Ron Ziegler

Richard Nixon's loyal press secretary

Wednesday 12 February 2003 01:00 GMT

Ronald Louis Ziegler, businessman and government official: born Covington, Kentucky 12 May 1939; Press Secretary to President Richard Nixon 1969-74; married Nancy Lee Plessinger (two daughters); died San Diego, California 10 February 2003.

Ron Ziegler's great contributions to America were to his country's political vocabulary. As Richard Nixon's press spokesman, it fell early on to him to describe the Watergate break-in as "a third-rate burglary". He is also credited with coining the term "inoperative" for later statements on the scandal that subsequently proved wrong.

In fact, transcripts show he never used the word. After one administration volte-face on Watergate, he declared, "This is the operative statement." A reporter asked if all earlier statements on the subject were therefore "inoperative". To which Ziegler replied in his laconic fashion, "Yes." A political catchphrase had been born, to be heard to this day.

Ronald Ziegler was one of the California-based advertising executives with German-sounding names with whom Nixon loved to surround himself. He first hooked up with the future President as a student at the University of Southern California, after his parents had moved to Los Angeles from Kentucky. In 1962 he went to work for H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, later Nixon's chief of staff, at the LA office of J. Walter Thompson.

At the White House, Haldeman and Nixon's chief domestic adviser John Ehrlichman were known as "the Berlin Wall" for the protective guard they threw around the President. But Ziegler's dogged defence of Nixon as the scandal deepened made him at least a brick in that wall.

At a baby-faced 29, Ziegler was the youngest ever presidential spokesman when he went to Washington in January 1969. But only after the fateful break-in by Nixon campaign operatives at the Democratic Party headquarters on 17 June 1972 did he become a celebrity, as the "third-rate burglary" mushroomed into the biggest political scandal in modern American history.

For many months he gave as good as he got, describing the legendary sleuthing of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post as "shabby journalism" and "a blatant effort at character assassination". But on 1 May came the first contrition, when he publicly apologised to the reporters and their newspaper the day after Ehrlichman and Haldeman had been forced by Nixon to resign. "When we are wrong, we are wrong, as we were in that case," Ziegler said. He started to add, "But . . .", only to be cut off by a reporter: "Now, don't take it back, Ron."

In a 1981 interview with the Post, Ziegler denied he had ever known of the cover-up, despite his closeness to Nixon. Throughout his life, he claimed he had never knowingly lied in answer to a reporter's question. But, as Watergate worsened, Ziegler began to acknowledge his imperfections. "If my answers sound confusing, I think they are confusing because the questions are confusing and the situation is confusing – and I'm not in a position to clarify it," he memorably remarked at a White House briefing a few months before Nixon himself resigned on 9 August 1974.

Whatever his faults, disloyalty was not among them. Ziegler stayed with Nixon until the end and beyond. He was the only senior aide who accompanied the disgraced President that day on his flight back to California. Later he denounced the ostracism of his former boss, saying that Nixon was "America's first political exile".

After leaving the White House, Ziegler himself held a variety of consulting and industry association posts, mainly in California, before retiring to live in his condominium apartment in the plush San Diego suburb of Coronado in 1998.

Life was not always easy. For many, he was eternally tarred by his association with Nixon. A few, however, saw a tragic quality in him, of promise and talent sacrificed for worthy motives to an unworthy cause. As Gerald Warren, who succeeded Ziegler as White House spokesman under President Gerald Ford, put it:

Deep down he was a wonderful person . . . He was put in an awkward position. It wasn't easy, but he did his best.

The journalists he dealt with were less forgiving. For them – and for most Americans of a certain age – Ziegler was for ever the deceitful, evasive mouthpiece of an administration rotten to the core.

Rupert Cornwell

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in