By: Seth Hettena, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Ron Ziegler, the pugnacious press secretary who famously called the Watergate break-in a “third-rate burglary” and was the voice of the Nixon administration during the biggest political scandal in American history, has died of a heart attack. He was 63.
Ziegler died Monday at his home in Coronado, a suburb of San Diego, his wife, Nancy, told The Associated Press.
Ziegler spoke for the White House on such historic events as the opening of relations with China and the Vietnam War, but his name is most commonly associated with the Watergate scandal.
He was a strident Nixon defender until the public release of tapes that made it clear the president and his top aides had engaged in a vast cover-up. He would later say he had not been told about their efforts to hide the truth.
Ziegler was often combative with the media, and he routinely dismissed the reports of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they tied the scandal to top officials in the Nixon administration. “Certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is,” Ziegler said two days after the June 17, 1972, burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters that would eventually lead to Nixon’s resignation.
Veteran GOP consultant Ken Khachigian, who served as a Nixon speech writer, called Ziegler “an exceptionally capable press secretary” who spoke for an administration during extremely volatile times. “It was a tough time to be a press secretary,” said Khachigian.
Former White House counsel John Dean, who helped expose the scandal, said in an e-book published last year on Salon.com that Ziegler, despite his complaints about Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting, was one of the people who may have been Deep Throat, the mysterious, chain-smoking source who gave Woodward crucial information in secret late-night meetings.
Woodward has said he will not reveal Deep Throat’s identity until that person’s death. As recently as last year, he said Deep Throat was still alive.
Woodward could not be reached for comment at the Post early Tuesday.
Ziegler said he believed Deep Throat was a composite of several sources, which Woodward has denied. In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein said Deep Throat did a mean imitation of Ziegler.
Ziegler publicly apologized to the reporters and their newspaper the day after the April 30, 1973, resignations of Dean and Nixon aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. “When we are wrong, we are wrong, as we were in that case,” he said.
He started to add, “But… ,” and was cut off by a reporter who said, “Now, don’t take it back, Ron.”
In a 1981 interview with The Washington Post, Ziegler defended his use of the phrase “third-rate burglary,” and said he hadn’t known of the cover-up. “I was right,” he said. “It was a third-rate burglary. Who knew it was going to be anything more than that?”
As spokesman for the much-maligned administration, Ziegler was often unpopular with the public and the press in the early 1970s. His friends said he was tarnished unfairly because of his loyalty to Nixon.
“Deep down he was a wonderful person,” Gerald Warren, a former deputy press secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford, said Monday night. “I think he was placed in an awkward position as a young man. … It wasn’t easy for him, but he did his best and he was very loyal.”
Ziegler, who first worked with Nixon as a press aide on his unsuccessful campaign for California governor in 1962, stayed with the politician through fights with reporters — and even his boss. Nixon bristled when he saw Ziegler helping the news media too much. During one visit to New Orleans, he shoved Ziegler and snapped, “I don’t want any press with me, and you take care of it.”
On another occasion, Nixon told Ziegler that anyone in the White House who talked to Time reporters “should have their resignations requested within one minute.”
Ziegler stayed with the president even after Nixon’s fall from grace. “I was the only one on that plane to San Clemente with Nixon when power changed hands,” he said. “I was there with Nixon in exile. … 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.”
Asked for examples, he said, “Well, I don’t want to go into that.”
Ziegler said in the 1981 interview with the Post that he had never lied about Watergate: “It’s necessary to fudge sometimes. You have to give political answers. You have to give non-answers. But I never walked out on that podium and lied.”
Nixon’s daughter, Tricia Nixon Cox, praised Ziegler for his loyalty to her father. “Ron was a most capable and loyal public servant who served the White House and my father with distinction,” she said.
Ronald Louis Ziegler was born May 12, 1939, in Covington, Ky. He grew up in Cincinnati, then moved to California and enrolled at the University of Southern California. He also took a job at Disneyland as a guide on the Jungle Tour — and later jokingly said it was good experience for his political career.
He became the youngest White House press secretary in history when he joined Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign at 29. He held that title until 1974, when he was named an assistant to the president.
After leaving government service, he held a number of positions in the private sector, most recently as chief executive of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores from 1987. He retired in 1998.
Ziegler divided his time in recent years between Alexandria, Va., and Coronado, where he owned a condominium overlooking the ocean.
In addition to his wife, Ziegler is survived by his mother, Ruby Ziegler of Cincinnati; and two daughters, Cindy Charas of New Canann, Conn., and Laurie Albright of Denver.
He was to be cremated, with a memorial service planned for later this month in Washington.