Union Tribune

February 11, 2003

Embattled Nixon press secretary dies of heart attack in Coronado


1939 Ronald L. Ziegler 2003

WASHINGTON Ronald L. Ziegler, the youngest and perhaps most maligned White House press secretary in history, died yesterday in Coronado, three decades after the Watergate scandal ended the presidency of Richard Nixon.

He was 63. A family spokesman said the cause was a heart attack.

Ziegler, a loyalist to the end, accompanied President Nixon on his flight into exile on Aug. 9, 1974, after Nixon resigned his office under the unbearable political weight of the Watergate disclosures. While Ziegler's credibility as White House press secretary was badly tarnished, he remained one of the few senior White House officials to escape criminal indictment from the unraveling of a conspiracy aimed at covering up the administration's role in the scandal.

Ziegler became a summer resident of Coronado Shores two years ago, about 12 months after stepping down for health reasons as president and chief executive of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. His principal residence was in Alexandria, Va. Ziegler was only 29 when he became White House press secretary in 1969.

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 in 1958. He also took a job at Disneyland as a guide on the Jungle Tour later joking that it was good experience for his political career.

In 1962, he took his first political job as a press aide to Nixon adviser Herbert G. Klein. After Nixon lost that gubernatorial race, Ziegler joined H.R. Haldeman at the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm. Haldeman was later to become Nixon's White House chief of staff.

On June 17, 1972, a team of burglars forced their way into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex, thrusting Ziegler into an adversarial relationship with a press corps that wanted more answers than Ziegler could provide.

Ziegler dismissed the break-in as "a third-rate burglary."

But as cracks began to show in the official coverup and as reporters, spurred by disclosures in The Washington Post, began demanding more answers, the hostility between Ziegler and reporters reached unprecedented depths.

"I don't know that he will be remembered as well as perhaps he should be," said Gerald L. Warren, Ziegler's deputy who went on to become editor of The San Diego Union and later The San Diego Union-Tribune.

"He was a guy placed in a very difficult situation. He was quite young. He was working for a president who had definite views about the press and not all of those views were sympathetic to the role of the press. Ron was sort of in the middle ... He really was a good person at heart who was just placed in a very difficult situation."

When Watergate reached fever pitch, Ziegler became what The Washington Post later described as the "White House press corps' human pin cushion."

Looking back on it in 1995, Ziegler told CNN's Larry King that he had been kept in the dark about the coverup. "Thank goodness," he said, adding, "I was one of the few members of the Nixon White House staff who was never indicted and I was not part of the coverup."

But he was the public face of the "stonewall," and his credibility suffered with each new disclosure in The Washington Post.

With White House Counsel John Dean cooperating with a federal grand jury and other lesser aides also telling their stories to investigators, Ziegler found himself obliged to qualify earlier statements asserting White House noninvolvement in the scandal.

"This is the operative statement," Ziegler told reporters at one point. "The others are inoperative."

Ziegler always considered that answer to be one of his mistakes. But friends last night from San Diego to Washington were remembering his achievements, almost always commenting on his loyalty.

"Ron was first of all very loyal and devoted to the president," said John Taylor, executive director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation in Yorba Linda. "He was also a very discerning and, where necessary, tough adviser."

Taylor said that as the crisis began to distract the president and his senior staff, he became increasingly reliant on Ziegler for guidance on a wide range of issues unrelated to his job as press secretary.

Klein, his first political boss and now editor in chief of the Copley Newspapers, recalled Ziegler as "a treasured friend," adding, "His was the job of handling tough and sometimes unfair questions about the one White House episode he fortunately had no original knowledge of Watergate."

Ziegler is survived by his wife of 42 years, Nancy Plessinger, and two daughters, Cindy Charas of New Canaan, Conn., and Laurie Albright of Denver. He is also survived by his mother, Ruby Ziegler of Cincinnati, a sister, Anita Macadam, and three grandchildren.

He was to be cremated, with a memorial service planned for later this month in Washington.

Contributing to this report were Copley News Service Washington correspondent Jerry Kammer, Union-Tribune staff writer Jack Williams and researcher Merrie Monteagudo.