Ben Bagdikian, who wrote regularly from Washington for CJR in the 1960s and ’70s, explained in our Summer 1965 issue how President Lyndon Johnson personally shaped his press coverage. After Kennedy’s Camelot era, many Washington journalists grew to dislike the Johnson administration’s handling of the media. Bagdikian’s story includes an incredible transcript of a personal phone call from LBJ to a newswire night editor complaining about a typo.
For a time during World War II this writer was an instructor in aerial navigation, an exercise that required one student navigator to direct the plane to a practice target while a second navigator, in the same plane but out of touch with the first, tracked where the plane had been and where it was headed. One night the first navigator said the plane would hit the target at 11 p.m. and the target would be El Paso. Asked where we would be at 11 p.m. the second navigator wrote, “Albuquerque.” At 11 o’clock a large city loomed out of the night. Both men looked jubilant. On the ground I had to tell the second man we were not in Albuquerque but in El Paso. He was stunned. He pulled out his log, full of statistics like compass headings and celestial fixes, waved it in front of my face and cried, “But that’s impossible! I’ve got the figures to prove we’re in Albuquerque.” He did have the figures prove it. But the sign on the tower said El Paso and all the natives claimed to be Texans.
This episode came to mind when the President in his June 1 press conference described the care with which he decided to send the Marines to Santo Domingo: “I had 237 individual conversations during; that period and about 35 meetings with various people ”
The President is a lover of statistics and of appearances and in the fierce gamesmanship that has developed in the White House he has proved himself an indefatigable practitioner of the art of public relations. This has presented special problems for the press corps, but not simply because a President tries to put himself in the best light, because all do that. It has dawned only recently on Washington correspondents just how deeply committed the President is to his public relations practice.
Joseph Kraft, writing in Harper’s, believes the President’s troubles with the press “stem largely from the inability of the press to see the President as just another flack.”
What happens if the press has to view the President of the United States as “just another flack”?
The problem is not the existence of public relations in the White House, which has to consider its “image” if for no other reason than to know whether it is being understood. But there is flackery and flackery and the White House has pushed the techniques of PR to the point of negative returns.
Some White House deceptions are forgiven as part of the job. President Eisenhower would have been wiser to refuse comment on the U-2 shot down over Russia. As a national leader the President has to keep himself open to negotiations for the national good and if he publicly associates himself with all the dirty tricks that go on behind the scenes he damages his power—not because he tells the other side anything it doesn’t privately know, but because he becomes a public symbol of the dirty tricks with whom other national leaders cannot negotiate. Precisely because the President is more than a promoter of his own program and reputation, more than proprietor of government agencies, but also a symbol of national aims and values, it is important that he be listened to—and speak—as something more than a shrewd public relations man.
Some of the deceptions have been important. For weeks President Johnson told the public it was being misled by reporters who said the government was considering widening the war in Viet Nam. The reporters were correct and the President wrong. The White House has implied that it consulted the Organization of American States before committing troops to the Dominican Republic, but it never told the OAS beforehand that it was considering troops.
Other illusions are of interest chiefly within the trade, such as the time the President gave a backgrounder in Texas but asked correspondents to put on a Washington dateline (which most did).