Remembering the Night Dan Rather 'Sassed' President Richard Nixon

Jones Hall witnessed one of the great press vs. president sparring matches in 1974.

By Katharine Shilcutt February 21, 2017

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White House correspondent Dan Rather of CBS News asking Pres. Richard M. Nixon a question at a press conference, June 29, 1972, two years prior to their famous sparring match at Jones Hall.

Perhaps no other president since Richard Nixon has had as contentious a relationship with the press as Donald Trump. Then again, U.S. presidents have long had a prickly relationship with the news media.

President Obama fumed at the New York Times in 2014 over a pair of North Korea stories, prompting Maureen Dowd to famously quip, "Quit whining, Mr. President," while Grover Cleveland, whose presidency spanned two separate stints during the latter years of the 19th century, was conspicuously and openly hostile to the press. Cleveland didn't even allow newsmen in the White House, leaving them instead to stand outside in the snow and the rain to conduct all of their interviews. Franklin D. Roosevelt rhetorically and vocally assigned reporters whom he didn't like to his so-called "Dunce Club," and although Thomas Jefferson was an avid supporter of a free press as protected under the First Amendment, he nevertheless famously remarked: "Newspapers present for the most part only a caricature of disaffected minds."

Still, Nixon and Trump remain the only two U.S. presidents to outright refer to the press as "the enemy." And it was this assertion—among other incidents—that led to one of the most famous press vs. president showdowns in history, which took place right here in Houston nearly a half-century ago.

On March 19, 1974, Nixon stopped at Jones Hall on a national tour during the height of the Watergate scandal, making public appearances in an attempt to salvage his administration and reputation. "The president had received a warm reception in Chicago a few days earlier," wrote Ray Miller in his legendary 1982 history of the city, Houston. "He came to Houston to appear before a group he expected to be every bit as friendly." Unfortunately for Nixon, Houston-born and bred Dan Rather, then CBS's White House correspondent, was in the audience that night.

We'll let Miller—the Eyes of Texas himself, who was serving as Channel 2 KPRC's news director at the time and witnessed the evening's events firsthand—take it from here:

Presidential press secretary Ron Ziegler made it plain to us that he hoped White House correspondents would not be allowed any part in the proceedings. He said the president wanted local people to be able to ask him questions. We made no promises. Usually at a regular presidential news conference, the president decides which reporter will ask the next question. I was designated to make the decisions that night.

The whole show was on television live. The early questions were mild and general and the president got to make most of the comments he came to make. Finally somebody did ask a Watergate question and the president made an answer that indicated he was cooperating fully with the investigation. The network correspondents all wanted to jump in then.... I picked Dan Rather to ask the next question.

Nixon was still elaborating on is answer to the previous question when Rather took his position at the microphone. The president did not appear to be pleased.... He just stared at Rather. There was a short silence. Rather saw that he would have to speak first and spoke the standard corespondent's line: "Mr. President, Dan Rather, CBS News." The audience had been applauding all of Nixon's sallies up to this point. There was a little applause when Dan introduced himself, but the applause was drowned out by the boos. Some Nixon boosters perceived Rather as an enemy. The president listened to the applause and the boos for a few second and asked, "Are you running for something?"

You can see Rather's reply and Nixon's response below:

The nationally televised sparring match earned Rather criticism, with NBC News president Reuven Frank observing that Rather "smart-assed" Nixon and Nixon supporters condemning Rather for having "sassed" a sitting president. Rather had the last laugh, however, when Nixon resigned the presidency less than five months later rather than face impeachment.

Over 47 years later, Rather, still a dyed-in-the-wool Texan as evidenced by his use of the word cojones in a viral Facebook post aimed at Trump written a few weeks ago, is not done tangling with presidents.

"When you have a press secretary in his first appearance before the White House reporters threaten, bully, lie, and then walk out of the briefing room without the cajones [sic] to answer a single question..." wrote the newsman on January 22. "When you have a President stand before the stars of the fallen CIA agents and boast about the size of his crowds (lies) and how great his authoritarian inaugural speech was…. These are not normal times."

But were they ever?

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