Herb Klein, the longtime San Diego newspaper executive who died today, was one of Richard Nixon’s most trusted advisers and, as Time Magazine wrote, “a considerable chunk of Richard Nixon’s better nature.”

He paid a heavy price for the friendship. But, as one observer put it, he “kept his honor” and decency.

It must not have been easy.

As Time wrote in 1973 when Klein left the White House for a job in television: “He was, these last years, abused and downgraded and ignored by Nixon and his supermen…”

He “sits there with eggs on his face … he’s just not our guy at all,” complained Nixon in a private conversation that became public.

In many ways, however, Klein was the epitome of “our guy,” not only during the Nixon Administration but going back for decades.

Klein had known Nixon since he’d covered his 1946 congressional race as a reporter, and Klein had served him as a loyal press aide. (The U-T reports today that Klein took several leaves from being an editor at The San Diego Union to work for Nixon in the 1950s. But Klein “insisted he always kept the two roles apart.”)

As the White House communications director Klein worked closely with the president and was on the front lines of those who had to deal with his boss’s ever-changing strategies and vicious mood swings.

“Every morning, staffers would study Herb Klein’s face to know how to handle the boss that day,” writes historian Rick Perlstein in his recent book “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.”

Time summed up Klein’s career at the White House this way in 1973, before the president’s resignation and disgrace:

… he has stayed loyal, kept his honor, and goes off as one of the President’s few remaining displays of decency and good humor… he was an oasis of consideration and sympathy in a Teutonic desert of heel clicks and ‘Yes, sirs.’

After Nixon resigned in 1974, Klein was not an acolyte. In fact, he declined to defend the president’s actions during Watergate.

He told the New York Times that the president was unduly influenced by his advisers: “Corrupted is not the word I would use, but his sense of values was certainly distorted by these men.”

In 1980, Klein published a book about his White House experiences and told a radio interviewer (link is to an audio file) that he still kept in touch with the president.

He also said he had no regrets about getting into politics. In fact, he thought more journalists should make the switch: “You see a part of life in the government and world policies that you won’t find out about any other way.”

RANDY DOTINGA

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