The perils of picking presidents

Dennis McDougal, a former Times staff writer, is the author of "Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty" and eight other books.

Sometime in the next few weeks, the Los Angeles Times will endorse two candidates -- a Democrat and a Republican -- in the Feb. 5 California presidential primary. A few months later, the paper will endorse a candidate for president.

These will be the first such endorsements the paper has made in 35 years. Although The Times routinely weighs in on ballot propositions and local and statewide political races, it has declined to endorse in a presidential race since it backed Richard Nixon in his successful 1972 reelection campaign.

The move back into the presidential endorsement business after such a long hiatus is an intriguing one, coming as it does at a moment when newspapers generally are declining in influence and fighting for their lives. The first endorsements will appear just weeks after the paper has been sold to a new owner.

But to consider it in its proper context, it is also important to understand why the paper stopped endorsing a generation ago. That was a complicated decision -- and one that told a story about the newspaper itself, about the Chandler family that owned and ran it, and about the long, complex relationship between Nixon and the paper.

In 1972, The Times was growing in influence. Circulation was in excess of 1 million a day. The Times -- and the Chandlers -- were tied into all the big political events of the region and, increasingly, the country. Even though Nixon was riding a tidal wave of support as the election approached, there was no question that The Times' influence helped sweep him into office, as it had done so many times before. In a belated birthday greeting he sent to then-publisher Otis Chandler on Dec. 4, 1972, Nixon wrote at the bottom in his own hand: "The Times editorials were great during the campaign."

In many ways, Nixon had been a creation of The Times. He rose from obscurity as a young naval officer following World War II, first becoming a congressman from Whittier, then a senator from California, then vice president, and finally, the Republican presidential nominee in 1960 -- all with the enthusiastic support of The Times.

And not just the support of the editorial pages -- but the news pages as well. Under Chandler's father, Norman, the newspaper had ceded both its political coverage and its editorials during the 1940s to an unabashed kingmaker named Kyle Palmer. In his role as Times political editor, Palmer helped massage the Nixon image past a series of scandals, including charges of Red-baiting and the allegation that he had taken illegal campaign contributions.

In many parts of the country, voters may have suspected that Nixon was a crook in the 1950s, but L.A. had no idea, thanks to The Times, and Nixon showed his gratitude at every turn, sucking up to Palmer and sending mash notes to Norman Chandler and his wife, Dorothy "Buff" Chandler.

But Otis Chandler, who was installed as publisher in 1960, disliked the cronyism that Nixon and Palmer represented, and he wasn't mollified by presidential thank-you notes. The vice president still got The Times' endorsement for president that year (against John F. Kennedy), and again two years later in Nixon's unsuccessful bid for the California governorship. But Palmer was forced into retirement in 1961. And even though the paper endorsed Nixon for governor, its news reporters no longer offered him a free ride. Instead, they helped doom his gubernatorial campaign. Among other things, Times reporters discovered he bought a $300,000 home in Beverly Hills for $90,000, suggesting the discount might be a political payoff.

While Norman Chandler lived, the Times editorial board continued to endorse Republican presidential candidates: Barry Goldwater in '64 and Nixon in '68. It wasn't until 1969, when Otis Chandler hired Tony Day, a maverick editorial writer from Philadelphia, that the Republican rubber stamp began to show signs of wear. The following year, Day wrote an editorial advising Nixon to "Get Out of Vietnam Now."

Others at the paper were tired of the Nixon-Chandler relationship as well. The mere prospect of another Nixon endorsement in 1972 set off rebellion among the staff. When the Nixon endorsement was officially announced, several dozen reporters and editors signed an endorsement of their own, published as a letter to the editor with the publisher's full approval. "We plan to vote for Sen. George McGovern," it said.

As the Watergate scandal began to unfold in the spring of 1973, an "I told you so" attitude swept the newsroom and spread all the way to the publisher's suite. On Sept. 23, 1973, Otis Chandler announced to Times readers that the newspaper would quit endorsing presidential candidates. The "wide public exposure" that candidates were then receiving on television, radio and newspapers made Times endorsements "dispensable," said the official announcement. "Our readers have more than ample information on which to make up their own minds."

Chandler told me years later that it was Nixon's pattern of duplicity, culminating in the Watergate coverup, that led to his decision, and that its roots ran even deeper and dated back to the Palmer era. The Nixon endorsements had proved to be a grievous error in institutional judgment, he felt, and the best way to prevent future embarrassment was simply to end endorsements altogether. Chandler also told me that it was only in deference to his father and against his better judgment that he had gone ahead with the Nixon endorsement in 1972. When he made the decision to stop endorsing in 1973, his father was sick with throat cancer and "out of it," according to Chandler, who finally felt free to do what he'd advised Times readers to do: make up his own mind.

The decision was made amid a number of complicating issues. One was that Nixon (despite his post-election thank-you note) felt betrayed by the Chandlers and the Los Angeles Times. His anger against Otis Chandler was so great that he went so far as to turn the Immigration and Naturalization Service on the publisher. ("I want him checked out with regard to his gardener," Nixon told Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, a year before Watergate. "I understand he's a wetback.")

Another was that Chandler was being investigated by the Justice Department in connection with a widely reported (except in The Times) $30-million investor fraud run by Jack Burke, a college roommate and longtime Otis pal. Chandler, as a business partner of Burke's and a board member of his company, had urged dozens to invest in Burke's GeoTek oil exploration company allegedly in exchange for thousands of dollars in finder's fees; for a time, Chandler believed he might even go to jail for his role with the company.

While eventually exonerated in 1975, Chandler spent $1 million in his own defense. His announcement of a ban on presidential endorsements thus came at a particularly dangerous time, when the wounded bull in the Oval Office would almost certainly have seen the announcement as a repudiation.

Nixon and Chandler are gone now. The Times has been sold to Chicago-based developer Sam Zell, and the Chandler dynasty no longer has any connection with the paper itself.

What's more, the power of the L.A. Times to have a dramatic influence on the outcome of presidential races has probably passed as well. Newspaper endorsements are not yet negligible in the Internet Age, but neither are they pivotal. Palmer's day has passed, and even the power that Chandler and Day once were able to wield has been diluted again and again by TV, by cable and by the Internet.

Endorsements aren't without value. They may persuade those readers who take the time to understand their reasoning, and they certainly look good in campaign ads when lined up with similar endorsements.

But decisive or even estimable? Not really. When The Times announces its choice for president this election season, I'll be curious to see who gets the nod. But will it matter? I doubt it. For my money, Otis Chandler was way ahead of his time in nixing the hubris of endorsing for president.

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