Wednesday, February 12, 2003

N.Ky.'s Ziegler remembered as a hard-charger

Gridiron hits toughened him for White House

By Jim Hannah, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and the Associated Press

Ron Ziegler, youngest presidential press secretary in U.S. history, will be remembered nationwide for the hits he took for President Nixon.

But locally, the Covington native and Dixie Heights High School fullback will also be remembered for the hits he gave on the gridiron.

Ziegler, the pugnacious press secretary who famously called the Watergate break-in a "third-rate burglary" and was the voice of the Nixon administration during the biggest political scandal in American history, died of a heart attack Monday at age 63.

He was at his home in Coronado, Calif., a suburb of San Diego.

Ziegler spoke for the White House on such historic events as the opening of relations with China and the Vietnam War, but his name is most commonly associated with the Watergate scandal.

He was a strident Nixon defender until the public release of tapes that made it clear the president and his top aides had engaged in a vast cover-up. He would later say he had not been told about their efforts to hide the truth.

Ziegler was often combative with the media, and he routinely dismissed the reports of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they tied the scandal to top officials in the Nixon administration.

"Certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is," Ziegler said two days after the June 17, 1972, burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters that would eventually lead to Nixon's resignation.

Born in Covington on May 12, 1939, Ronald Louis Ziegler, known as "Zig" during his high school days, grew up in Park Hills and graduated in 1957 from Dixie Heights, where he was a Kentucky all-star fullback.

Dixie Heights' 1957 yearbook lists Ziegler's nickname as "Zig."

Dave Browning grew up with Ziegler in Park Hills where the two went to school together.

"He was an extremely hard-working guy," said Browning. "He wasn't the fastest, but he made up for that. He was a leader. He was loyal. And everyone knew Ron Ziegler."

In 1957, Ziegler was named "Star of Stars" at the Recreation Bowl postseason game in an upset over Corbin before the state had high school playoffs. Browning said Ziegler scored three touchdowns in the Recreation Bowl.

To commemorate his on-field performance, Ziegler's name is inscribed in the press box in Montgomery County where the Recreation Bowl is now played as a preseason game.

Ziegler signed with Xavier University, where he played on the freshman football team in 1958 before leaving for the University of Southern California.

The last time Browning recalls seeing Ziegler was in September 1972 during the campaign for Nixon's re-election, before the Watergate storm broke. Ziegler had returned to Dixie Heights to speak to an assembly and present books autographed by Nixon to the library.

Ziegler also gave the 1979 commencement address at the high school. Ziegler's wife, Nancy, is a native of Fort Wright and was a cheerleader at Dixie Heights when Ziegler played football.

Zeigler became the youngest White House press secretary in history after he joined Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign at age 29. He held that title until 1974, when he was named an assistant to the president.

Former White House counsel John Dean has written that Ziegler might have been Deep Throat, the mysterious, chain-smoking source who gave Woodward crucial information in secret late-night meetings.

Woodward and Bernstein did not immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday.

"I was the only one on that plane to San Clemente with Nixon when power changed hands," Ziegler said. "I was there with Nixon in exile. ... I'm proud of what I did as press secretary. I don't feel the need to apologize. There are some things, however, I would have done differently." He declined to elaborate.

He most recently served as chief executive of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. He retired in 1998.

In addition to his wife, Ziegler is survived by his mother, Ruby Ziegler of Cincinnati; and two daughters, Cindy Charas of New Canann, Conn., and Laurie Albright of Denver.

His body was to be cremated, with a memorial service planned for this month in Washington.

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N.Ky.'s Ziegler remembered as a hard-charger