Herb Klein: Gentleman of the Press

Less than 24 hours after the news hit that Herb Klein had died, a sense of warm recollections and reminiscences followed among two generations of journalists who knew, admired, and loved the Copley News editor and longtime spokesman for Richard Nixon.

“Journalism is my profession and politics my avocation,” Klein said when he retired from Copley News in 2003, still going strong at age 86.  He was best known for his association with Nixon, having covered his fellow Californian’s first race for Congress back in 1946.  Klein came to know Nixon during his years as congressman, senator and vice president.  He made the jump from press to politics as Nixon’s press secretary in his first presidential race in 1960, his losing bid for governor of California in 1962 and his winning run for President in 1968.  

To the surprise of many in the Fourth Estate, Nixon never named his old friend White House Press Secretary, giving that title and the role of daily briefings to 29-year-old Ron Ziegler.  Klein instead became Nixon’s public relations adviser, with the title of director of communications in the White House — the first in the position later held by Pat Buchanan under Ronald Reagan and Dan Bartlett under George W. Bush.  

But, as a sportswriter for the University of Southern California’s Daily Trojan and a copy boy for the Alahambra (Cal.) Post Advocate before joining the Navy in World War II, Klein was first and foremost a newsman.  When he wasn’t working for Nixon, Klein returned to his beloved Copley and its flagship publication, the San Diego Tribune.

As a newsman first and foremost, Herb Klein helped me out when I needed his help.  He knew how to make deadlines.

Klein To the Rescue

As the Thanksgiving holiday approached in 2003, historian Robert Dallek made a charge that the national media was paying a lot of attention to, even though most of those involved were long dead.  In an article in Atlantic Magazine that was a prelude to his upcoming biography of John F. Kennedy, Dallek charged that Kennedy’s 1960 Republican opponent Richard Nixon might have been the mastermind of campaign-year burglaries in the offices of Kennedy’s physicians in unsuccessful attempts to get the candidate’s medical records (both doctors had them filed under a code name).

Noting that the robberies "have the aura of Watergate and of the break-in at the Beverly Hills office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist" a dozen years later, Dallek wrote that "it appears Richard Nixon may have tried at one point to gain access to Kennedy’s medical history." While the thieves are still unidentified, said Dallek, "it is reasonable to speculate they were Nixon operatives."

Reading Dallek’s article and watching one of the many interviews he gave on Good Morning America, I grew skeptical.  How could he say that a burglary in 1960 had the “aura” of one in 1972 with no substantiating evidence?  

Herb Klein would know, I decided.  Sure enough, his secretary said he would be happy to talk to me but I would have to call him at his weekend cabin, and do so on Thanksgiving Day.    

"It couldn’t have happened, was never even considered, and this is just a case of looking to take another crack at Richard Nixon," Klein told me as his family brought out turkey from the oven.  As Nixon’s 1960 campaign press secretary, he was one of small group of people who made the decisions in the campaign and spoke with authority.
"Anything that would have been close to [a break-in] would have been discussed with me and it wasn’t," Klein said, "We would never have gotten into that sort of thing." He added, "I’m amazed how [Dallek] presupposes that something that happened in 1972 could have happened in 1960, when there was an entirely different group around Mr. Nixon."

Klein did say that JFK’s health was indeed discussed by the Nixon high command. "But the question of his health was first raised not by us, but by [Democratic nomination opponent and eventual running mate] Lyndon Johnson and [LBJ campaign manager John] Connally before Kennedy was nominated," said Klein. "We stayed clear of two things-his health and his religion. Mr. Nixon felt strongly they were not issues."

That was a home run, all right. And I met my deadline.   Dallek and I later had a heated exchange after I read Klein’s quote to him.  But to his credit, the historian did tone down his much-publicized charge about a Nixon-run break-in.  In his book John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, Dallek refers to the break-in and concludes: “None of this is a clear demonstration that a Nixon operative tried to steal Kennedy’s medical records, but it is plausible.”  He even references my article in HUMAN EVENTS featuring Herb Klein in his endnotes.

Herb Klein came through for me in a big way when he helped me meet a deadline.  He touched the lives of a lot of others in the Fourth Estate, among them my friends Marguerite Sullivan (who became president of the National Press Club and is now senior director for the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy) and the late Lyn Nofziger, a major player in Ronald Reagan becoming governor of California and President.  Both got their start at Copley in the “Klein Days” and both thought highly of Herb.    

Yes, journalism was Herb’s profession, but part of that profession was being a gentleman toward all, including subjects and colleagues one would prefer to face in a boxing ring. He understood that well and, as we mourn his death, we recall Herb Klein most as that: a gentleman of the press.