A Newsman's Take On Newsmakers
Doubtless it is because I'm about to take a few weeks of vacation and am seeking to put together a column that will "stand up" (that is, will not have to keep up with changing events). So I have decided to look back at a long career of viewing the political scene and ask myself a few questions:
What president or presidential candidate did I like the most among those that I covered as a newsman?
This is the first thing people ask when they are flattering me by eliciting my views. I simply can't answer it and, if I could, I'm not sure what bearing it would have on a president's real ability.
Most politicians are likable - it goes with their aspirations - but reporters are supposed to keep at least an arm's length away from them. We've all felt that wonderful warmth of Ronald Reagan. And one has to fight to keep from being beguiled by the rapt attention that Bill Clinton gives to anyone he meets. I was very impressed with Adlai Stevenson - although he was not an overly friendly fellow. He was far and away the best speaker I ever covered. And - marvel of marvels - he wrote much of his own stuff.
I was awed by President Eisenhower. On interviewing him on two occasions after he had retired at Gettysburg, I stood at something close to attention when I was ushered into his presence. I had been in the military in World War II and Ike had been one of my heroes. He had that wonderful smile that drew us to him. But, in actuality, he kept a distance from the troops - and from reporters.
What were some highlights of my life as a Monitor newsman?
Well, where shall I start? There was my meeting with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip back in the late 1950s when they entertained the press on their royal yacht at the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Not knowing what one says to a queen, I stammered out something about having read that she had worn an "acid green" gown at a ball the night before. I said I didn't know what that color looked like. She smiled and said, "Well, I don't either. It's something one of my writers made up."
There was that incident at the Garst farm in Iowa when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was visiting the US. I was standing among a crowd of reporters when farmer Garst became irritated with us and started shoving us out of the way. He gave a famous newsman, Harrison Salisbury, a particularly hard push, and I looked over at Khrushchev, who was laughing uproariously. It occurred to me that this must be the way they had fun in the Soviet Union.
There was the time I was covering the long, hot 1963 summer of racial unrest in the South. I had just had a few words with Martin Luther King Jr., when some photographer caught a picture of the two of us, plus Andrew Young. That photo appears in a book by Dick Gregory - one that brings back memories of those strife-filled days and of my having gotten to know, just a little bit, a man who has become a legend.
There are many more memories that stand out: of having a ringside seat at the memorable first Kennedy-Nixon TV debate in Chicago, and of reporting an interview with Barry Goldwater in which he arguably put an end to President Nixon's battle to survive Watergate. Goldwater - regarded as Mr. Republican at the time - compared Nixon to a secondhand car salesman and likened Watergate to the Teapot Dome scandal.
One question I often get, particularly from students, is this: Has your long association with politicians made you cynical?
The answer is "no." Most politicians I've known pass the test that I first heard expressed by Eric Sevareid: Their desire to do something good for society is greater than their ambition just to become "somebody." There are many bad apples, and our political process is sorely in need of shoring up. But I never give up the ship.