The 50th anniversary of the Los Angeles killing spree by Charles Manson’s followers has inspired a deluge of Manson movies and books.
There are lots of lists and guides: the best movies and books about Manson, the “19 Manson Murder Details You Probably Shouldn’t Read Before Bed” and “an annotated playlist of Manson-related music.”
There’s even a nicely timed real estate listing for a Los Angeles house where Manson’s followers participated in more killing.
But so far, nothing about Manson and Richard Nixon. (Yes, that Richard Nixon.)
The Washington Post shouldn’t be scooped on any Nixon-related story given the paper’s historic journalistic effort that brought down the 37th president — especially a story as bananas as the one that will unfurl following this sentence.
In early August of 1970, as Nixon was grappling with the Vietnam War, Manson and his followers were on trial in Los Angeles for the killings of Tate and several others. Nixon, like the rest of America, had apparently been following the trial on TV and in newspapers.
The president found it all very irritating. Speaking to reporters while on a trip to Denver, Nixon said the media’s coverage of Manson made him out to be a “rather glamorous figure” even though he was “guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason."
That’s right: The president of the United States, a lawyer (by training) and chief champion of the Constitution (by law), had offered a verdict about an ongoing criminal trial of a madman.
“Within moments,” wrote Jeff Guinn, the author of a book on Manson and his trial, “Nixon’s remarks flashed across the national wire services,” which today is like saying Manson and Nixon immediately became a trending topic.
Lawyers for Manson and his followers immediately demanded a mistrial, portraying their deranged clients as the peace-and-love good guys when compared to Nixon’s misdeeds in Vietnam.
The coverage in newspapers, including The Washington Post, was fittingly surreal.
Judge Charles H. Older ultimately denied the mistrial motion.
Meanwhile, Nixon realized he had really stepped in it.
While returning to Washington aboard Air Force One, Nixon ordered his press secretary, Ronald Ziegler, to draft a statement clarifying his remarks. The plane’s landing was delayed 25 minutes while the statement was edited and mimeographed.
It read, in part:
That was not the end of the story.
The next day, Manson somehow got hold of that morning’s Los Angeles Times, which contained this headline:
Manson began waving the headline around the courtroom. Courtroom officers confiscated it quickly, but lawyers for the defendants once again asked for a mistrial. The judge held a hearing in which he asked each juror what they had seen. Their answers were somewhat entertaining.
One juror detected a whiff of fake news.
Another was defiant.
In the end, the judge declined — again — to declare a mistrial.
Manson, a heavy user of mind-altering substances, apparently had a lucid vision about Nixon's future.
According to Guinn’s book, when Manson arrived in the courtroom the day after the headline kerfuffle, he held a sign that said this: “NIXON GUILTY.”
Only one of them went to prison.
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