His big occasion
Photos are what determine public opinion. Richard Nixon’s state visit to Communist China was an event that changed the way politics was covered in the media. Trivia took the place of politics, photo calls superseded signed agreements.
Photos are what determine public opinion. Richard Nixon’s state visit to Communist China was an event that changed the way politics was covered in the media. Trivia took the place of politics, photo calls superseded signed agreements. The visit set a benchmark in staged events that survives today.
It was a state visit marked by superlatives. When his plane touched down on 21st February 1972 in Peking, Richard Nixon became the first US President to visit the Communist People’s Republic of China. The trip had been planned months in advance. Almost a third of Nixon’s 300-strong entourage was made up of reporters, photographers and TV technicians.
As the world looked on with bated breath, Chinese Premier Chou En-lai shook the hand of the arch-enemy on the airport tarmac and a Chinese band struck up the American national anthem. A six-day programme of intensive tourism followed: the Great Wall, imperial tombs, Forbidden City, every box ticked. Talks yielded little but ushered in a change in the style of media coverage. Nixon was up for re-election in the autumn and the summit guaranteed him ceaseless media exposure.
»We came in peace for all mankind.«
Instead of politics, the public were served trivia. When Chairman Mao, against expectations, met Nixon on the first day, the FAZ headlined with »Nixon received by Mao immediately«. As the content of the talks was secret, the media resorted to interpreting gestures and facial expressions.
Reports of labour camps or jailed dissidents? Nothing of the kind. Nixon drinking tea at the foot of the Wall? Breaking news! Nixon’s wife visits a People’s commune, is shown some very contented pigs, an acupuncture clinic, a school, a glass factory. And the media track their every move, noting all gifts exchanged, including an ancient jade receptacle, some bottles of Mao-Tai schnaps and two panda bears – in return for the two musk oxen that Nixon brought with him.
Nixon was feted on his return, referring to a week that changed the world. »A triumph of international politics« enthused »Die Zeit«. Four months later a janitor in Washington D.C. phoned the police to report a break-in at the Watergate office building, the HQ of the Democratic Party, triggering another major event that the world would come to associate with the name Richard Nixon.