Nor is it unknown that a responsible White House aide will confirm a reporter’s story before it is printed, and after the published story causes unexpected embarrassment another equally responsible White House aide will tell reporters that the story is wrong and was never checked with the White House.
While doing all this, the President maintains sympathetic relations with editors and publishers beyond anything known before. Lyndon Johnson is the only Democratic President in this century who seems to be on better terms with newspaper publishers than with the working press. This isn’t bad; it is merely astonishing. I. F. Stone, an incorrigible heretic in a town with increasing pressures for journalistic orthodoxy, has written, “Johnson sometimes seems to think the Constitution made him not only commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces but editor-in-chief of its newspapers.”
Among the institutional casualties of this crushing program of public relations are the press briefings by the press secretary, which have decreasing content, and the Presidential press conference, which becomes increasingly rhetorical. Even the semi-confidential backgrounder has often been reduced to an absurdity. On April 7, for example, such a session was held to give prior interpretation of the President’s Johns Hopkins University speech offering unconditional discussions on Viet Nam. The briefing was given in the White House by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, then-Acting Secretary of State George Ball, and special assistant McGeorge Bundy. Ordinarily it is not cricket to print names of briefing officers but in this case the White House disclosed them by staging a make-believe start of the briefing for television and radio for the 6 p.m. newscasts to help build public interest in the speech.
When it came to the non-attributable Q-and-A, the cameras were shut off but the same spirit of charade continued to pervade the session. Max Frankel of The New York Times asked why the government had waited so long to make public its aims and its basis for settlement in Viet Nam. Secretary Ball said that there was no delay, that the government had always had the position presented in the President’s speech.
“Are you saying,” Frankel asked, “that this speech is not news, that we should treat it as old stuff?” Ball replied that the government had always held the same position, though the “formulations” might be new and, he added as a parting shot, “it may be a little clearer to you.” To which John Scali, ABC diplomatic correspondent, rose to say, “Since this has all been said before, would the Secretary please refresh the reporters’ memories on the last time anyone in the government offered unconditional discussions on Viet Nam?” There was general laughter and no answer.
The White House seems so obsessed with keeping the news record favorable that it is defensive about first-hand journalism that it could find useful. The press helped dispel some of the wild confusion within government on the Dominican coup d’etat with reporting from the scene that was better than official diplomatic and military reporting.
The same was true in Viet Nam. John Mecklin, chief information officer in Saigon during the time when David Halberstam of the Times and Malcolm Browne of the AP were official dirty words, writes in his book, Mission in Torment, that Halberstam and Browne were essentially correct in their reporting and the government essentially wrong.
The White House obsession with PR would be easier to handle if it came from another source. Most correspondents learned to cope with flackdom a long time
ago: they react when special pleaders originate news; they recognize the implausibly rosy release; they instinctively check with the opposition; they treat with contempt a man who deliberately fiim-fiams them.
What is special here is Kraft’s observation: most reporters have trouble looking at the President as just another flack. He is not just another flack. He is a PR man in his obsession with image, his unrestrained attempts to create illusion for tactical reasons, and his concern with appearances no matter how implausible. But he is also President of the United States, carrying the burdens of his office seriously.