Nixon aide Colson said The Post needed to curry favor with administration

The library of Richard M. Nixon made public 280,00 pages of documents, including a memo about The Post by Charles Colson.
The library of Richard M. Nixon made public 280,00 pages of documents, including a memo about The Post by Charles Colson. (1973 Associated Press Photo)
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By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Charles Colson, special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, suggested in January 1973 that The Washington Post fire Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, pull Watergate stories off the front page or produce "obviously friendly editorials" on the Vietnam War as ways to prove it wanted to end its warfare with the White House, according to a document released Monday by the Nixon Presidential Library.

The Jan. 15, 1973, "eyes only" memo for the file is among 280,000 pages of documents the Nixon Library made public.

It recorded a conversation Colson had had three days earlier with Robert F. Ellsworth, a former congressman and at the time a partner in Lazard Freres, a New York investment-banking firm.

The firm had helped The Washington Post Co. go public through a stock offering in 1971. Colson wrote that the bankers were concerned about the company's financial future, given its newspaper's contentious relationship with the White House.

"I told Bob that the Post had brought this on itself," Colson wrote, and they had "no one to blame but Kay [Katharine] Graham," the newspaper's publisher as well as the company's president and primary owner.

Ellsworth, reached by telephone Monday in California, said he did not remember the luncheon conversation. But he added: "It sounds just like Colson."

Attempts to reach Colson were unsuccessful.

At the time of the memo, the Watergate affair -- sparked when burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex -- was front-page news. In the five days around the lunch, the burglars were either convicted or pleaded guilty, and within a month the cover-up that would eventually bring down Nixon had begun to collapse.

Colson wrote that he told Ellsworth of a group "that would buy the Post tomorrow if Mrs. Graham would like to sell." In her memoir, "Personal History," Graham wrote, "At one point Nixon had a plan to get Richard Mellon Scaife, the conservative Pittsburgh millionaire, to buy The Post."

Colson also told Ellsworth that the White House wanted to see "some evidence of good faith" from The Post. He suggested "a few obviously friendly editorials on how well the president is handling the Vietnam War, perhaps a firing of Bradlee, and some straight coverage for a change, maybe they could start putting the Watergate back inside the paper where it belongs instead of blasting it across the front pages."

Told Monday of Colson's suggestion, Bradlee laughed.

The White House aide also wrote in his memo that, based on the lunch, he was "convinced . . . that the Post is hurting." He said that the White House's feeding stories to the rival Washington Star and challenging the licenses of two of The Post Co.'s television stations had caused concern over the company's financial future.

"Clearly the Post is very, very worried," Colson wrote.

In a newly released handwritten note, John Ehrlichman -- Nixon's domestic adviser to then-Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman -- said of Colson: "I think his judgment is not just bad. In combination with Richard Nixon's proclivities, it could be fatal."

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