December 28, 2003

Nixon's Image Maker


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Nixon giving his "Checkers" speech, 1952.

Among his claims to fame, Edward A. Rogers held the distinction of having been physically attacked by Richard M. Nixon. During the 1956 presidential campaign, Rogers, Nixon's media adviser, arranged for the vice president to hold a televised question-and-answer session at Cornell University. Nixon got some tough questions, but appeared to handle them well. Yet afterward, on the campaign plane, he lunged at Rogers in a fury. ''You son of a bitch,'' he yelled. ''You put me on with those [expletive] liberal sons of bitches. You tried to destroy me in front of 30 million people.'' Fortunately for Rogers, a newspaperman nearby restrained the vice president.

Even by politicians' standards, Nixon cared inordinately about his image, and for 10 years starting in 1950, it was Rogers's job to make him look good. At a time when many office-seekers scorned modern media techniques -- ''This isn't Ivory Soap versus Palmolive!'' Adlai Stevenson, the two-time Democratic standard-bearer, once huffed -- Nixon embraced them. He ushered in a class of political experts who came not from the ranks of ward-heelers and party sachems but from advertising, public relations and television -- Rogers among them.

Originally a producer for TV shows like ''The Lone Ranger,'' Rogers signed on, at age 30, to Nixon's race for the Senate in 1950. After Nixon won, Rogers -- like many of his peers a technician more than a political animal -- returned to Hollywood to work for an advertising agency. But Nixon kept bringing him back.

The 1952 vice-presidential race presented Rogers with his first serious challenge. When the news broke that Nixon kept an $18,000 private expense fund, prompting calls for him to quit the Republican ticket, Rogers helped orchestrate a nationally televised defense, which later became known as the Checkers speech. Rogers said that the broadcast was ''the toughest program I have ever directed,'' partly because Nixon, a loner at heart, insisted on preparing in isolation. Rogers found a Nixon stand-in to walk the paces during rehearsal and devised a book-lined suburban-den backdrop to bolster the regular-guy image Nixon wanted to project. Before a record audience of 60 million Americans, Nixon defended his integrity with homey references to his wife's cloth coat and his daughters' cocker spaniel, Checkers. The pitch worked, cementing Nixon's identification with middle-class voters and saving his career. It spawned a generation of televised political appeals and a half-century of fears about manipulative media handlers.

If the Checkers speech marked Nixon and Rogers's greatest triumph, the presidential debates against John F. Kennedy in 1960 represented their Waterloo. Rogers arranged the so-called Great Debates with the TV networks, but as the big day approached, the newly powerful Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman kept Rogers away from the candidate. On the day of the first contest, Rogers didn't see Nixon until 4:30 p.m., when he discovered that the vice president, recuperating from an illness, looked ashen and gaunt. Rogers tried to salvage things from the control room, where he barked at the CBS producer, Don Hewitt, to air more shots of Kennedy -- to divert the camera's lens from his stubble-ridden, sweat-streaked man.

Before the next debate, Rogers scrambled to fix Nixon's image. He urged the staff to fatten up Nixon with ''milkshakes, eggs, butter'' and insisted on rest. He redecorated the sound-stage setting with what he described -- 40 years before Al Gore's makeover during the 2000 campaign -- as ''brown earth tones,'' to make Nixon seem ''warm.'' But the damage was done.

By the end of the 1960 campaign, Rogers had grown disaffected. He remained a media executive, bought two Florida radio stations and wrote a novel that warned about the threat of image superseding substance in elections. But his political service was over. In 1968, when Nixon ran again for president, he hired new TV consultants, including a young producer for ''The Mike Douglas Show'' -- later an architect of Republican campaign strategies and a founder of Fox News -- named Roger Ailes.

David Greenberg is the author of ''Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.'' He teaches history and political science at Yale.

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