The phrase above has a long history, and, apart from certain quarters of the Fourth Estate, has a variety of meanings. It was originated back in the Roaring Twenties, somewhere in the offices of the Victor Talking Machine Company, part of the Radio Corporation of America, familiarly known as RCA before it wound up being part of the Bertelsmann media behemoth. Sales of “victrolas” and 78 rpm records were booming – go to your neighborhood antique store if these objects are difficult to visualize, young man or woman with an iPod – and RCA, the leader in the industry, wanted a good slogan to get the units moving even faster. It occured to someone that record players offered ever-renewable “content” – to use the word that would be applied today. And so, that concept was encapsulated in the phrase “the gift that keeps on giving.”
RCA trademarked this motto and until the 1950s it was featured prominently in many of the company’s ads, not just for phonographs but for radios and television sets. After that time, it began to pass into more general use. Nowadays, as Google shows, it is used to refer to anything from organic foods to the “pay it forward” idea exemplified in the movie of the same name to charitable contributions.
But in one sector of America – that world where column inches and airtime and talking heads on Sunday mornings are what count – those words have a rather more specific significance. More often than not, or it seems so anyway, they are used to refer to any new development concerning the release of recordings and documents of the Administration of the thirty-seventh President.
It’s hard to say when the phrase became so tied to Richard Nixon among journalists. But an issue of The Economist, from 1974, offers a clue. It has an article in which the writer – one of those highly observant Britons, naturally – described walking through the offices of the Washington Post and seeing a poster on the wall that read: “Watergate: The Gift That Keeps On Giving.”
For many people at that newspaper, from Katharine Graham to Ben Bradlee to the team then familiarly known as “Woodstein,” that certainly held true, as the Pulitzers and bestsellers came along and circulation figures went up. But after President Nixon resigned the Seventies moved on, into the years of lowered thermostats and disco and Leif Garrett. Ben Stein left the White House, trimmed his Afro-style hair, and started writing for Fernwood 2 Night. (See YouTube for many examples of Ben’s work on that show, in his wild pre-Bueller days.) Times, in short, changed, and that poster drifted off into a closet. Maybe it was sold on eBay years ago.
But one man never really forgot that motto: Bob Woodward. In 1996, when what were popularly described as the “abuse of power” segments of the White House tapes saw release, he started to speak, in his wry and wary way, of “Nixon, the gift that keeps on giving.” After a while, Post writers began to use the phrase in print. (Rather amusingly, it seems to be received wisdom at the newspaper that the original phrase belonged to Hallmark Cards instead of RCA. Or anyway, the Post’s Jules Witcover attributed it to the card company in one of his books.)
Then the phrase moved to other papers and periodicals. When the first chronological segment of White House tapes, covering the early months of 1971, were released in 1999, Jim Warren, the Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, made it a point to come to the National Archives II and listen to a lot of the material, often searching for RN making a reference to the Bears, Richard J. Daley, or aspects of the Windy City. For the rest of the time he was with the paper he would go to the Archives with each new release of tapes, then write a column or two about them. I recall seeing, in such an article in about 2002 or so, a mention of “the gift that keeps on giving.”
By 2007, the phrase was so tied to Nixon in the journalistic consciousness that Michael Getler, the ombudsman for PBS, wrote an article at the network’s site treating its Presidential connection as something more or less traditional, and went on to “borrow” it to describe Bill Moyers’s Journal. With every new release of material in Yorba Linda and College Park, the words inevitably show up, whether at CBS or the Los Angeles Times or MSNBC.
And so this morning, when word came that, on November 10, the Richard Nixon Library will release further tapes and documents – including that which generations of Watergate junkies have only dreamed of, a transcript of RN’s previously sealed testimony to the grand jury investigating the matter – it was only natural that Al Kamen, the Post’s “In The Loop” columnist, used those six tried-and-true words when describing them.
You have to wonder when the Post will start to think twice about its ancient, arrogant tagline “if you don’t get it, you don’t get it” that’s used in all its radio commercials in the DC area, and instead start putting “Nixon: The Gift” etc on T-shirts. After all, those “He’s Tanned, He’s Rested, He’s Ready” shirts sold a bundle in 1988 and 1992. And the trouble is that, sooner or later, the last of what is in the Archives will see the light of day, and that limitless gift will be exhausted. The question is: will there still be a Washington Post by then?