Daniel Schorr and Nixon’s Tricky Road to Redemption

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives.” While Fitzgerald might have been one of the Jazz Age’s premier novelists, he was hardly a soothsayer. One could argue, based on the past fifty years alone, that American culture offers countless second chances to the deserving and undeserving.

Thirty years ago this March, Richard M. Nixon, demonstrated this very fact when Nixon released what Marvin Kalb and others describe as the “Who Lost Russia?”  memo: a successful attempt by Nixon to consolidate decades of rehabilitation transforming him from disgraced former president to wise, foreign policy sage. The memo, which he disseminated in secret and then leaked to the press during the 1992 presidential campaign and followed it with a well-publicized foreign policy conference touting the former president, outlined a series of steps the United States might take to stabilize a teetering former Soviet Union.  Tracing this path, and the means by which Nixon traversed it, offers insights into our current media, its relationship with political figures, and the politics of the modern age.

The Road to Redemption

Nixon long portrayed himself as a victim of the press. However, as Kalb points out, spanning from his 1952 Checkers speech to the Nixon memo in 1992, “the press had been an indispensable tool for Nixon.” In the years following his resignation from office, Nixon courted  reporters and politicians out of the public’s view  through correspondence, memos, private dinners and lunches, while maintaining a public presence through books, opinion pieces, and travel.[1] 

Nixon’s  multipronged approach included dialogue with elected politicians such as Jack Kemp. In 1981, Congress was debating the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill when Nixon wrote  Kemp using three of his favorite rhetorical devices: Winston Churchill, war, and football. Admitting he lacked expertise in economics, Nixon managed to reference the famous British leader who “once wrote that in war there is a time for audacity and a time for prudence but never for both at the same time,” noted Nixon. Had the Germans not gotten “cautious” at the First Battle of the Marne, Nixon argued, they would have won the battle and World War I. The time, he told Kemp, was not for reserve but audacity.

Richard Nixon to Jack Kemp, April 5, 1981, Jack Kemp Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

He concluded with one of the most strained football metaphors in recent history. It’s the last minute of the fourth quarter and the ball is on the 30-yard line, Nixon wrote. Do you run the ball or throw a bomb? Nixon made it clear which one he preferred, “Let us hope that the bomb connects!”[2]  You can find letters like these scattered across the papers of officials from the era.

Elected officials, particularly Republicans, were happy to oblige Nixon in his redemption project. Later in October of the same year, President Ronald Reagan included Nixon in the official delegation sent to the funeral of assassinated Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat. It was an early step in his rehabilitation and one that did not go unnoticed by his critics. “Nothing abashes him; no shame will ever keep Mr. Nixon from an occasion to play statesman,” the New York Times’ Anthony Lewis wrote. “But why did the Reagan Administration feel it necessary to pay him the honor of inclusion in an official delegation to the funeral.” Just weeks earlier newly disclosed White House tapes had revealed some of the former president’s lesser moments including justifying the beating of anti-war protesters and asking H.R. Haldeman, “Aren’t the Chicago Seven all Jews?”[3]

Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan reviewing Nixon’s April 5, 1981 letter, Jack Kemp Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress.

The Nixon diaspora’s own investment in his reputation helped. Each memoir published by a former Nixon official or confidante offered a chance to rebut the narrative that had placed so much ignominy on his name, and by extension, their own.  For example, in his 1982 book, Witness to Power, John Ehrlichman never mentions Watergate until page 341 of his 417 page book, observed Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory. Ehrlichman portrayed it as “almost an after-thought.” “The fevers of the tapes and the trials,” hardly register in what McGrory characterized as a “noncommittal and often spiteful – account.”[4]

Nixon and the Modern Media

By the tenth anniversary of his resignation, the media began to play a more central role in refurbishing Nixon’s standing. “Many reporters found themselves captivated by this courtship, especially since the suitor carried the credentials of controversy and a surefire story,” notes Kalb.[5]   In May, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) gave Nixon a standing ovation. Having been moved by their collective embrace, Nixon exclaimed, “I have no enemies in the press whatsoever.”[6]

Not everyone was sold. “[W]hy is the press joining the Great RN Solid Waste Reclamation Project?,” journalist Robert Sherrill asked two months later. “So now, hoping that the public’s memory has grown hazy, the press lords are trying to clean Nixon off and make it seem that, underneath all that caked blood and dirt, the old vampire was a pretty nice guy after all.”[7]

Anniversaries, even ignoble ones, offer the opportunity to recast actors and events. Nixon understood this when in October, he appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes interviewed by former aide and loyalist, Frank Gannon. Gannon pocketed half a million for his role in conducting 38 hours of interviews with the former president, which was eventually whittled down to 90 minutes and divided between 60 Minutes and another CBS show. “[W]hat Mr. Gannon was really doing, intended or not, was giving the former President a chance to answer, as he saw fit, some of the continuing public suspicions about him,” observed television critic John Herbers.[8]

In private, Nixon worked the angles, notably at exclusive dinners populated by industrial magnates, foreign policy officials, former supporters, and the occasional intellectual. According to Michael Korda who attended one such event as the designated intellectual in 1989, it was less a party and more lecture/tutorial/tour of Nixon’s foreign policy acuity.

Held at the former president’s New Jersey home, his fellow guests included Roberrt Abplanalp (a longtime Nixon backer), Dwayne Andreas (CEO of Archer Daniels Midland Company), Richard Solomon (Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs), and three Chinese diplomats – Han Xu (departing Ambassador for the People’s Republic of China), Zhao Qixin (a minister from the Chinese Embassy), and Chen Mingming (Xu’s principal secretary).

Actual conversation was nil, unless one considers symposium style debriefings conversation. Nixon kept attendees well lubricated. Drinks were served in “immense heavy tumblers, and every time a guest took a sip Nixon, who had an eagle eye as a host, would attract the butler attention and say, ‘You’d better freshen up Mr. X’s drink.’” They ate smoked tuna, smoked salmon, and smoked trout. Nixon spoke about himself in the third person. “’When Nixon was president … ‘ he would say in his deep, sonorous voice,” recalled Korda.

As it turns out the entire affair functioned as a means for Nixon to meet with Chinese officials in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre to determine if he would continue with his plans to once again visit China.[9]

Perhaps nothing captures the arc of Nixon’s relationship with the media as does his own relationship with journalist Daniel Schorr. Schorr famously scooped the enemies list kept by the Nixon Administration, reading it live on air only to come to his own name. Neither muckracker or even investigative journalist, notes historian Kate Scott, Schorr’s inclusion on the list made “little sense.” At the time, Nixon had approved an FBI investigation into Schorr on the false premise that he was being considered for position in the administration.[10]

American camera crew films Daniel L. Schorr, with notes in hand, standing in front of the American Legation in Freedom Square, Budapest, Hungary, for the program “Hungary Today”, 1961, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Schorr raised this issue in a 1977 letter to Nixon. Working on his book, Clearing the Air, Schorr had hoped to meet with Nixon, a request he raised in an unanswered letter to Nixon from the previous year. With a deadline approaching, Schorr asked if Nixon might still respond to three questions two of which pertained to the role of television and journalism in Watergate and the third, regarding Schorr’s inclusion on the enemies list. “Was it, as Bill Safire has written, simply that I was analyzing domestic issues where close analysis was not welcome?”

Schorr also asked if he might quote from a letter Nixon had written to Schorr’s son Jonathan who had sent the former president a get-well card when he had fallen ill in 1975. Schorr believed it would serve as a form of “personal détente.”[11]  Though Nixon did not respond to Schorr’s questions, he did approve of the quote.[12]

In 1984, Schorr again reached out to Nixon reminding him of the earlier correspondence, “Our only communication in recent years involved the get-well message of my son Jonathan (who is now 16) and your warm reply, which you graciously permitted me to quote in my book.” With the tenth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation approaching, Schorr argued that an interview with someone who was “perceived as one of your adversaries” would symbolize “healing.”[13] Once again no dice.   

It took a private event in April of 1991, ironically leaked by Daniel Schorr to renew their acquaintance. “In still another of his reincarnations,” reported the Washington Post, Nixon appeared at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace dinner at the U.S. News building to discuss his recent trip to the Soviet Union. Schorr too attended and when he said hello to Nixon, the former president responded tongue-in-cheek, “Daniel, damn near hired you once.”[14]

“Would it just happen that, after all those years, I start by discussing a leak?” Schorr wrote to Nixon two days later. Though he had thought of the evening as “off-the-record”, Susan Anderson of the New York Times, had heard the former president’s “marvelous quip” from someone who had not attended the event, thus, Schorr “confirmed it. The situation must be familiar to you,” he wrote.

Schorr congratulated Nixon on his “prodigious” “command of complex and subtle situations around the world” and concluded with the hope that “time ends all grudges” then recounted his son’s graduation from Yale that year and his burgeoning career in Teach for America.[15]

Nixon responded in kind. “Don’t give the ‘leak’ a second thought. It didn’t bother me if it didn’t bother you!” He thanked Schorr for his “gracious” comments and congratulated Johnathan on his career choice.[16] In a separate letter to a friend, Nixon recounted Schorr’s attendance at the Carnegie event, “I had a friendly chat with Daniel Schorr when I made an off-the-record speech to a Carnegie Foundation meeting shortly after I returned from Moscow this spring. He asked the first question in the question period after my remarks and surprised the liberal audience with his very positive appraisal of my evaluation of recent developments in the former Soviet Union.”[17] As Schorr told Kalb, Nixon had an enemies list, but he never did.[18]

Nixon 1992-1994

By the conclusion of 1992, Nixon had written eight post-Watergate books, written numerous op-eds, courted journalists, politicians, industrial magnates, and intellectuals among others. He also benefitted from the then new media encapsulated by cable news. “The role of elder statesman” suited Nixon more than the presidency, observed Korda. The foreign policy monologues he unleashed on White House staffers worked well on Larry King Live, “where his pronouncements were treated with awe.” Television, in this context, shined legitimacy on Nixon.[19]

The Republican establishment had further consolidated their support for Nixon. At the dedication of the Richard M. Nixon Library in 1990, presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush attended and praised Nixon for his foreign policy leadership, describing him as an “architect of peace,” while ignoring the controversies of Watergate not to mention his more questionable decisions regarding the Vietnam War.[20]

The release of the Nixon memo as the former USSR’s fate seemed uncertain found an eager audience in journalists like Thomas Friedman and Daniel Schorr while complicating Bush’s re-election campaign.

In reality, Nixon’s proscriptions for the Russian situation weren’t very innovative though his observation that if democracy failed, it would not be replaced by communism but instead a “more dangerous despotism based on extremist nationalism,” has proved to be pretty close to the mark. Yet, Yeltsin did not prove the leader for which Russians or American elites had hoped or Nixon had advocated. Whether Russia served as a model for the spread of dictatorship across the world over the past two decades, a trend we’ve seen consolidated to some extent over the past several years remains debatable, but certainly it contributed to such developments.

Still, the memo’s leak received international and domestic coverage and Nixon followed it up soon after with a conference in Washington D.C. held at the Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown where Nixon held proverbial foreign policy court and his former associates brimmed with confidence, “His comeback is everybody’s else’s comeback, too,” William Safire told Kalb.[21]

How much Nixon’s maneuvering in 1992 affected Bush’s re-election prospects is hard to say, but it didn’t help. When Clinton took office, he immediately embraced Nixon and his alleged foreign policy acumen. When Nixon died two years later, Clinton spoke at his funeral telling everyone that the former president was much more than Watergate.

Ironically, Nixon rebuilt his reputation on an issue that the public generally ignores as voters: foreign policy. “[W[hen it’s a big part of the national conversation and when the two parties have clearly contrasting positions on it,” it can have an impact, noted Nathan Rakich in 2020. Perhaps in 1992, with a vulnerable Russia sitting on nearly a half century of Cold War geopolitical baggage it mattered, but only on the margins. Ross Perot’s third-party campaign undoubtedly enjoyed a larger footprint regarding the outcome of that election. Still, among elites, policymakers, and journalists, Nixon’s foreign policy bonafides not only carried weight but washed away the sins of Watergate which they then broadcast to the public. A 1994 Lexis Nexis search deploying the words “Nixon” and “Watergate” “scandal” or “resignation” produced few references “to the disgrace that drove him from office” rather he was remembered more for his work foreign policy, notably Russia.

Though perhaps recency bias might be at play here. In 1994, with the recent collapse of the USSR and Nixon’s work on it for Bush and Clinton, such issues were front and center. However, how many people remember that Nixon today?  Watergate remains the reference point for scandal and there has been no shortage of it particularly in the past five or six years, thereby drawing Nixon’s role in it, back into the fold and public memory. 

And what of Daniel Schorr’s “personal détente” with Nixon. It had come full circle. During 1994, Nixon once again visited Russia hoping to spark a little diplomat heat, but to avail, still, he wrote Schorr, “your coverage of our trip has been by far the best. Many thanks. RN.”[22] Schorr replied thanking the former president, complementing him on his “cogent and balanced report in the New York Times” on the recent trip and then informed Nixon he was accepting a place on the Study Group on National Security being assembled by the Nixon Library. “I always knew that someday you would find work for me.”[23] In American life, second chances, of all kinds, abound.


[1] Marvin Kalb, The Nixon Memo: Political Respectability, Russia, and the Press (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 80, 187.

[2] Richard Nixon to Jack Kemp, letter, March 5, 1981, Box 382, Jack Kemp Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[3] Anthony Lewis, “Back to Nixonism,” New York Times, October 12, 1981.

[4] Mary McGrory, “Watergate? What Watergate?”, Washington Post, January 3, 1982.

[5]  Kalb, The Nixon Memo, 80, 187.

[6] Kalb, The Nixon Memo, 29.

[7] Robert Sherrill, “Nixon is Slithering Back into Public Limelight,” Charleston Gazette Mail, July 15, 1984.

[8] John Herbers, “Former Aid Interviews Nixon,” New York Times, April 9, 1984.

[9] Michael Korda, “Nixon, Mine Host,” New Yorker, May 9, 1994.

[10] Katherine A. Scott, Reining in the State: Civil Society and Congress in the Vietnam and Watergate Eras (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2013), 97-98

[11] Daniel Schorr to Richard Nixon, February 7, 1977, Box 20, Daniel Schorr Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] Daniel Schorr to Stanley Weintraub, November 1, 1977, Box 20, Daniel Schorr Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Daniel Schorr to Richard Nixon, April 11, 1984, Box 20, Daniel Schorr Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[14] Chuck Conconi, “Personalities: After 20 Years, Nixon and Schorr meet,” Washington Post, April 15, 1991

[15] Daniel Schorr to Richard Nixon, April 15, 1991, Box 20, Daniel Schorr Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[16] Richard Nixon to Daniel Schorr, April 22, 1991, Box 20, Daniel Schorr Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[17] Nixon to Harvey K. LeSure Jr., January 22, 1992, Box 20, Daniel Schorr Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[18] Kalb, The Nixon Memo, 212.

[19] Michael Korda, “Nixon, Mine Host,” New Yorker, May 9, 1994.

[20] Ann Devroy, “Nixon Library Dedicated as 3 GOP Presidents Praise ‘Architect of Peace’”, New York Times, July 20, 1990.

[21] Kalb, The Nixon Memo, 110.

[22] Richard Nixon to Daniel Schorr, March 16, 1994, Box 20, Daniel Schorr Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[23] Daniel Schorr to Richard Nixon, March 25, 1994, Box 20, Daniel Schorr Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.