The problem is partly the astonishing portion of Presidential attention given to public relations. No President has monitored his public image with more zeal. He often pulls popularity poll results out of his pocket. He adds up hours of time given to the press and it is enormous, though much of it is ritualistic or non-useful. In one extended session a French correspondent whispered to an American that he had a Paris deadline coming up and had to leave. The President was holding forth on the White House south balcony. The American whispered back that the Frenchman couldn’t possibly leave. “But we’ve been here for an hour and a half and he is saying nothing and I have a deadline.” The American hissed, “Would you leave if Charles de Gaulle were doing this?” The Frenchman stiffened and whispered, “Charles de Gaulle would not spend fifteen minutes talking about the rust on his balcony.”

The President and his staff seem to ring like burglar alarms whenever and wherever the name “Johnson” appears in print or is uttered on the air. A small item in a West Texas paper mentioned Billie Sol Estes in connection with the President in a three paragraph story on the inside; the editor claims he got a telephone call from the White House in time to kill the item in later editions. One television correspondent was awakened in the middle of the night by the White House, which had heard that he planned to make some critical remarks the next day. A newspaper correspondent wrote a critical morning story and got three telephone calls from White House aides before breakfast. The New York Review of Books, a medium-highbrow publication, ran a scathing review of Johnson’s Viet Nam policy and its editors got a phone call from a White House aide suggesting that in the future they have Viet Nam books reviewed by Joseph Alsop (who approves of the Johnson policy).

The President has three television sets for simultaneous viewing of the three networks, plus an AP and UPI ticker. Apparently he watches them more closely than some of the editors. One night a startled wire service editor in Washington got a White House call later preserved in the house organ, U.P.I. Reporter, as follows:

“Hello, Pat, this is Lyndon Johnson.”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
“Say, I have here… (pause) …AIOIN from Johnson City, Texas, about the homestead, by Kyle Thompson. Let’s see… (pause) …you say in there that there’s going to be a fee for the tour. Well, that’s not right at all. The idea is to give it to the people.”
“Just a minute, Mr. President, and I’ll get the story.”
“You see what it says. It says ‘the home was opened to the public for fee tours.’ That isn’t right. You see, it’s for free. That’s the idea. Do you see that?”
“Yes, Mr. President. It looks like they dropped the ‘r’ in the word ‘free.’ I guess they omitted it in transmission.”
“Well, Pat, it sure does mean just the opposite of what we mean.”
“It sure does, Mr. President. I’ll fix it.”
“Well, we want it to be free.”
“Certainly, Mr. President. I’ll straighten it out right away.”
“I’d appreciate it if you would clean this up for me.”
“I certainly will, Mr. President.”
“We hope you will take the necessary steps to straighten this out.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. President.”
“Thank you, Pat.”
“Thank you for letting us know, Mr. President.”

But the problem is not just quantity of presidential time and intervention. Some of it is less meticulous than his editing of UPI typos and some of it has such an implausible ending that it can only harm his credibility. He likes to be the miracle worker, so takes pains to knock down stories predicting what he will do. In December he complained that the Washington Evening Star reported falsely that he would propose a 3 percent pay raise for Federal workers. The Star dutifully reported the Presidential complaint. Then the President proposed a 3 percent pay raise for federal workers.

At about the same time, the President complained that The Washington Post falsely reported that he planned to ask for a $4 billion cut in excise taxes. “The President is described as feeling that the $4 billion figure couldn’t be further wrong,” the news story said. The then press secretary, George Reedy, said, “That figure bears no relationship to any decision that has been made.” The President proposed an excise tax cut of $3,964,000,000, which bears a relationship to $4,000,000,000 as 99.1 to 100.0.

Ben Bagdikian was an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post, and later dean of the University of California, Berkeley's journalism school. He wrote about the Washington press regularly for CJR in the 1960s and '70s.