Ron Nessen is best known for his highly visible role as President Gerald R. Ford’s White House press secretary from 1974-77. Among other things, Nessen, in essence, announced the end of the Vietnam War to the nation on April 29, 1975, as he stood on a stage in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House and read to a waiting press corps President Ford’s statement that all U.S. personnel had been evacuated from South Vietnam.
Before Nessen’s highly visible role in the White House he had worked as an NBC News correspondent and did five reporting tours in Vietnam beginning in 1965. During his time in the war zone Nessen lived well (eating at French restaurants, living in good hotels), but also saw a lot of the worst that the war had to offer. Nessen even was wounded and later was booted out of the country by the South Vietnamese for asking President Nguyen Van Thieu an “impertinent” question.
“Vietnam dominated my life for nearly a decade, ” Nessen says in his new, sprightly written memoir, Making the News, Taking the News: From NBC News to the Ford White House (Weslyan, 276 pp., $27.95). “I came of age as a journalist there. I gained confidence in myself, as a reporter and as a man.
“I witnessed many horrifying things there. I saw friends and colleagues—and innocent children and adults—killed there. I met a woman there whom I later married. I won praise and journalistic awards for my coverage. I almost bled to death while reporting on the war in Vietnam when a fragment from an exploding hand grenade pierced my lung.”
The war, Nessen writes, “shaped who I was—personally and professionally—what I thought of myself, what others thought of me.”
Nessen went to Vietnam as a supporter of the war effort who “believed the United States could win, ” as he puts it in the book. “But the more time I spent in Vietnam, ” he writes, “the more I was exposed to combat, to death, to the horrors of war, the less certain I was in my hawkish stance. Eventually, I began to question whether LBJ was doing the right thing in pursuing the war.”
Nessen devotes about half of his book to his reporting in Vietnam and about half to an inside-baseball account of his life as President Ford’s spokesman. He mixes in highly personal details of his life with solid, first-person reporting on the inner workings of the Ford administration.