Ron Ziegler would like to make one thing perfectly clear. He never lied to the press about Watergate.
"It's necessary to fudge sometimes," says the 41-year-old former presidential press secretary to Richard Nixon. "You have to give political answers. You have to give non -answers. But I never walked out on that podium and lied."
Ziegler, once the White House press corps' human pin cushion and now president of the Alexandria-based National Association of Truck Stop Operators, takes another swig of his Scotch.
"I don't know why I'm doing this interview," he says over lunch in an Alexandria restaurant. "I'm going to go home tonight and start thinking about all these questions. Okay, so what's Ron Ziegler doing as head of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators when Al Haig is secretary of state?"
It's a good question. A question even his mother would ask.
"She did," Ziegler deadpans, his baby face breaking into a grin.
Ronald L. Ziegler -- who served as Nixon's confidante, alter ego and mouthpiece from 1968 to 1975 -- now drives eight minutes to work in a Buick station wagon, rides to meetings and restaurants in the company's Cadillac, plays golf and tennis at the Belle Haven Country Club, takes his Honda 750 motorcycle out for a spin and lives in a modest suburban house with his wife Nancy and two teen-age daughters.
He says he doesn't miss the White House, though his Alexandria office is filled with the memorabilia of those grand and heated days when the evening news was not complete without a comment -- or no comment -- from Ronald Ziegler.
He took the truck stop job last November after quitting his post as vice president of Syska & Hennessy, a New York-based international engineering firm.
He also put Bic to bond, spending eight months writing his White House "reflections" -- not, he points out, another Watergate apologia.
"I was the only one on that plane to San Clemente with Nixon when power changed hands," he says. "I was there with Nixon in exile. I will publish a good bood someday. I'm proud of what I did as press secretary. I don't feel the need to apologize. There are some things, however, I would have done differently.
"Well, I don't want to go into that," he says.
The familiar face has gone from lean to round and his chin now has a twin. Thick black hair, once slickly parted executive-style, curls around the collar of his dark pin-striped suit. Silver patches at the temples soften the ice-blue eyes.
Was Richard Nixon a father figure? "No. That's the first question everybody always asks me."
What did Ron Ziegler know and when did he know it?"
"You can't oversimplify Watergate. It happened in stages," he says.Of course he was lied to, he says. Of course he was misled, misused and abused.
"That's the essence of a cover-up."
He takes a bite of his veal piccata and zaps a vintage Zieglerism across the table.
"I don't mean to be lacking in response to you," he says.
How about his famous imitation of comedian David Frye imitating Nixon?
Okay, then what's the best truck stop in America?
"I can't say. They're all good."
Ziegler clearly hopes to do for the truck stop operators what he tried to do for Richard Nixon.
"Together we must tell the private and public sector just what a truck stop is," he wrote in a brochure shortly after assuming the NATSO presidency last fall, "how important it is to the community and state in which it operates and above all -- WHY WE ARE PROUD OF WHAT WE ARE DOING."
"This is a challenge," he says over his second Scotch and water. "This is a very exciting industry. The American trucker is an underestimated man. I'm going to do for NATCO what needs to be done, to turn around that negative image of what a truck stop is."
He has traveled to truck stops across the country. He has eaten truck stop food. He has filled up with truck stop fuel.
A truck stop, says Ziegler, "is a great place to stop."
For the "photo" opportunity" later, Ziegler grabs a toy Mack truck and sets it on his desk. He smiles and sucks in his stomach. Disneyland & Credibility
Ronald L. Ziegler grew up in Cincinnati, moved to California in 1958, and enrolled at the University of Southern California. In his spare time, he took a job at Disneyland as a tour guide. The Jungle Tour guide.
It was good experience, Ziegler says with a rueful laugh.
In 1962, he tagged onto Nixon's Claifornia gubernatorial campaign as press assistant. When Nixon lost, Ziegler joined the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm at the behest of his once and future mentor, H. R. Haldeman, who became White House chief of staff. Six years later, he joined the Nixon presidential campaign and wound up, at 29, the youngest White House press secretary in history.
"Of course I was naive," he says. "But I think I was better prepared than most press secretaries. And I wouldn't have traded those years for anything."
Not the controversial years of the Vietnam war. Not the delicate years of opening diplomatic relations with China. Not even the Watergate years, when Ziegler was criticized for calling the 1972 break-in "a third-rate burglary."
"I was right ," he says, getting behind the wheel of his company Cadillac Brougham. "It was a third-rate burglary. Who knew it was going to be anything more than that?"
There is a CB radio in the car. But the NATSO president doesn't have a handle.
"The Secret Service gave me a code name while I was in the White House," he says. His name? "Whaleboat. Somebody obviously thought it was funny ," he says.
Ziegler's greatest mistake, former White House communications director Herbert Klein wrote in his recent book, "Making It Perfectly Clear," "was that he allowed himself to be duped by those who were covering up the Watergate case. He accepted too many of their answers blindly and thus lost his credibility as the spokesman for the White House."
Ziegler knows that now. There were moments, he says, of "shock and anger" though he will not be specific as to who caused these moments. Still, he had the one qualification crucial to performing the duties of press secretary: the confidence of the president.
He also knows now that a press secretary's credibility is only as good as the president's.
Ziegler's failure to realize the "duplicity" of those who were advising him, Klein writes, "led to the greatest bloodletting the White House has seen between a press secretary and the news corps."
White House briefings often ended in shouting matches. Newspapers were guilty of "shoddy and shabby journalism." Phrases like "bottom line" and "stonewall" joined a litany of others commonly referred to -- in that atmosphere of acrimony -- as "ziggies."
Then, on April 17, 1973, while announcing that all future statements on Watergate would be "operative," he agreed with New York Times reporter R. W. Apple that all his past statements were, well, "inoperative."
"I said it," Ziegler says. "I agreed, but I said it."
He's not glad he said it, but he knows it has stuck to him like Krazy Glue ever since.
Then, four months later in New Orleans, Nixon shoved him, right in front of the cameras, an act of frustration frozen forever with Ziegler playing presiential punching bag.
"It was a tense time," Ziegler says now."As I remember it, there had been an assassination threat.And more Watergate stuff was starting to come out. I wound up walking behind him. He saw the press coming at him, and he sort of took my shoulders and shoved me, saying 'I don't want any press' or something like that.
"Obviously I was humiliated," Ziegler says with a short laugh. "I more or less blended into the crowd. But afterward, on the plane going home, he came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder, in front of the whole staff, and apologized. I was embarrassed, but I understood the situation fully.
"It was not a shove of anger," Ziegler says. "It was a shove of frustration." The Press' Brick Wall
Ron Ziegler says he doesn't hate the press. In fact, he says he even liked some of those crusty White House reporters.
"What I objected to was the way in which some of the reporters were going about getting those stories. It's a great topic now in journalism schools," he says.
He chuckles about the time, in 1977, he ran into then-secretary of state Cyrus Vance in Damascus surrounded by a horde of press. Ziegler walked over to the reporters and said, "Okay, fellas, time for a briefing."
Does Ron Ziegler have a sense of humor?
"No," he deadpans. Then a small smile. A chuckle. Finally, a great guffaw.
His detractors -- still hostile after all these years -- say Ziegler as press secretary was power-hungry and arrogant, a man who made life miserable for his staff when he wasn't doing his imitation of a brick wall for the press. f
"I must say there were elements of arrogance about me," he says. "I'm a tough manager. Sure I wanted my coffee served in a Limoges china cup with the presidential seal. Sure I asked my secretaries to take my clothes to the laundry. But what are you supposed to do? Say you're sorry you're 20 minutes late for the briefing, but you were down getting your shoes shined at the Black Star valet?"
In the end, Ziegler -- hurt by the calls for his own resignation -- survived until his leader resigned. Aside from Gen. Alexander Haig, Ziegler was the one aide Nixon relied on. And on that steamy August day in 1974, when Nixon left the White House, Ron Ziegler was by his side.
"We left the White House under extremely unusual conditions. In disgrace," he says now. "I didn't have time in San Clemente to think about giving up the perks."
After spending months in San Clemente setting up Nixon's office in exile, Ziegler quietly emerged.
But a planned lecture tour in January 1975 fell through when several colleges -- sensitive to the controversy over the idea of Nixon's men chasing in on Watergate -- decided to withdraw their invitations. The dean of Boston University's School of Public Communication, John A. Wicklein, criticized the selection of the speaker, saying, "Ron Ziegler knowingly lied to the press and people of the country and did his best to subvert the First Amendment guarantees of a free press."
Stung by the criticism, Ziegler canceled the entire tour.
"I just didn't want to submit myself to that," he says now. "I didn't need it. I didn't have to."
"I think Ron has surmounted Watergate with his energy and resilience," says Ziegler's former White House assistant and now CBS correspondent Diane Sawyer, who accompanied him to San Clemente with several other staffers. "Given the battering he went through, I think it's a testimony to his fiber," she says. The Truck Stops Here
In 1975, Ziegler joined Syska & Hennessy, commuted back and forth from New York and traveled to the Mideast and Europe until last year, when he quit to find a job closer to home.
"Being president of any organization is not a come-down," says Nancy Ziegler. "I think people will say that no matter what. There's a good side to this. At least it's close by."
The 1,000-member association is headquartered in a small suite of rooms on the fifth floor of an Alexandria high-rise. Ziegler's office is the biggest. On the door is a brass nameplate: THE PRESIDENT.
But his office holds few, if any, references to his current position. The Williamsburg-blue walls are plastered with White House memorabilia and official photographs: Ziegler and John Connally, Ziegler and de Gaulle, Ziegler and Henry Kissinger, and a haunting black and white portrait by Ollie Atkins of Ziegler and Nixon walking beneath the palm trees at San Clemente.
There is a strange sense of deja vu inside the cozy room, almost as if it had been transported from the White House itself.
In the bookshelf are rows of presidential papers. On the coffee table is a silver cigarette box engraved with Nixon's the One .
"I still see him once in a while in New York," Ziegler says, lighting his third Marlboro in as many minutes. "We're still friends."
He doesn't see his former mentor, Haldeman, or his former tormentor, John Ehrlichman, or any other of the Watergate players.
Still the tight-lipped loyalist, Ziegler won't discuss what happened on that flight out to San Clemente with Nixon. That will be in the book. He won't discuss negotiations over the pardon for the same reason.
"I will say this, his mental and emotional strength was incredible. Most men would have walked into the sea at San Clemente. I think he truly knows the mistakes of his presidency."
No, he says, his current job is not a come-down. Nor is he shunned by the Republicans in power, although he says he will never take another government job.
"I really didn't have the letdown of leaving power. I just did not experience that," he says.
He does not feel he was made the scapegoat of Watergate. He is still invited to parties, likes living 10 minutes from Washington and plans to do some lobbying on Capitol Hill.
"I feel he's matured," says Nancy Ziegler. "And it's from what he had to live through, seeing people as they are -- not as you hoped they are. He's matured in his outlook on life. And he's seen an awful lot of life. Maybe that's mellowed him."
Her husband, she says, "could have gotten bitter. But he's not. He's realistic and understanding."
Ron Ziegler says he has many friends, and sometimes, people even ask for his autograph.
"I think," he says quietly, "that people understand."