Early in Richard M. Nixon's 1968 campaign for president, his speechwriter, Raymond K. Price, was among those charged with a delicate task: Review Nixon's disastrous "last press conference" speech of Nov. 7, 1962, and figure out how to handle it in the upcoming race.
Nixon had delivered that rambling address after losing his bid to unseat Pat Brown as governor of California. Surprising reporters by venturing down from his hotel room the morning after his defeat, Nixon sneered at "all the members of the press [who] are so delighted that I have lost" and chided them for biased coverage. He concluded, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference and it will be one in which I have welcomed the opportunity to test wits with you."
Combined with his failed 1960 presidential bid, the 1962 loss and the emotional speech — especially its signature phrase — were seen as consigning the former vice president to oblivion. Five nights later, ABC aired a special titled "The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon." But when Price and others screened the dreaded speech years later, they found that it didn't seem so bad.
Nixon's remarks were indeed raw and spontaneous, especially for a man given to controlling his public image tightly. The barbs at the press displayed an unmistakable hostility.
But the candidate neither shouted nor raged. His manner was far more restrained than printed accounts — or public memory — suggested. He even conceded: "I've given as good as I've taken."
In short, in its many retellings, the "last press conference," though reflective of some real bitterness, was magnified into a debacle more damning than it had to be.
This story comes to mind after watching the Washington punditocracy indulge in a giddy round of derision at Howard Dean's expense. The former Vermont governor and onetime front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination was judged to have lost his moorings during his concession speech following his disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses Monday night.
Like Nixon's press conference, however, Dean's speech has grown increasingly bizarre — and more damaging to his campaign — in the echo chamber of news media chatter. What began as some people's opinion swelled into the unanimous verdict of the news media. Yet like Nixon, Dean could easily come back — and in a matter of weeks, not years.
When I first saw the snippets of Dean's Monday night speech, they struck me as little more than the fiery rallying cry of an exhausted, hoarse campaigner trying to keep disappointment from sapping his troops. His final grunt did sound sort of odd, but juxtaposed against Dean's other comments that night, which were subdued and conciliatory, his overall reaction seemed reasonable.
Within 24 hours, however, a consensus among the news commentators had congealed that Dean had lost it. Cable news replayed the offending speech fragments over and over Tuesday. Pundits tittered and shook their heads over Dean's eruption of "anger" — a quality of Dean's they had always overstated and overrated anyway.
Ultimately, television pumped this nonstory so full of life that many newspapers felt obliged to run another round of articles about it Wednesday and even Thursday. Dean was described as a "rabid dog" and "borderline psychotic" by analysts. Soon the conventional-wisdom buzz was not that Dean's third-place showing would doom him but that his grunts and howls would.
In this respect, Dean's experience also recalls that of another presidential aspirant — Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie. In the 1972 New Hampshire primary, Muskie, the Democratic front-runner, was facing false and scurrilous attacks in the conservative Manchester Union Leader.
At one campaign stop, Muskie — responding emotionally to the paper's publisher, William Loeb — appeared to tear up ever so slightly. Television aired the clip and newspapers played it up on the front page — creating a story line that a weeping Muskie lacked the fortitude to lead. Although he still won the New Hampshire primary, his rival George McGovern gained the momentum and the good press. After a poor showing in Florida, Muskie dropped out.
Later, some correspondents admitted that they had botched the Muskie story. Even the teardrops they thought they saw, the Washington Post's David Broder wrote, might well have been melting snow. Yet the story had been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite the soul-searching that often follows from a journalistic failure like the Muskie incident, the media rarely learn from their mistakes. Now Dean is paying the price for the self-satisfied cockiness of the Washington elites that he so often decries. What had been a relatively innocuous, if slightly goofy, speech has metamorphosed into a real threat to his prospects, as late-night comedians drill home the image of a deranged Dean. Perhaps the propensity toward hysteria and overheated rhetoric belongs to the media, not to Dean.
In the end, Dean's resilience, or lack of it, will probably determine his fate. In 1972, Muskie ruefully concluded that given his temperament, he wasn't the right man for a polarized America that year. In contrast, within days of his "last press conference," Nixon was plotting his political future.
David Greenberg, who teaches history and political science at Yale, is the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image" (W.W. Norton, 2003).
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times