In journalism and politics in Washington, some things never change. When the government wants to manage the news, the best way to do it is to release a big story late on a Friday, particularly the Friday before a three-day weekend. Reporters on deadline don’t have time to find anybody to challenge the story, and it’s framed as the government prefers.
That’s still true in the nation’s capital, although harder to pull off with everyone online 24/7 and available on their cellphones. It was far easier 40 years ago, when the Nixon White House announced to reporters that it had reached a compromise on access to the Watergate tapes.
The tapes would provide crucial corroboration to the testimony of former White House counsel John Dean, who had testified that Nixon had approved a series of illegal actions, motivated either by his desire for political victory or his need to cover up the break-in by White House operatives into Democratic party headquarters.
The so-called compromise, and the events that followed, were the subject of an extraordinary gathering at the National Press Club last week. Key figures in events that would become known as the Saturday Night Massacre gathered to recall those events. They were introduced by someone who, as a young lawyer, had served on the staff of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox – Stephen Breyer, who, of course went on to become a Justice of the Supreme Court
The compromise story came as a surprise to Cox, who had subpoenaed the tapes. He hadn’t agreed to the offer by the White House to give up his demand for the tapes, and to permit 73-year-old Democratic Senator John Stennis of Mississippi who was hard of hearing and on heavy-duty painkillers after having been seriously wounded in a robbery, to listen to the tapes and assess the veracity of written summaries. Cox would have to accept the summaries , and could not ask for any additional materials.
Cox’s staff scrambled. “We called the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau and asked them what was going on,” recalled Jim Doyle, Cox’s press secretary. “We had to make clear to the press that Cox had major reservations” about the proposed deal, Doyle said.