Richard Nixon's lesson: Good PR never trumps bad policy

President Richard Nixon delivering his State of the Union Address to Congress, Jan. 30, 1973.
AFP / Getty Images

Shakespeare's Mark Antony said, "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones."

Generation after generation of Washington press agents have tried to change that while their bosses were still alive. Mostly they failed.

This 40th anniversary weekend of Richard Nixon's resignation is a good time to bring it up because the Nixon Administration invented modern political public relations -- the photo ops, the limited access, the attempts to control the news. So much of it goes back to the Nixon operatives.

Every president since has tried to refine the techniques -- the staged photos, keeping a distance from reporters, speaking in gobble-de-gook -- as they tried to manipulate the narrative.

As I watched the current administration bar the press from some of Secretary of State Kerry's appearances at the recent Africa conference -- were they worried he might be asked a question about the Ebola epidemic? -- it reminded me that most of the time the press agents learned the wrong lessons from the Nixon folks, and Nixon himself provides the perfect example of why.

Richard Nixon's opening to China and his arms control efforts with the Soviets live after him as remarkable achievements. As his attempt to undermine the constitution lives on as a dastardly deed.

The lesson Washington never learns is that good public relations never trumps bad policy, nor can good policy ever be undermined by bad PR. Most of these modern public relations operations are a waste of time. Better to concentrate on policy.

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    Bob Schieffer is a CBS News political contributor and former anchor of "Face The Nation," which he moderated for 24 years before retiring in 2015.