ABC Gleefully Plays Watergate Tapes Attacking 'Dumb' Thompson

On Tuesday's "Good Morning America," ABC contributor Brian Ross chose the day of Fred Thompson's first debate to slam the 2008 candidate for his work as a lawyer on the Watergate hearings 34 years ago and also play clips questioning the then-attorney's intelligence. The investigative correspondent intoned that although Thompson has touted his role in the hearings, "a much different, less valiant picture of Thompson emerges from listening to the White House audiotapes made at the time as President Nixon plotted strategy with his aides in the Oval Office." Ross proceeded to play several clips of Richard Nixon calling Thompson "dumb as hell" and of administration associates alleging that the lawyer will help the White House.

As all of this information is old news, the Ross report is clearly timed to injure Thompson on the day of his big debate. The New York Times reported the same allegations way back on August 27, 2007. The article, by Jo Becker, used many of the same Nixon quotes. (And, in fact, a report by ABC's own Jake Tapper preceded the NYT article and also mentioned Nixon's "dumb as hell" line.) Ross closed his October 9 segment by snidely noting, "We tried to get a response from Thompson but his staff did not return our phone calls and he walked right by us when we tried to put the question to him in person." However, the ABC reporter also referenced other Thompson associates, such as former Senator Howard Baker, who appointed Thompson to the Watergate investigation. And although Baker is very much still alive, did Ross seemed unable to find anyone of that era who would go on record and say something positive about Thompson.

GMA co-host Robin Roberts introduced the segment with a tone that suggested new information was about to be revealed. She breathlessly asserted, "And ABC News spent several months digging some revealing tapes out of the national archives, shedding light on Thompson's role as a young lawyer, investigating the Watergate scandal."

However, as noted earlier, both The New York Times and ABC have previously reported many of the key quotes. Ross played this clip during his October 9 segment:

Alexander Haig: "He's talking to Fred Thompson. I said you're not-"

Richard Nixon: "Oh, [Bleep]. He's dumb as hell. Fred Thompson. Who's-- Who's he? He won't say anything."

The August 27 New York Times reported it this way:

Moreover, new transcripts from the Nixon White House tapes reveal that the Nixon administration regarded Thompson as a useful idiot -- "dumb as hell," in President Nixon's words, but "friendly."

And Jake Tapper reported on this even earlier, on August 7. The GMA "investigative team," however, has yet to look into the Hillary Clinton campaign hiring convicted document thief Sandy Berger.

Also, it should be noted that this is the second time in less than a week that GMA has used Richard Nixon as a club to attack conservatives. On October 5, David Wright defended Barack Obama's decision not to wear a U.S. flag lapel pin by pointing out that Nixon wore one while "he told the American people he had nothing to do with Watergate."

A transcript of the segment, which aired October 9 at 7:10am, follows:

ABC Graphic: "The Fred Thompson Files: Watergate Tapes Reveal Nixon’s Thoughts"

Roberts: "All eyes will be on former Senator Fred Thompson when he walks on the stage for the Republican debate tonight, his first debate since he joined the presidential race. And ABC News spent several months digging some revealing tapes out of the national archives, shedding light on Thompson's role as a young lawyer, investigating the Watergate scandal. ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross is here with more. Very enlightening, Brian. Good morning."

Brian Ross: "Good morning, Robin. Fred Thompson's made much of his role 30 years ago as a young Senate lawyer, helping to lead the investigation of Watergate and President Richard Nixon. But a much different, less valiant picture of Thompson emerges from listening to the White House audiotapes made at the time as President Nixon plotted strategy with his aides in the Oval Office. Thompson's job on the Watergate committee was to lead the Republican side of the investigation. Appointed by his mentor, Senator Howard Baker, of Tennessee. When Nixon's aide, H.R. Haldeman told him of the Thompson's appointment, Nixon was less than impressed."

H.R. Haldeman: "Baker has appointed Fred Thompson as minority counsel."

President Richard Nixon. "Oh, [Bleep]. That kid."

Haldeman: "I guess so."

Ross: "Nixon worried that Thompson's Democratic counterpart, Sam Dash, would outsmart Thompson."

Nixon: "Dash is too smart for that kid."

John Dean: "Sure. Runs circles around him."

Ross: "As the investigation picked up speed, Nixon grew increasingly concerned about Thompson standing up to the Democrats, speaking here with his then chief of staff Alexander Haig."

Alexander Haig: "He's talking to Fred Thompson. I said you're not-"

Nixon: "Oh, [Bleep]. He's dumb as hell. Fred Thompson. Who's-- Who's he? He won't say anything."

Ross: "Weeks later, Thompson was still being described in the Oval Office as not very smart but, at least, beginning to play ball."

Fred Buzhardt: "Our approach is now, we've got pretty good rapport with Fred Thompson. He came through fine through for us this morning."

Nixon: "He isn't very smart, is he?"

Buzhardt: "Not extremely so--

Nixon: "But he's friendly."

Buzhardt: "But he's, he's friendly."

Nixon: "Good."

Ross: "A few days later, White House aides are heard saying that Thompson will be even more helpful than his boss, Senator Baker. And that Thompson agreed to secretly help undercut the credibility of white house whistle blower John Dean."

Buzhardt: "They've finally got him under oath. Thompson will work with us so that--"

Ross: "Does he realize that Dean has some problems?"

Buzhardt: "Oh, yes, sir, quite a few. He is willing to work with us. He is also now willing to work with us on shifting some focus to the Democrats. He's finally made up his mind he's got to start look at some of their stuff."

Scott Armstrong (Fmr. Investigator, Senate Watergate Cmte): "It was the equivalent of two prosecutors, because supposedly this was bipartisan, knowing about something and one of them going behind the scenes to tell the person being accused what the witnesses were saying about him."

Buzhardt: "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 resigned and Thompson would later take credit for helping to reveal the secret White House taping system that led to Nixon's downfall. We tried to get a response from Thompson but his staff did not return our phone calls and he walked right by us when we tried to put the question to him in person."

Roberts: "All right, Brian. And again, many anxious to see how he'll do tonight in his first presidential debate."

Ross: "Big moment for him."

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org