Network Commentators React to President Nixon's "Silent Majority" Speech
|Top row: Bill Lawrence, Bill Downs, Bob Clark, John Scali, Tom Jarriel, Howard K. Smith, Frank Reynolds. Bottom row: Eric Sevareid, Dan Rather, Marvin Kalb, Richard Scammon, Herbert Kaplow, John Chancellor|
From Broadcasting magazine [PDF], November 24, 1969, p. 50-52:
The Analyses That Touched It All Off
Here's what network newsmen said on the air after President Nixon gave his Vietnam speech
Here's what network newsmen said on the air after President Nixon gave his Vietnam speech
How abrasive were the network-TV commentaries that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew denounced as "instant analysis and querulous criticism" in his Nov. 13 blast at TV news?
The commentaries were presented by the ABC, CBS and NBC news organizations immediately following President Nixon's Nov. 3 speech on Vietnam, and Vice President Agnew charged that:
"One commentator twice contradicted the President's statement about the exchange of correspondence with Ho Chi Minh. Another challenged the President's abilities as a politician. A third asserted that the President was following a Pentagon line. Others, by the expression on their faces, the tone of their questions and the sarcasm of their responses, made clear their sharp disapproval."
Mr. Agnew identified none of the correspondents but a review of the transcripts last week, while telling nothing about facial expressions and tone of voice, showed that:
▪ The references to the Ho Chi Minh letter were by Marvin Kalb of CBS News. In one reference he was quoting unnamed critics of Mr. Nixon's policies and added that the Ho Chi Minh letter seemed to contain uncommonly "accommodating" language. In the other he speculated that North Vietnamese reaction might be "somewhat negative in terms of the President's judgment" of the letter and said that "although Mr. Nixon called it a flat rejection of his own letter, it contained a number of statements . . . which suggest considerable flexibility in negotiating posture."
▪ The challenge to the President as a politician was made by Bill Lawrence of ABC News. Two other panelists on the same program called Mr. Nixon an "extremely skillful" and "consummate" politician.
▪ The reference to "Pentagon line" was by Bill Downs of ABC, who said it was reflected in statements that U.S. defeat or humiliation would promote recklessness among other world powers. As a reflection of the preceding administration's policy in that respect, he also said, it ought to allay any fears among nations that the Nixon administration is moving toward a neutralist or isolationist cause.
Mr. Agnew reserved special criticism for W. Averell Harriman, former chief U.S. negotiator at the Paris peace talks, who the Vice President said was "trotted out" by one network "to guarantee in advance that the President's plea for national unity would be challenged." Mr. Harriman, appearing on the ABC news wrap-up, did disagree with Mr. Nixon on many points. He also started and ended his comments by wishing the President well in his search for peace, and said Mr. Nixon had his support to that end.
Whatever the merits of the controversy, Mr. Nixon's speech scored well in the Nielsen multi-network area (MNA) ratings for the week of November 3-9, and the analysis, at least on NBC-TV, did not do badly either. NBC-TV's coverage of the speech ranked fifth with a 24.6 rating and a 35 share, and NBC's analysis ranked sixth (tied with FBI on ABC) with a 23.5 rating. CBS-TV's analysis was tied with NBC's Bill Cosby for 20th place with a 21.3 rating.
A report on the three wrap-up programs follows, based on transcripts supplied by the networks:
The ABC News wrap-up, anchored by Frank Reynolds, opened with Tom Jarriel, ABC White House correspondent, saying that Mr. Nixon had addressed himself to "the silent majority," had "offered no quick solutions" and perhaps had "polarized attitude in the country more than it ever has been into groups who are either for him or against him."
Asked why there was "nothing substantively new" in the speech, Mr. Jarriel said the President apparently felt "that the time had come to restate his position, and we were warned repeatedly against speculation at the White House, against going out on a limb saying there might be massive troop withdrawals or perhaps a stand-still cease-fire, and tonight after seeing the speech we certainly know why we were warned against speculation."
W. Averell Harriman, former chief U.S. negotiator at the Paris peace talks, was presented by Mr. Reynolds as "one of the men most qualified, certainly, the most qualified to speculate on North Vietnam's reaction to the speech."
At the outset Mr. Harriman appeared to disavow any intention to offer what the Vice President later called "instant analysis and querulous criticism."
"I wouldn't be presumptuous to give a complete analysis of a very carefully thought-out speech by the president of the United States," Mr. Harriman said. "I'm sure he wants to end this war and no one wishes him well any more than I do."
Mr. Harriman, interviewed by John Scali, ABC News State Department correspondent, presented several points of disagreement with Mr. Nixon's position, said his address contained important omissions, and asserted that "I think this should be very carefully debated by the Congress, particularly by the Foreign Relations Committee."
Mr. Harriman questioned whether the President's supporters represented "a silent majority" or "a silent minority," but then said "I think he's got the full support of the people. He certainly has got my support, in hoping we will develop a program for peace."
He concluded: "There are so many things we've got to know about this, but I want to end this by saying I wish the President well, I hope he can lead us to peace. But this is not the whole story that we've heard tonight."
ABC News National Affairs Editor Bill Lawrence suggested the Democrats had tried to "mouse-trap" the President by building people's hopes for an announcement of "some new move toward substantively winning the war sooner."
Bob Clark, ABC Capitol Hill correspondent, foresaw reopening of the Vietnam hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and thought it "very clear tonight that the gauntlet will be flung down to the President at those new hearings."
Mr. Clark said, "there's a growing impatience in Congress, just as there is across the country. This cuts across party lines, there are many who have been moderates on the Vietnam war in the past who now feel more and more urgently about the need to set a termination date on the war. That, of course, is what the President failed tonight to do."
Bill Downs, ABC Pentagon correspondent, saw the speech as reflecting "the Pentagon viewpoint" and the previous administration's position that America cannot go back on a commitment. That, he said, "allays any fears that people might have had round the world that the Nixon administration might be heading us toward a neutralist or isolationist course, but it's certainly not in this speech."
Mr. Lawrence contended Mr. Nixon "hasn't used the powers of the Presidency," which he said "a good politician" would have done, and pointed out that during the campaign Mr. Nixon said—and said again in his speech that night—that "he had a plan that would end the war and win the peace."
As to Mr. Nixon's abilities as a politician, Mr. Reynolds had called him "extremely skillful" and Mr. Downs, taking issue with Mr. Lawrence, called him "a consummate politician."
Howard K. Smith said that "for the first time" he got "a strong impression" that Mr. Nixon is "not going to be hustled or yield to anything but a negotiated settlement involving free elections which probably the Communists couldn't win." He speculated that "by his speech tonight he's let himself in for some very rough handling in that next moratorium demonstration that's coming."
Mr. Nixon, he said, "got his messages across to the people he's counting on, called the silent majority, but what matters is whether he got his point across to Hanoi; that there will be no surrender in any guise, and that they will have to negotiate. And, as has been so often said tonight, we'll just have to wait and see."
Correspondent Dan Rather, anchoring the CBS News wrap-up, opened with a summary of speech highlights and prefaced the commentary "by saying, as always, this is a difficult bit of guesswork to immediately follow a presidential address."
One of the references to the Ho Chi Minh letter by Marvin Kalb, CBS diplomatic correspondent, was that critics of Mr. Nixon "may disagree with the President's judgment that the Ho Chi Minh letter was a flat rejection of his own letter. The Ho Chi Minh letter contained, it seems, some of the softest, most accommodating language found in a Communist document concerning the war in Vietnam in recent years."
This other reference to the letter was in assessing the effect of the speech on North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese, he said, might say "that the President has not given them anything terribly new to chew on." But, he added, "I don't really feel that the President was talking to them. As he pointed out, he was talking very much to the great silent majority of the American people. . . ." Mr. Kalb continued:
"It seems to me, if anything, it's [the North Vietnamese reaction] going to be somewhat negative in terms of the President's judgment of the Ho Chi Minh letter. Ho Chi Minh is now dead; he is a god in North Vietnam at least, and certainly has a good deal of strength elsewhere in the Communist world.
"The President defines this as a flat rejection, and yet you have a number of statements in here which suggest considerable flexibility in negotiating posture. This may not yet be apparent in Paris, but it certainly is there in the language of this Ho Chi Minh letter."
Eric Sevareid, CBS national correspondent, couldn't "escape the feeling—and it's only a feeling—that there may well be an announcement of a quite sizable troop withdrawal and fairly soon, possibly before these mid-November demonstrations. I have no evidence for this at all, except the feeling that it cannot rest where he has left it."
Mr. Sevareid said that philosophically Mr. Nixon "doesn't seem to be any different" from former President Johnson and former Secretary of State Dean Rusk in feeling that an American pull-out would collapse confidence in American leadership all over the world and set Communists into action in other areas.
"One would think if all that were true, if this war and our presence there was of this cosmic and universal importance, then the war should be won," Mr. Sevareid said. "But he has said that it is not to be—a military victory is not to be sought, and in that, it seems to me, there lies a profound illogic, that it's over the dam, he is trying to get us out."
Mr. Sevareid said he "hoped" the President could hold a majority of public opinion behind the policy of winding down the war slowly to an honorable end, but "I don't know that he can. I think this speech would have been effective last spring, but it's late in the day; and this is why I think something else is going to come and very soon. I do not believe it can rest here. But this is only my horseback opinion of one man. And I could be wrong"
The NBC News wrap-up, with John Chancellor as anchor man, opened with a summary of the President's speech by Mr. Chancellor, who was then joined in commentary by Herbert Kaplow, NBC White House correspondent, and Richard Scammon, consultant to NBC News on public opinion.
Mr. Chancellor felt that "the essence of the speech has been a defense of his [Mr. Nixon's] plan to end the war, which he thinks is working. His critics think it's not working and it's making the war go on longer, and they will be after him again."
Mr. Scammon, in response to questions, said he thought the President's speech "represented the viewpoint of the majority" of Americans, that there was also "a strong minority" in and outside of Congress that would oppose the President's proposals, but that "the polls would indicate he does have support, at least for the time being, for [his] policy." Since the Oct. 15 moratorium, he said, that support "has gone up, not down." Would it go up again after the demonstrations that critics had scheduled for Nov. 15? That, Mr. Scammon thought, "might depend a good deal" on the nature of the November demonstrations: "If they are as essentially decent as they were in October, I'm not sure. If they become violent, it's quite possible it would go up."
Mr. Scammon thought direct appeals to the public, such as Mr. Nixon had just made, "tend to bridge over whatever kind of a credibility gap there may be," but that in the long run the effect depends on the soundness of the arguments advanced because the people "are usually a good deal more perceptive about these things than many people give them credit for."
"If the argument is basically sound," he continued, "I think you'd find that there would be support for it, while there always will be a minority on both sides, you know, who will oppose any middle-of-the-road policy, which is what I think you would call this, which does not go either far to the left or far to the right."
Mr. Kaplow commented on the President's departure from his usual practice of not reading speeches: "Obviously, because of the delicacy of this issue, he chose not to take any chances. As a scripted performance, it was a pretty good Nixon performance . . . the image that came across tonight was that of a man who was familiar with what he was reading, obviously designed to counter the—activating the silent majority into support for him, maybe overwhelming, in a sense, by their expressions, the people who had been marching around the fences of the White House on Oct. 15 and are supposed to be back here on Nov. 15."
In response to another question Mr. Kaplow said it was his opinion that administration decisions on troop withdrawals are based less on progress in the Paris talks than on the strengthening of the Vietnamese army and the level of fighting, "and probably the level of fighting more than anything else."
The wrap-up concluded with Mr. Scammon noting that public opinion "has been very ambivalent about Vietnam.
"It has wanted to get out; it has wanted a Vietnamized war. On the other hand, it has wanted to get a settlement which did not permit the Communists to take over. And even though the American public says get out of Vietnam, Mr. President, they also say if you get out of Vietnam and lose, two-thirds of us are going to be against you."
Observed Mr. Chancellor: "It's not easy to have that job."