Ron Ziegler, the press secretary to President Richard Nixon who dismissed the Watergate break-in as "a third-rate burglary," died Monday of a heart attack in Coronado, Calif. He was 63.
As the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters snowballed into a scandal that caused the 37th president to resign two years and two months later, Ziegler remained the ultimate Nixon loyalist.
As a fierce defender of the administration, Ziegler was criticized by reporters even before the Watergate burglary for being evasive and misleading. As Watergate unfolded, his relationship with the press corps became increasingly hostile.
"If my answers sound confusing, I think they are confusing because the questions are confusing and the situation is confusing -- and I'm not in a position to clarify it," he said at a White House press briefing on the Watergate affair in 1974.
Ziegler routinely dismissed as inaccurate reports by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they tied the scandal to top officials in the administration.
But the day after Nixon aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman and White House counsel John Dean resigned, Ziegler publicly apologized to Woodward and Bernstein.
"We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments. I was overenthusiastic in my comments about the Post, particularly if you look at them in the context of developments that have taken place," he said. "When we are wrong, we are wrong, as we were in that case."
He started to add, "But ... ," and was cut off by a reporter who said, "Don't take it back, Ron."
Years after the scandal, he said that much of the information in his White House press briefings during Watergate was unintentionally false.
Still, he said, "I was right. It was a third-rate burglary. Who knew it was going to be anything more than that?"
His criticisms of Woodward and Bernstein's reporting on the Watergate scandal were vociferous. But in an e-book published last year in Salon.com, Ziegler was one of four people identified by Dean as potentially having been "Deep Throat," the chain-smoking insider who met the reporters in dark corners late at night to slip them secrets. The reporters have never revealed their source's identity.
Dean said Monday night it was his admiration for Ziegler's honesty that partly led him to suspect him as Deep Throat.
"He had this remarkable memory, which served him well," Dean said. "He also had an impossible job after Haldeman and Ehrlichman departed. He became Nixon's sounding board, and nothing could have been more difficult in those dark days."
Ziegler denied that he was the most infamous leak in American political history.
In 1978, he told an audience at Gonzaga University that he was one of the Watergate victims, because he "was not told what the facts were."
"I never flatly said something that I thought was a lie," he said. But he did acknowledge that he had been used as "a vehicle of cover-up." Ziegler was one of the few senior White House officials to avoid criminal indictment.
Yet he always remained loyal to Nixon -- even when Nixon publicly shoved him at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in New Orleans.
The day Nixon resigned, Ziegler flew with him from Washington back to San Clemente, and in the months that followed, Ziegler excoriated former friends and allies for their treatment of the president after his disgrace, once calling him "the first American political exile."
Nixon's daughter, Tricia Nixon Cox, praised the former press secretary for his loyalty to her father.
"Ron was a most capable and loyal public servant who served the White House and my father with distinction," she said. "He was a key participant in the great events of my father's administration, including the historic trips to China and the Soviet Union. Most of all, he was an extraordinary friend of our family."
Ken Khachigian, a former Nixon speechwriter who is now a political consultant, said Ziegler was "an exceptionally capable press secretary" who spoke for an administration besieged by the Vietnam War, the release of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
"It was a tough time to be a press secretary," said Khachigian, 58, who lives in San Clemente. "All of us who lived through those days had a lot of scar tissue."
Marlin Fitzwater, White House press secretary to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that even after Ziegler "left the White House, there was a tragic quality about him in the sense that he served a president who had left in disgrace, and his own role was denigrated by the media and the public, and people kind of shied away from him."
Friends say Ziegler's loyalty to Nixon kept him from realizing his own potential.