Nixon's Denigration of Fred Thompson Newsworthy to ABC

The news media have hardly been admirers of Richard Nixon, but ABC News found new respect Tuesday for Nixon's assessments now that old tapes show how during Watergate he ridiculed furure GOP presidential candidate Fred Thompson as “dumb as hell.” On the day of Thompson's debut at a GOP residential debate, both Good Morning America and World News featured stories from Brian Ross, who in the World News version boasted that “we spent weeks going through the hours of Nixon Oval Office tapes.” But though Ross reported nothing not posted two months ago on ABCNews.com, he claimed to have discovered “a tantalizing inside look at how Thompson was regarded by the President and his inner circle.” Reminding viewers that Thompson was the Republican counsel on the Senate committee investigating Watergate, Ross reported that “when Nixon's aides told him of Thompson's appointment, the President was less than impressed.” ABC then played audio from May 14, 1973 of Nixon denigrating Thompson: “He's dumb as hell.”

Cuing up a bite of Nixon asking, “He isn't very smart, is he?”, Ross relayed: “By June 1973, Thompson was still being described in the Oval Office as not very smart, but at least beginning to play ball with the White House behind the scenes.” For expert analysis of Thompson's complicity with Nixon, Ross turned to “author” John Dean who maintained Thompson saw it as “his duty...not necessarily to find the truth, but to find out what would be best for Richard Nixon.” Of course, viewers of MSNBC's Countdown know Dean as one of Keith Olbermann's favorite guests and author of such books as Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush and Conservatives Without Conscience.

Ross did conclude by suggesting that maybe Thompson wasn't the dumb one after all: “Two months later, Nixon would resign in disgrace, and the man he called 'dumb as hell' would go on to become a United States Senator, a successful actor, and now a candidate for President.”

The Ross pieces, obviously timed to hit Thompson on his big day, hardly provided any fresh information. As Scott Whitlock pointed out in his earlier Tuesday posting about the Ross story (“ABC Gleefully Plays Watergate Tapes Attacking 'Dumb' Thompson”) on Good Morning America, which largely featured the same Nixon quotes but otherwise was quite different with alternate reporting by Ross and showcasing soundbites from those not in the World News version, Ross didn't really plow any new ground from an early August piece by ABC's Jake Tapper.

Tapper's August 7 ABCNews.com posting, “The Fred Thompson Watergate Myth: Was GOP Candidate More Friend Than Foe to Nixon?”, carried this photo caption: “In newly released Nixon tapes, the President calls then-Watergate prosecutor Fred Thompson 'dumb as hell' but 'friendly.'” The headline over the Tuesday posting by Ross on his The Blotter blog: “Nixon on Thompson: 'Dumb' but 'Friendly.'” See page 3 of the Tapper post for the “dumb as hell” quote and page 4 for the “he isn't very smart, is he?” quote.

Page 4 also included this 1973 evaluation of Thompson by then-Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, a quote that didn't make it into either Ross story: “He's terribly smart.”

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth provided this transcript of the October 9 World News story:
CHARLES GIBSON: Well, as we said a moment ago, today was Fred Thompson's first debate. Thompson came to prominence in 1973 when, just 30 years old, he became the Republican counsel to the Senate committee investigating Watergate. Which is why our Brian Ross spent some time listening to secret recordings made at the Nixon White House, as the President and his aides talked about Thompson. Brian is joining us now.

BRIAN ROSS: Charlie, we spent weeks going through the hours of Nixon Oval Office tapes stored in the National Archives. And what emerges is a tantalizing inside look at how Thompson was regarded by the President and his inner circle. Thompson's job on the Watergate committee was to lead the Republican side of the investigation. When Nixon's aides told him of Thompson's appointment, the President was less than impressed.

RICHARD NIXON AUDIO, DATED MAY 14, 1973: Oh, sh--, he's dumb as hell. Fred Thompson? Who is he? Who is he?

ROSS: Nixon told White House Counsel John Dean he was worried that Thompson's Democratic counterpart, Sam Dash, would outsmart Thompson.

NIXON AUDIO, DATED MARCH 16, 1973: Dash is too smart for that kid.

JOHN DEAN AUDIO: Sure. Runs circles around him.

ROSS: By June 1973, Thompson was still being described in the Oval Office as not very smart, but at least beginning to play ball with the White House behind the scenes, helping to defend the President.

FRED BUZHARDT AUDIO, DATED JUNE 6, 1973: Our approach is now, we've got pretty good rapport with Fred Thompson. He came through fine for us this morning.

NIXON audio: He isn't very smart, is he?

BUZHARDT: Not extremely so, but-

NIXON: But he's friendly.

BUZHARDT: But he's, but he's friendly.

NIXON: Good.

ROSS: A few days later, White House aides tell the President Thompson has secretly agreed to help undercut the credibility of John Dean, who by then had become a key witness against Nixon.

NIXON AUDIO, DATED JUNE 11, 1973: Does he realize that Dean has some problems?

BUZHARDT AUDIO: Oh, yes, sir. Quite a few. He is willing to work with us.

ROSS: Thirty-four years later, Dean, now an author, says he remembers it well.

JOHN DEAN, FORMER COUNSEL TO PRESIDENT NIXON: Fred Thompson is a direct link to the White House. He hopes the worst isn't going to come out, and that's his, as he sees his duty, is not necessarily to find the truth, but to find out what would be best for Richard Nixon.

BUZHARDT audio, dated June 11, 1973: He's willing to go, you know, pretty much the distance now. And he said he realized his responsibility was going to have to be as a Republican increasingly.

ROSS: Two months later, Nixon would resign in disgrace, and the man he called "dumb as hell" would go on to become a United States Senator, a successful actor, and now a candidate for President.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center