Sy Hersh: I Knew Richard Nixon Beat His Wife in 1974, But Did Not Report the Story

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Soon after President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, Seymour Hersh got a call from a source at a California hospital. He learned that Nixon had beaten his wife so severely in 1974 that she sought treatment at an emergency room. Hersh did not report the story. Years later, he received criticism for this choice. We speak with Sy Hersh in New York City. He says of his decision not to report on Nixon beating his wife, “I was obtuse to the notion that it was a crime. … I didn’t get it.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go to break, talk about what you learned about Richard Nixon that you didn’t report.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, god. In 1998, I used to do—go quite often to the Nieman fellows. A former editor of mine named Bill Kovach was the chairman, the editor of it. Bill, wonderful man, very tough guy, I loved him. And he was the head of the Nieman Foundation. So, for about 10 years, I would go once a year. And off the record, I was talking. I was asked at this—with a bunch of these maybe 20 journalists from America and 15, 20 foreign journalists—even then, a considerable number of women. I was asked about stories I didn’t write.

And I said, “Oh, god, I remember when I was at The New York Times, and I was pulled off”—I was hired to do Vietnam, by Abe Rosenfeld, then the editor. He knew our coverage of Vietnam sucked. Watergate happened, and I stayed away from Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were running amok. I didn’t want anything to do with it. And at some point late in '72, I was told I had to do Watergate. You try and change in the middle. It's not so easy. But I got going. And I got to know the people in Watergate. And in ’74, when Nixon left, about five days afterwards—I was well known for my Watergate coverage, too, in The New York Times—I got a call with empirical information about Nixon had slugged his wife a couple of times when he left, and when came back to San Clemente, within a week, she was in the emergency room getting treatment.

AMY GOODMAN: He beat her. He beat Pat Nixon.

SEYMOUR HERSH: He punched her. That’s what she said.

AMY GOODMAN: He punched her.

SEYMOUR HERSH: She came in, and I got a call. And you have understand, the first problem you have is, if I write it, I destroy a hospital, because somebody violated—somebody who didn’t like it, in the hospital, knew directly what happened. I mean, it was empirical information—not charged, but empirical information. And so I just—I was telling this—in 1998, I was telling the Nieman Foundation about it. And so, I didn’t know what to do with it.

I called Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman, John Ehrlichman, was one of the four people indicted, along with Haldeman and Mitchell and Colson—John Mitchell, the attorney general. And believe it or not, when you’re covering a story like that, even though he did jail, he came out of jail, this is—I stayed in touch with these guys, because they know more than—and I was never—I was always—if I wrote—I wrote a lot of bad stories about them. I’d always call them up the night before and say, “You’re going to hate me again even more.” And that always—you know, at least you’re straight about it. So that’s one thing I always did. No sandbagging. And so, we got along. And I called him. I said, “What’s this about beating?” He said, “Oh, he’s done that a couple of times.” And he told me some times about it.

And when I told the students in '98, I didn't say I couldn’t write it because of the—it came from inside, I didn’t want to do that. What I said was—I made a joke. I said—I was totally insensitive to the notion that that’s a crime. I just wasn’t in my—I was doing foreign policy. What I said was, “Well, I figured if Nixon—if it had been one of those days and Nixon wanted to punch out Pat, he went looking for her and couldn’t find her, then bombed Cambodia instead, I got a story,” because there’s—I was just being a wise guy. They published it in a—I don’t know why. They published the transcript in something called the Nieman Reports.

And I wrote about it in my book, because I was obtuse to the notion that it was a crime. And so, I wrote about it because I thought, “What the hell? I might as well”—you know, this is something that was very troubling for a lot of the women. And you could almost see the #MeToo movement coming, because these women, these reporters, really were mad at me. And I didn’t get it. I mean, I did, but I didn’t. Do you know what I’m saying? And so—and it’s very interesting. It’s a minor, to me—the real problem is, I never could have written it because of how I learned what happened. And I knew more than I wrote, even more than I told. You understand.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean your source.

SEYMOUR HERSH: I’ve got a—you know, yeah, I’ve got a—

AMY GOODMAN: Who was your source?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, somebody obviously who had something to do with taking care of her, let’s put it, maybe. I didn’t want to say.

AMY GOODMAN: A doctor who treated—

SEYMOUR HERSH: No, don’t—you can’t ask me that question. I have a wife that’s a doctor and a daughter that’s a doctor. And they take this idea—patient confidentiality—seriously, as all doctors do.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion. Our guest for the hour is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. He’s just written his memoir. It’s called Reporter. Stay with us.

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