BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Less than two years into his presidency, Richard Nixon fired off an 11-page memo, only recently made public, to his Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. In it, Nixon grumbled, quote, "I have reluctantly concluded that our entire effort on the public relations front has been misdirected and ineffective."
Nixon worried that the American people saw his administration as - and these are his words - "an efficient, crafty, cold machine," and he wanted Haldeman to convene a meeting of senior staff to figure out a way to change this perception.
He went on to blame the press, his own people and even the public for its inability to understand what a warm, wonderful man R.N. really is. BOB GARFIELD: Nixon wrote that they simply didn't appreciate all the little things he had done, such as, quote, "the treatment of household staff, the elevator operators, the calls that I make to people when they're sick, even though they no longer mean anything to anybody, the innumerable letters I have written to people when they have fallen on bad days, including even losing an election. No president could have done more than I have done in this respect, and particularly in the sense that I treated them like dignified human beings and not like dirt under [LAUGHS] my feet." BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Reston, Jr. is the author of The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews. He had coached British TV host David Frost before his famous conversations with the former president 30 years ago.
Reston hadn't yet seen the memo when we showed it to him a few days ago. JAMES RESTON, JR: This is a remarkable memo. I've seen a lot of material from the Nixon archive, and little of it really elicits the personality who's at the core of this incredible political figure in American life. This is a warm bath of Nixon paranoia. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] In the memo, Nixon does seem to be blaming everyone for his poor public relations - except himself. JAMES RESTON, JR: That's characteristic, I think, of Nixon. He is a blamer of people. It may be we're all blamers of people, but he, in particular and through his whole political life, was that way. That's relevant to the Frost/Nixon interviews in which he finally acknowledges his own criminality and then apologizes personally to the nation for his misdeeds, that that kind of an instinct had to be dragged out of him. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the memo suggests that Nixon believed the public liked his policies but found him too cold, too impersonal. He says again and again that his spokespeople are very good at explaining process, but that's not what voters care about. JAMES RESTON, JR: He is absolutely right, that people do find this dull, that they don't want to know sort of the nuts and bolts of how the Presidency works. They really want to know about the man at the center of the thing. And the man at the center of the Nixon administration was really not all that exciting. Where his excitement lay was in the process.
So this is this wonderful dichotomy of the man complaining that the press is not writing about him as an exciting personality, when, in fact, he has a very dull personality. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you contrast that man in the White House with the current one? JAMES RESTON, JR: Well, I think this is actually one of the profound things that's in this memo - that's this extraordinary accomplishment that Bush has pulled off in this total disaster of an administration and a war. People still seem to be quite taken by the way he winks at people and the way he goes out and cuts his wood in his ranch, and he seems, they say, like the kind of guy you would want to have a beer with.
Nixon didn't have this kind of charm quotient or regular-guy quotient. In fact, that charm quotient, as opposed to maybe Bush, but certainly JFK, was very small. He had a very small margin of error for his misdeeds. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he does make this political calculation. He seems to be saying that it doesn't matter how good your process is if your personality doesn't read. JAMES RESTON, JR: "Read" is the appropriate word in all of this. He points out that he's just as hardworking as LBJ was and that he has great courage, like Harry Truman did, so why was it that the American people weren't giving him credit for all of this? You know, why wasn't this coming through? BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, one thing that leapt out at us was how adamant he was that his good deeds not be rammed down the throat of the media, the collective throat, but rather discovered by them in a subtle and almost inadvertent way. JAMES RESTON, JR: I'm fascinated by that point, and he does have this really quite, quite profound line, I think. "If warmth is to be believable, it must be discovered."
So it's what I used to say as a teacher of creative writing, that you have to show instead of tell. You can't tell somebody you have warmth. You have to display it in some way or another. And he wants to figure out scenarios in which his warmth and kindness can be discovered spontaneously. But even to write that line is to take the spontaneity away from it BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there anything in there that leapt out at you, that, when you were coaching David Frost in those original interviews with Nixon all those years ago, you wish you'd had? JAMES RESTON, JR: Well, this was the central failure of mine with David Frost, I think, was to be unable to persuade him to go after the Nixon personality. But if you had a line like that, "if warmth is to be believable it must be discovered," what did you mean by that, Mr. Nixon? Or do you really think your small kindnesses are all that exciting?
His answers to those kinds of questions might have moved along the Nixon scholarship beyond where it was. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think if you'd had that memo in hand, you might have convinced David Frost to ask more questions along those lines? JAMES RESTON, JR: I think I would have, because it's all compressed into 11 pages, this personality that is bred of this very hardscrabble upbringing, where he's scratching and clawing through his whole life for recognition and for achievement, and it's never quite enough somehow or another.
And here you have him sitting in the White House, after all, at the pinnacle of American power, and he's still that little, little man scratching and crawling for recognition of being a really cool guy. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much. JAMES RESTON, JR: Thank you, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Reston, Jr., is the author of The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews. RICHARD NIXON: I shouldn't say this, but Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she'd look good in anything. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]