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The Press: The Great Slap Flap

3 minute read

The Village Voice called it “one of the most terrifying news stories about President Nixon to date.” As aptly as any, that hyperbole summed up the hypertense relations that now exist between a suspicious press and a defensive President. Some White House reporters thought that there was too little substance in the “terrifying” story —Nixon’s “slapping” of a citizen at McCoy Air Force Base near Orlando, Fla. —to merit any attention at all. Yet publication of accounts by some papers, plus an angry White House counterblast that forced still more coverage, blew the incident into one of the strangest press stories of a strange year.

It began when the President decided to greet well-wishers after his televised news conference at Disney World. Watched by two pool reporters—William J. Eaton of the Chicago Daily News and Matthew Cooney of Westinghouse Broadcasting Co.—Nixon came to a man and a young boy in the airport crowd. As Eaton and Cooney later told it, Nixon asked the man whether he was the boy’s “mother or grandmother.” Apparently puzzled, the man replied, “Neither.” Peering for a closer look, the President replied, “Of course not,” and gave what Eaton and Cooney described as “a light slap” to the man’s face.

Neither reporter felt at the time that the incident deserved mention in the summary of presidential activities that they, as pool reporters, were to prepare for the larger White House press corps.

Eaton, however, mentioned the “slap” to Wall Street Journal Reporter Fred L. Zimmerman and demonstrated it as a stinging blow to the cheek. Zimmerman later checked details with Cooney.

As rumors of the incident spread Cooney and Eaton were persuaded by colleagues the next day to write up a supplemental account. They prefaced it with the disclaimer that they still thought the event “insignificant.” But recalling Eaton’s demonstration, Zimmerman filed a story to the Journal for the issue of Monday, Nov. 19, saying that Nixon had “soundly slapped” the man’s face. In a story for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, James Deakin quoted from the pool account but added a detail that he had personally learned from Cooney and Eaton: “Reporters heard the man say it was a hard slap.”

The Deakin and Zimmerman articles drew furious denials from Deputy Press Secretary Gerald Warren, who called their pieces examples of “irresponsible and twisted accounts which have been circulated in recent months.”

The White House perhaps had grounds to complain, but its attempt to use the story as a means to discredit general press criticism seemed heavy-handed to most newsmen.

The man involved in the incident was finally located: Air Force Master Sergeant Edward Kleizo, 50, who, immediately after the event, had told Eaton “the President slapped me.” But he gave CBS a slightly different version two days afterward. What Nixon had actually asked, Kleizo recalled, was “something like, ‘Are you the boy’s grandmother or grandfather?’ “—a more understandable slip of the tongue than the total confusion of gender reported originally. “Then,” Kleizo continued, “he looked back and tapped me affectionately on the cheek, sort of like putting shaving lotion on.”

Had some reporters ballooned a friendly gesture into a minor tempest? Deakin’s boss, Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief Richard Dudman, denied it: “That was uncommon behavior on the part of the President, and it therefore should be reported.” But since the original eyewitness reporting had been uncommonly ambivalent, some doubt remained as to just what had happened.

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