Press agent—but still President

No President has monitored his public image with more zeal than LBJ

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).

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.

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.

The problem is that Lyndon Johnson appeals to reporters with all the dignity and power of his position as President and when this does not produce the results he wants, begins manipulating them and the news in ways that are not highly regarded even at the Press Club bar. He is trying to have it both ways. The weakness of many correspondents is that the President is too valuable a source in the competition for news to be ignored as a lesser PR man would be. But deeper than that is the conflict the President creates in many serious correspondents who respect the office of President and the man in it, but whose professional standards tell them that what is going on is common, ordinary press agentry.

The President and his aides often seem to ignore the demands of professionalism upon correspondents, which require exercise of independent judgment based not on personality or pressure but on honest discrimination. Too often correspondents are asked to choose between disrespect for the reader and disrespect for the President. One simple answer may be to report the unabashed intervention of the White House into the news process. The dialogue in U.P.I. Reporter was seen widely in the trade, but it was not on the UPI wire. Ordinarily this would be healthy avoidance of narcissism. But perhaps the time has come to report the President not only as originator of news but also as editor of it.

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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.