Political Spin Vs. Good Policy

Richard M. Nixon flashes victory sign from helicopter as he leaves White House for the last time.
Commentary by Chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer.

All presidents try to control the press and what is said about them. Some do it better than others.

Richard Nixon took it another step. He tried to bring the press to heel and use it as propaganda arm of the government to show the North Vietnamese that the American people supported his war policy.

He saw those who opposed the war and the press as one and the same enemy. And when he could not get the demonstrators out of the streets and could not stop the press from reporting what was happening, he set out to destroy them both. In the end, of course, it destroyed him.

But 30 years after the Watergate break-in, what still amazes me is how little impact the effort had on events. No amount of political spin could have impressed the North Vietnamese at that point. They knew they were winning. Nor was there much chance that, by then, that American opinion could have been turned around. By then, most Americans had already concluded they did not want to pay the enormous cost in lives and treasure that Vietnam was taking.

Yet the good things that Nixon did -- the opening to China, the arms control overtures to the Soviets -- remain as remarkable achievements that even the dirty deeds of his political henchmen could not tarnish.

The best political spin is never a substitute for bad policy. But good policy, if it is good policy, always trumps a bad press. Had Nixon and his people remembered that, rather than devoting so much time to hairbrain schemes to destroy their enemies, they might have saved their presidency. Instead, they destroyed it and themselves.