to do was to throw them off your back. And that's what we did. If they're going to challenge our credibility, then we would challenge their credibility. We had every right to do so.
Frankly, they did not break us as they broke Johnson. What broke us was, quite frankly, the mistakes Nixon made in Watergate. And of course they were exploited by our enemies and adversaries to bring him down. ...
Today, reporters are being subpoenaed about information that they get from individuals in confidence, and they may not even have written anything about it.
Well, it's the [New York Times reporter] Judith Miller case. Look, if the press was screaming and hollering and demanding that the special prosecutor be appointed to find out the leak and that [then-Attorney General] Mr. [John] Ashcroft recuse himself, and so they get him a special prosecutor [Patrick Fitzgerald], and he said, "Oh, OK, I'm going to find the leak," and he goes and asks the same journalist, who knows who leaked, and they don't talk to him.
Basically, I've got to agree with Fitzgerald on this one and the judge ... that approved the subpoenas and imposed them on Judith Miller. I think she should have had to testify.
You don't think journalists have a right to protect their sources?
I think they have an obligation to protect their sources, a duty to do so, but I do think that the journalists really do not have special rights that do not attach themselves to other citizens, no.
So then how can you protect your sources?
I think you just do your best to protect them. I don't understand this. If I were a White House aide, for example, and I'd been told something in secret -- as I was. I was hauled before the grand jury; I had to talk about my conversations with the president of the United States.
You mean if I talked to a journalist, he doesn't have to tell about his conversation with me, but I have to talk about my conversation with him? ... When I leave the White House as a sworn assistant to the president and become a columnist, why do I suddenly get new rights?
Why do you think there's a First Amendment clause in the Constitution in the Bill of Rights?
So that the press is free to report and comment on what it wants.
How can it do that? How can it gather information, particularly about government, without some protection to the people who are willing to talk to you?
It looks like it's been going just fine. (Laughs.) I haven't noticed any chilling effect in this town on people talking to reporters because of the Judith Miller episode.
Or the pending leak investigations that are going on.
No. It's going to start happening again.
I can. Here's what's happening: Since the Agnew speeches, there has been a tremendous -- I don't deny it -- a corrective. The first thing that happened was the arrival of young conservative columnists on the op-ed pages of various newspapers to the point where they almost dominated the op-ed pages.
Then came the arrival of talk radio in the '80s. You had the arrival of nationalized talk radio with Rush [Limbaugh], and you've got the Internet, and you've got Fox News. So, if you will, there is an alternative media today. It's a populist media. Populist media today is conservative. ...
So from your point of view, things are much better?
There's no question about it. I can see talk radio is a tremendously powerful influence, and it's overwhelmingly dominated by conservatives. ... These are reforms.
These are reforms?
Uh-huh. Excellent reforms, partly as a consequence, I think, of the criticisms of the media. Some of the media made the reforms themselves about the op-ed pages and partly as a result of a marketplace. The American people want to hear conservative voices, and with this multiplicity of cable channels and news stations -- all-news talk … and syndicated and networked radio -- people pick and choose what they want to hear.
They want to hear Rush, and they want to hear [Fox News' Sean] Hannity, and they want to hear the conservative voices, and the liberals have a very hard time. You've got to go to taxpayer-subsidized PBS pretty much to hear a lot of them.
So you think PBS is biased?
If the institution is tax-exempt or tax-subsidized, you'll find liberals are much stronger in it than conservatives. If it's [a] monopoly, if it's more free market-oriented and there are tremendous multiplicity channels, you'll find conservatives do just fine.
And how do you explain that?
I think the people are conservative. ... There are people who are interested in news, ideas, information -- they're conservative. And when you give them a place to go, they will go to it. If you build it, they will come.
So you don't believe in the idea -- and I'm thinking H.L. Mencken and others -- that journalists have a role that is outside of just meeting what the popular demand is, what the popular thinking is?
What? Objective, straight news reporting? Where do you get that?
... My argument about the media is, look, be one or the other. I've always been a commentator, a columnist and opinion writer. I'm not a straight newsreporter. But these other fellows that move from one to another to another -- one day you see them on the editorial page; the next day, they're on the front page with the lead news story. That's always bothered me more than the people who were up front and had their cards on the table.
Are you saying that the correspondents and reporters on Fox News are objective news reporters?
I'm sure some of them are. I think they are objective. Yeah, they're objective news reporters. But there's no doubt that many of them are looking for stories that interest a conservative audience. Washington Times is a conservative paper; Washington Post is a liberal paper. I read them both every day.
I know, but you made reference to an objective news reporter. We're looking for an objective news reporter. Given your experience, where is he?
The animal still exists. I think you find a number, for example, covering the war. Sure, there's a lot of objective coverage there, sure.
In The New York Times?
Sure. I think John Burns is an outstanding reporter, does a great job.
So not everybody in the establishment media is a biased reporter, slanted news.
... Let me give you an example. [New York Times reporter] James Bennet is going to [become editor of The Atlantic] magazine. He covered my campaign, and when he first showed up in Louisiana, I looked at him. I said, "This fellow looks like Lenin." (Laughs.) He had a beard and [was] this bald-headed young guy. But his coverage of my campaign was as objective and fair and exhaustive -- he made every effort to understand all my ideas about economics and trade. And he did a piece in The New York Times -- it was one of the best pieces I've ever seen in terms of condensing and explaining and presenting clearly, comprehensibly and I think persuasively exactly what I believed. ...
You wrote that the Bush administration "could not have taken us to war without the complicity of the press." You said: "And what of the punditocracy which led us into war? Did they serve their country? Or did they serve as the king and his courtiers by reciting such fairy tales as Mohamed Atta's secret meeting in Prague with his Iraqi controllers?" What did you mean by this?
If you read Bill Safire, you'll see that he was talking about this secret meeting in Prague and what had happened. I think that a lot of the magazines -- I would say The Weekly Standard, a lot of the neoconservative journalists and magazines put out what I believe is pure propaganda. They didn't make an effort to check it out if it advanced the cause of the war. They wanted it there.
War is good for business. It's exciting. It's the most exciting thing journalists can do. I think a lot of them wanted the war, and I think the media fell down on its job. …
That's why we launched our magazine, The American Conservative. The whole purpose was to say there are conservatives who don't want war and that this war is unnecessary and, in my judgment, unjust, and it's a war of choice, and that we shouldn't go to war. And we did every single issue. We dealt with that question. Frankly, I think we did an outstanding job, and we were proved right. But I will say we were in a clear minority. ...
You sound like the liberal media of the late '60s questioning the war in Vietnam and the president of the United States and his motives.
The difference was we had a magazine with 10,000 circulation. I didn't control all three networks. ...
What do you think about The New York Times reporting a secret program of eavesdropping by the National Security Agency [NSA]?
The New York Times held that story for a year as I understand it, so clearly they had concerns and qualms about whether they would damage the national security by publishing that. I would not have published that in wartime if I were the editor of The New York Times.
While I oppose the war, I don't think you do something like that which would, I think, damage the war effort and the cause for which people are dying. That's a tough call, but I would not have done what the Times did. And I do think the individual that leaked it to the Times, they should be prosecuted and sent to prison.
The Washington Post has published, among other things, the fact that countries in Eastern Europe maintain secret detention facilities for the United States to deposit so-called high-value detainees or others apparently linked to terrorism.
They've damaged, in no doubt, the countries that are probably assisting the United States of America. You've damaged them at home because they've worked in alliance with us.
What bothers me about this is a number of these newspapers cheer us into war, and then Americans go into battle, and they get killed in great numbers. And then these folks tend to undermine the war effort.
It was my objection in the Pentagon Papers. They had nothing to do with Nixon. That, to me, was a clear effort to sabotage the war effort in Vietnam, which both The New York Times and Washington Post had supported. We had asked for time to review them so that we could see that no sources and methods had been compromised. It had nothing to do with Nixon. And they wouldn't give us that time even though they held those papers for three months so that they could present them in such a way as to make them do maximum damage to the war effort. I thought that was quasi-treasonist in wartime, yeah.
You don't think the press has an obligation to act as a tribune, if you will, of the people?
Do you think the press should report that some soldier took a Koran and flushed it down a toilet when he knows the results could be riots and demonstrations in which people get killed? I think the press has a duty and an obligation to consider the consequences of what they report when they report it, especially when lives are at stake.
Yeah, but you don't know, as a reporter or a columnist, what the actual reaction is to many of the things you may say -- especially you, as a columnist -- that are, if you will, designed to get people to take notice.
I don't think you reporters can fall back on the "I didn't know what the reaction would be" in every case. I think they should consider the reaction. Certainly they do when they have information about the private lives of public men.
Journalists say: "Look, should I really report this? People really have a right to know? This could damage or destroy this guy. Is it really relevant?" They'd make all those judgments. And I think they ought to make a judgment, especially when we're at war, as to what will be the effect if I publish this? Certainly The New York Times did that when they waited for a full year to publish this story which they had and they held.
And they removed elements of the story ... related to sources and methods.
Well, you're making my point, which is that they had themselves to reflect and consider and ask government to "Please help us so that we will not do damage, or any damage that's done will be minimized." So I think that's a sense of responsibility, but, as I say, I think if I were at the Times, I would not have reported that. ...
You called the conservative media, radio, Fox, etc., "alternative." Fox is the biggest thing on cable television. It's the establishment. And these conservatives you keep talking about, they're all connected to their own establishment.
There's no question that Fox is the biggest thing on cable TV, but they're still not as big as NBC, CBS and ABC. They're not as big as The New York Times and The Washington Post. ...
So they're their own establishment? There's no longer a minority.
It's a counterestablishment. I hope you don't think we're the national establishment. (Laughs.) ...
[And you say] these liberal bastions -- The New York Times, The Washington Post -- aren't always liberal. They sometimes actually do objective, good reporting.
Well, let me tell you what the proper metaphor is: These are basically vessels that fly neutral flags, but they're hauling contraband, and at night they can change the flag and become something else.
That is what the newspapers of America are. The Washington Post is a great newspaper. It is also a great fighting organ of American liberalism. It is also an attack instrument of the Democratic Party and liberalism in a campaign. And it also has exhaustive, interesting coverage, good sports coverage, all manner of things in there. ... The New York Times is not just one thing; it is many things. But one of those things is, it's a fighting arm of American liberalism as well as a newspaper. ...