Ron Nessen at home in Bethesda. Photo by Deborah Jaffe
Ron Nessen covered the Vietnam War as a correspondent for NBC, served as President Gerald Ford’s press secretary, was Larry King’s boss at the Mutual Broadcasting System and has written several books. In the annals of pop culture, however, Nessen may be remembered best for going on live TV the evening of April 17, 1976, to host the 17th episode of a new show called Saturday Night Live.
Though politicians today often appear on shows such as SNL, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, that wasn’t always the case. When asked to host SNL in 1976, Ford called it “undignified” before turning down the invitation.
Nessen, however, said yes, hoping his appearance would, as he put it, “take the sting out of” Chevy Chase’s scathing parodies of the president. This past May, a few weeks after the 40th anniversary of the show, we sat down with Nessen, 82, at his home in Bethesda’s Mohican Hills neighborhood to ask him about the history-making event.
How did the Saturday Night Live offer come about?
In February 1976, I was with President Ford campaigning in New Hampshire. Al Franken [then an SNL writer and now a U.S. senator] was there with his brother, a photographer covering the primaries. Al suggested it. I told President Ford; he didn’t want to do it, but said I could. [Ford did allow SNL to film him for short cameos to appear on the broadcast, including delivering the show’s opening line, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night.”]
You didn’t see all the skits beforehand. Writers and cast members later said they included offensive items because they knew Ford was watching and wanted to make him uncomfortable. (Skits without Nessen included a parody advertisement for a carbonated douche available in strawberry and egg cream flavor, and a confused “Weekend Update” analyst fretting about “presidential erections.”)
I tried not to partake in anything that was overly critical of Ford. I got them to soften some items a little bit. But I was egotistical. I wanted to be on the program, even though most on Ford’s staff disagreed. Afterward, Ford said he thought some of the show was distasteful and some was funny. Mrs. Ford said much the same thing. His oldest son, Jack, got angry with me. He said I was promoting myself and not helping the president. I spoke with him and tried to explain, but I don’t think he was mollified.
Archival photos courtesy Ron Nessen
A Time magazine article recently called it the SNL episode that changed American politics. Did you have any sense you were breaking new ground?
Oh sure. I was the first White House person to be on this show. However, it was a failure. The press coverage of my appearance was almost universally negative.
Later I found out Chase had it in for Ford. In interviews, he said Ford was a terrible president and a compassionless man. There was no well-intended satire, no good-natured spoofing. A lot of what Chase did was nasty, designed to denigrate Ford. I was naive. Chase, who had a pretty big opinion of himself, thought he helped Ford lose the close election to Jimmy Carter.
What happened after the show was over?
I remember two parties afterward. The first was at a restaurant in 30 Rock for advertisers, which was pretty calm. Then there was a second party at Paul Simon’s Upper West Side apartment, where the air was so drenched in marijuana fumes you could get high just taking a breath. In fact, I took a couple of tokes myself. Maybe I needed them.
Archival photos courtesy Ron Nessen
As press secretary, you publicly delivered the official bulletin to A mericans saying we were no longer involved in the Vietnam War. How were you feeling at that moment?
I have an old cassette of it around somewhere. “The war is over for us. All the Americans are out of Vietnam.” My voice is about five octaves higher. Very quavery. I’d lost so many friends there. I met my first wife there. I almost died there.
What was it like being Larry King’s boss?
We did an overnight radio show. Most of the people involved, including me, slept during the day. Not Larry. He would go to lunch with his friends. Sometimes during the show he would almost nod off. We made him wear a headset, so if he started to fall asleep we could make a loud noise and wake him up. He didn’t read the book of a person he was interviewing beforehand, which I found strange. He told me he wanted to be in the same position as someone listening to the show.
What do you think about the 2016 election?
You look at America and all the people that are qualified to be president and who are popular, who are good speakers, and who have good ideas. How did we end up with these three people [Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders]? I’m not a hard-nosed conservative, but I tend to be conservative. But I cannot imagine voting for Donald Trump.