Remembering the night Nixon resigned


Yeah, I’m a day late with this, but it was some hours-old Tweets I saw this morning that got me to thinking about it:

Then, later in the day, I wondered if I could see that front page again, and sure enough, Google delivered — although a small, low-res image. See the page above. (See how much wider newspaper pages were then?)

It was at the very start of my journalism career, when I was still in school. I worked nights at the long-extinct job of copy boy, although in deference to feminist sensibilities it was by that time called “copy clerk.” Basically, I was an errand boy, learning the business. And at that point in time — the waning days of hot type — the function was essential. In a time when everything was physical instead of digital, everything — news stories, pictures, proofs (and the coffee and meals that everyone in the newsroom had the power to send us for) — had to be carried to each stage of the process by hand. And it was a great way to learn the business. I knew some things that senior editors didn’t know about where things were and how they worked together (mostly, where to get the coffee).

And there were obstacles, and workarounds, that would confound anyone who started in the business just a little later. For instance, if you want to make a two-word headline stretch all the way across the page today, you just click and drag and it’s done. But back then a headline wasn’t ones and zeroes; it was a physical thing, set in heavy metal by a machine that could only make it so big. I think the biggest possible was either 72 points (an inch high) or 96.

So here’s what we did: The managing editor wrote “Nixon Resigns” on a scrap of paper and sent me to the composing room (on the next floor up) to get it set into type as big as we could. Then, we took a high-contrast proof (on slick paper instead of the usual cheap newsprint) of that metal-type hed and shot a picture of it on one of the cameras used to make press plates, which used page-sized negative film. Then we blew that image up to full-page width, and made a proof of that, which I then ran back downstairs to the M.E., so he could see how his headline would look.

This was not something you did every day. We were doing it that night because this was history. The editor was being creative.

When I brought the finished product to him, the M.E. looked upon his headline and pronounced it good.

By the way, here was the scene in the newsroom when Nixon was addressing the nation: A bunch of us crowded around the TV over the M.E.’s desk, and watched and listened. I forget the name of our Washington correspondent. Let’s say it was Clark Kent. Someone in the group wondered aloud where Clark was at that moment. Our gruff metro editor, Angus McEachran, snorted, “Watching it on TV, just like us!” There was some laughter.

Those who want to paint the newspaper business as already a fossil, left behind by TV, might point to that 1974 scene as proof.

But here’s the thing: When the show was over, all these people had to jump into action. I’d be running back and forth to the wire machines with the copy out of Washington. Editors would be editing that copy and putting it onto pages. Reporters would be calling Tennessee pols for reactions, and maybe even doing some man-on-the-street.

And the next morning, people would have a huge, in-depth package of stories about what had happened, explaining every detail and what it meant.

So what? you think. But you’re not thinking hard enough. That morning, that would be the ONLY source of reporting and commentary available to that reader. Maybe they saw the speech the night before, but that was over. There was no 24/7 TV coverage, babbling on endlessly. (And no DVR or even VHS so you could have recorded it and watched again. You saw it when you saw it, and that was it.) There was no Web, no social media. Other newspapers were not available to anyone unless they came in the mail a day or two later. The only source they had that morning for all the details and perspective on this historic event was their local newspaper. Other sources — weekly magazines that came in the mail and such — would be available later. But the newspaper was it on that morning, the one source of information about this huge thing that had happened.

So we had an important role to play for our readers, and I felt important playing the bit part I did. I got some extra copies of that headline proof and took them home. I got together with my soon-to-be wife and some friends and showed these proofs off. I felt like a big shot…

Managing Editor Bill Sorrels, at the desk where he was sitting when I brought him the headline proof.

Managing Editor Bill Sorrels, at the desk where he was sitting when I brought him the headline proof.

13 thoughts on “Remembering the night Nixon resigned

  1. Norm Ivey

    Daddy was working for US Army Communications Command in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He took the entire family to his office and studio where we watched it on a bank of a dozen or so monitors while he recorded it. The experience instilled in me a need to experience history as it’s happening, even if it’s long distance.

  2. Phillip

    I only wish we had a Gerald Ford in the wings waiting to take over if/when this President leaves office. I don’t see Mike Pence as the kind of person to bring the country together. Ford had the respect of both parties in the Congress and was a unifier, not a divider.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, he’s no Gerald Ford. But our political system doesn’t tend to produce Gerald Fords these days.

      But I’ll tell you what he is: He’s somewhat better (because of his experience and the fact he’s not a completely unknown quantity) than if you dragged a net down the street and made the first person you pulled out of the net president. Since THAT would almost certainly be an improvement over what we have, then Pence would be, too….

    2. Mike's America

      Yeah Phillip. Pence has demonstrated extraordinary skill and restraint these past few months but he’s a Christian so we can’t have that can we?

      Better see if Nancy Pelosi is free. Right?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Mike, I don’t think that comes anywhere close to what Phillip is saying.

        Whatever your ideology, the fact is that Pence is no Gerald Ford, in terms of ability to unite the country after a trauma.

        Pence is from the conservative wing of his party, and has come up in a time of such partisanship that Ford wouldn’t have recognized his party as it is today, just as people like JFK and LBJ wouldn’t know the Democratic Party of today. Ford was a guy who had a rep for working with all sorts. A different man for a different time.

        Also, Gerald Ford was simply a more important figure in the Congress in his day. By contrast, I didn’t know who Pence was before Trump chose him.

        Bottom line from what I’ve seen — Pence would be a HUGE improvement over Trump (as most established Republicans would be). But he isn’t the same as Ford.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          The bigger question is, how are we ever to get to the point when Pence can take over and show us what he can do?

          Back in 1974, both parties had statesmen who could rise above party for the good of the nation. It was especially important that we had Republicans willing to hold Nixon accountable. But where are the Howard Bakers and Fred Thompsons of today?

          They exist — we have people like Lamar Alexander who are very much in the Baker mold. But they’re not the ones who set the mood nowadays…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Note that all the Republicans I just cited — Baker, Thompson and Alexander — are Tennesseans, and closely connected. I’m sure some other states have produced some statesmen as well; those are just the first ones I thought of…

  3. bud

    Love the old timey typewriters and rotary phones in the photo. Looks like a completely different era but I was a young man in the early 70s. Seems like yesterday.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Old-timey! Those are the latest thing in typewriters, I’ll have you know!

      Seriously, those represent the last major development in typewriters, just before people quit using them altogether.

      Those are IBM Selectrics — the kind with all the letters on a type “ball” that spun around to type the appropriate letter, instead of having each character on a separate arm. (At least, MOST of the typewriters are Selectrics. There’s one older model in the picture, to the right of the guy who’s sitting on a desk in the background — Sorrels’ head is partly blocking it.)

      The Selectrics were an essential part of a transitional publishing system. They typed very precisely lined-up and spaced letters, making it easy for early electronic scanners to scan and digitize the copy. The scanner would translate it onto paper punch tape. The copy could then be fed into a computer terminal for editing — after which the edited copy would be run off on another paper punch tape. That tape would be fed into a typesetter that printed the type on slick paper — as opposed to the hot metal of the old Linotypes — which would then be cut into columns and run through a machine that put molten wax on the back of it. That waxed type was placed on a page that would be camera-ready to make a negative, which could then be used to make a plate for the press.

      Parts (most feature pages) of the paper were at that time being produced using this cold-type method, but the main news pages were still done on hot type.

      When I joined my first paper after college — The Jackson Sun — a year later, it was completely on cold type, using the Selectric/scanner/paper tape method.

      Five years after that, all copy input was digital, with everybody working at terminals connected to a mainframe.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Speaking of technology.

      You couldn’t even get your news faxed to you then, unless you were way cutting edge and had a big budget — they wouldn’t be mass-produced for years. I saw a fax machine in use for the first time in my life more than a year later. It was a very gee-whiz thing then. About the same time — fall of 1975 — I remember hearing for the first time of phones that would do things like call waiting and caller ID. Which was pretty astounding…


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