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The 'Last Press Conference'

By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor

Things are starting to get interesting on the campaign trail, as we get closer to the point when actual voters start casting actual votes. This is the time when sparks begin to fly between the candidates, and sometimes, between the candidates and the press. The sometimes-testy relationship between politicians and reporters has a long history, and that got my colleague Andy Franklin and I thinking back to a classic moment that unfolded 45 years ago today. On November 7, 1962, a legendary politician who had just lost a big election uttered one of the most memorable -- and most often quoted -- phrases in American political history: "You won't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore."

In 1962, Richard M. Nixon was a candidate for governor of California. It was his home state, and he had carried it two years earlier as the Republican candidate for president, despite narrowly losing nationally to John F. Kennedy. Nixon hoped that winning the California statehouse would give him a platform from which he could launch another bid for the White House. It didn't quite work out that way; he lost decisively to Democratic incumbent Pat Brown. Nixon was then 49; he had been in politics for 16 years. His relationship with the press had never been good. But on that November morning 45 years ago, facing what seemed like the end of his political career, Richard Nixon let loose.

The plan had been that there would be no public comment from Nixon on his loss, beyond a congratulatory telegram to Governor Brown. On the morning of November 7th -- the morning after the election -- Nixon prepared to leave his exhausted campaign staff at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles to drive home to be with his family a few miles away. His press secretary Herb Klein gathered reporters in the hotel's Cadoro Room to read the telegram and tell them Nixon would make no further statement. But then Richard Nixon changed his mind. To Klein's (and everyone's) surprise, he strode into the press room to the waiting microphones, as cameras rolled. Nixon himself later recalled, "I had not had time to shave. I felt terrible, and I looked worse." He launched into an angry, unforgettable 15-minute monologue. It was supposed to be a press conference, but Nixon did not take a single question.

Nixon's diatribe was directed mostly at the press -- the print press in particular -- whom Nixon described as "so delighted that I have lost." He believed he had treated unfairly by reporters during the campaign, and he told them so. "For once, gentlemen," he said, "I would appreciate if you would write what I say." Despite his apparent anger -- his voice trembled at times -- Nixon claimed repeatedly that everything was fine:

"I have no complaints about the press coverage."
"I don't say this with any bitterness."
"I'm not complaining about it."
"I have no hard feelings against anybody."
"I don't say this bitterly."

It was almost as if he was at war with himself. In the end, the anger won out. After speaking at length to the assembled reporters about his "philosophy with regard to the press," Nixon wrapped things up this way:

"Lastly, I leave you gentlemen now, and you will write it, you will interpret it. That's your right. But as I leave you, I want you to know -- just think how much you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around any more, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference."

Nixon then concluded his remarks by saying that journalists "have a right and a responsibility, if they're against a candidate, [to] give him the shaft," but they should also "put one lonely reporter on the campaign who will report what the candidate says now and then." With that, he walked out of the room and into political oblivion - or so almost everyone thought.

The fact that Richard Nixon was able to come back from such a bitter defeat -- to reinvent himself as a "new" Nixon and be elected president of the United States just six years later -- speaks volumes about the man's single-minded determination. It also says something about the country's willingness to turn the page.

In 1972, ten years to the day after telling reporters he would be unavailable to kick around anymore, Richard Nixon was re-elected president in one of the biggest landslides in American history. But because of Watergate, that victory contained the seeds of his ultimate downfall -- just as ten years earlier, his "last press conference" actually marked the beginning of a startling, historic comeback. 

We have plenty of news to report tonight, and I hope you can join us.