June 1st— – five days before the California primary. A grey dawn is fighting its way through the orange curtains in the Wilshire Hyatt House Hotel, in Los Angeles, where George McGovern is encamped with his wife, his staff, and the press assigned to cover his snowballing campaign.
While reporters still snore like Hessians in a hundred beds throughout the hotel, the McGovern munchkins are at work, plying the halls, slipping the long legal-sized handouts through the cracks under the door of each room. According to one of these handouts, the Baptist Ministers’ Union of Oakland has decided after “prayerful and careful deliberation,” to endorse Senator McGovern. And there’s a detailed profile of Alameda County (“…agricultural products include sweet corn, cucumbers, and lettuce”), across which the press will be dragged today— – or is it tomorrow? Finally there is the mimeographed schedule, the orders of the day.
At 6:45 AM the phone on the bed-table goes off, and a sweet, chipper voice announces: “Good Morning, Mr. Crouse. It’s 6:45. The press bus leaves in 45 minutes from the front of the hotel.” She is up there in Room 819, the press suite, calling up the dozens of names on the press manifest, waking the agents of every great newspaper, wire service and network not only of America but of the world. In response to her calls, she is getting a shocking series of startled grunts, snarls, and obscenities.
The media heavies are rolling over, stumbling to the bathroom, and tripping over the handouts. Stooping to pick up the schedule, they read: “8:00-8:15, Arrive Roger Young Center, Breakfast with Ministers.” Suddenly, desperately, they think: “Maybe I can pick McGovern up in Burbank at 9:55 and sleep for another hour.” Then, probably at almost the same instant, several score minds flash the same guilty thought: “But maybe he will get shot at the ministers’ breakfast.” And then each mind branches off into its own private nightmare recollection: of the correspondent who was taking a piss at the Laurel Shopping Center when they shot Wallace, of the ABC cameraman who couldn’t get his Bolex to start as Bremer emptied his revolver. A hundred hands grope for the toothbrush.
It is lonely on these early mornings and often excruciatingly painful to tear oneself away from a brief, sodden spell of sleep. More painful for some than for others. The press is consuming $200 a night worth of free cheap booze up there in the press suite, and some are consuming the lion’s share. Last night it took six reporters to subdue a prominent radio correspondent who kept upsetting the portable bar, knocking bottles and ice on the floor. The radioman had the resiliency of a Rasputin— – each time he was put to bed, he would reappear to cause yet more bedlam.
And yet, at 7:15 Rasputin is there for the baggage call, milling in the hall outside the press suite with fifty-odd other reporters. The first glance at all these fellow sufferers is deeply reassuring— – they all feel the same pressures you feel, their problems are your problems. Together, they seem to have the cohesiveness of an ant colony, but when you examine the scene more closely, each reporter appears to be jitterbugging around in quest of the answer that will quell some private anxiety.
The feverish atmosphere is halfway between a high school bus trip to Washington and a gamblers’ jet junket to Las Vegas, where small-time Mafiosi are lured into betting away their restaurants. There is giddy camaraderie mixed with fear and low-grade hysteria. To file a story late, or to make glaring factual errors, is to chance losing everything— – one’s job, one’s expense account, one’s drinking buddies, one’s mad-dash existence, and the methedrine-like buzz that comes from knowing stories that the public will not know for hours and secrets that the public will never know. Therefore reporters channel their gambling instincts into late night poker games and private bets on the outcome of elections. When it comes to writing a story, they are as cautious as diamond-cutters.
They are three deep at the main table in the press suite, badgering the McGovern people for a variety of assurances. “Will I have a room in San Francisco tonight?” “Are you sure I’m booked on the whistlestop train?” “Have you seen my partner?”
It’s Thursday, and many reporters are knotting their stomachs over their Sunday pieces, which have to be filed this afternoon at the latest. They are inhaling their cigarettes with more of a vengeance, and patting themselves more distractedly to make sure they have their pens and their notebooks. In the hall, a Secret Service agent is dispensing PRESS tags for the baggage, along with string and scissors to attach them. From time to time, in the best Baden-Powell tradition, he courteously steps forward to assist a palsied journalist in the process of threading a tag.
The reporters often consult their watches or ask for the time of departure. Among this crew, there is one great phobia – —the fear of getting left behind. Fresh troops have arrived today from the Humphrey bus, which is the Russian Front of the California primary, and they have come bearing tales of horror. The Humphrey bus had left half the press corps at the Biltmore Hotel on Tuesday night; in Santa Barbara, the bus had deserted Richard Bergholz of The Los Angeles Times, and it had twice stranded George Shelton, the AP man.
To the men whose duty had called them to slog along at the side of the Hump, the switch to the McGovern Bus brought miraculous relief. “You gotta go see the Hump’s press room, just to see what disaster looks like,” a reporter urged me. The Humphrey press room, a bunker-like affair in the bowels of the Beverly Hilton, contained three tables covered with white tablecloths, no typewriters, no chairs, no bar, no food, one phone (with outside lines available only to registered guests), and no reporters. The McGovern press suite, on the other hand, contained 12 typewriters, eight phones, a Xerox Telecopier, a free bar, free cigarettes, free munchies, and a skeleton crew of three staffers. It was not only Rumor Central, but also a miniature road version of Thomas Cook and Son. As the new arrivals to the McGovern bus quickly found out, the McGovern staff ran the kind of guided tour that people pay great sums of money to get carted around on. They booked reservations on planes, trains, and hotels; gave and received messages; and handled Secret Service accreditation with a fierce, Teutonic efficiency. And handed out reams of free information. On any given day, the table in the middle of the press suite was laden with at least a dozen fat piles of handouts, and the door was papered with pool reports.
It is just these womblike conditions that give rise to a condition known as “pack journalism,” a condition that causes much of American political journalism to be shallow, obvious, pointless and boring beyond description. Many reporters travel with a single candidate throughout an entire election year. Trapped on one bus, they eat, drink, gamble and trade information with the same bunch of colleagues week after week, and soon all their stories begin to sound the same. All the stories come from the same handout, the same pool report, or the same speech by the candidate, and the “pack” dynamic insures that almost all the reporters will take the same approach to the story. It is hard to locate any reporter who will not vehemently denounce pack journalism, but the political journalists who resist its temptations are few.
One muggy afternoon in Los Angeles, I went to consult with Karl Fleming, a former political reporter and bureau chief for Newsweek who was rumored to be a formidable critic of pack journalism. One of the reasons he quit Newsweek was that he got fed up riding around on campaign extravaganzas.
“I got so frustrated during the Nixon campaign,” he grinned, “that I went to Ron Ziegler one day— – we were flying some-goddam-where— – and said, ‘Ron, I come to you as a representative of the press corps to ask you this question.’ I said, The question is: What does Nixon do upon the occasion of his semiannual erection?’ Ziegler never cracked a goddam smile. Then I said: ‘The consensus is that he smuggles it to Tijuana.'”
Fleming leaned back in his chair and laughed hard.
“Gee,” I said, “you must have been fucked after that.”
“It doesn’t make any difference if you’re fucked or you’re not fucked,” said Fleming. “You delude yourself into thinking: ‘Well, if I get on the bad side of these guys, then I’m not gonna get all that good stuff.’ But pretty soon the realization hits that there isn’t any good stuff and there isn’t gonna be any good stuff. Nobody’s getting anything that you’re not getting, and if they do it’s just more of the same bullshit.”
I told Fleming that I was puzzled as to why so many newspapers felt they needed to have correspondents aboard the press bus; a couple of wire service guys and a camera crew should be able to cover a candidate’s comings, goings and official statements more than thoroughly
“Papers that have enough money are not content to have merely the AP reports,” he said. “They want to have their own person in Washington because it means prestige for the paper and because, in a curious way, it gives the editors a feeling of belonging to the club, too. I’ll guarantee you that three-fourths of the goddam stuff – —the good stuff— – that the Washington Press Corps reporters turn up never gets into print at all. The reason it is collected is because it is transmitted back to the editor, to the publisher, to the ‘in’ executive cliques on these newspapers and networks and newsmagazines. It’s sent in confidential, FYI memos or just over the phone. You give the publisher information that his business associates or his friends at the country club don’t have; you’re performing a very valuable function for him and that, by God, is why you get paid.
“But while these papers want to have a guy there getting all the inside stuff, they don’t want reporters who are ballsy enough and different enough to make any kind of trouble. It would worry the shit out of them if their Washington reporter happened to come up with a page one story that was different from what the other guys were getting. And the first goddam thing that happens is, they pick up the phone and call this guy and say, ‘Hey, if this is such a hot story, how come AP or the Washington Post doesn’t have it?’ And the reporter’s in big fuckin’ trouble. The editors don’t want scoops. Their abiding interest is making sure that nobody else has got anything that they don’t have— – not getting something that nobody else has.
“So eventually a very subtle kind of thing takes over and the reporter says to himself, ‘All I gotta do to satisfy my editor and publisher is just get what the other guys are getting, so why should I bust my ass?’ And over a period of a few years he joins the club. Now most of these guys are honest, decent reporters who do the best job they can in this kind of atmosphere. The best reporters are the ones who sit around and talk about what assholes their editors and publishers are and that still happens, thank God, with a great amount of frequency, even at the high levels of the Washington press corps.
“All the same, any troublemaking reporter who walks into a press conference and asks a really mean snotty question which is going to make the candidate and his people really angry is gonna be treated like a goddam pariah. ‘Cause these guys in this club, they don’t want any troublemakers stirring up the waters, which means they might have to dig for something that’s not coming down out of the daily handout, or coming in from the daily pool report about what went on. They’d rather sit around the press room at the hotel every night, drinking booze and playing poker.”
The First Stop
Around 8:15, the buses pulled up in front of a plain brick building that looked like a school. The press trooped down a little alley and into the back of Grand Ballroom of the Roger Young Center. The scene resembled Bingo Night in a South Dakota parish hall— – hundreds of middle-aged people sitting at long rectangular tables. They were watching George McGovern, who was speaking from the stage. The press, at the back of the room, was filling up on free Danish pastry, orange juice and coffee. Automatically, they pulled out their notebooks and wrote something down, even though George was saying nothing new. They leaned sleepily against the wall or slumped into vacant chairs.
George ended his speech and the Secret Service men began to wedge him through the crush of ministers and old ladies who wanted to shake his hand. By the time George made it to the little alley which was the only route of escape from the building, three camera crews had set up an ambush. This was the only “photo opportunity,” as it is called, that the TV people would have all morning. Except in dire emergencies, all TV film has to be taken before noon, so that it can be processed and transmitted to New York. Consequently, the TV people are the only reporters who are not asleep on their feet in the morning. TV correspondents never join the wee-hour poker games and seldom drink; they live like airline pilots. Connie Chung, the pretty Chinese CBS correspondent, occupied the room next to mine at the Hyatt House and she was always asleep by midnight. So here she was this morning, bright and alert, sticking a mike in McGovern’s face and asking him something about black ministers. The print reporters stood around and watched, just in case McGovern should say something interesting. Finally McGovern excused himself and everybody ran for the bus.
8:20-8:50 AM En Route/Motorcade
8:50-9:30 AM Taping— ‘Newsmakers’ CBS-TV, 6121 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood
9:30-9:55 AM En Route/Motorcade
9:55-10:30 AM Taping—’News Conference’ NBC-TV, 3000 West Alameda Ave., Burbank
10:30-10:50 AM Press filing
10:50-Noon En Route/Motorcade Noon-l:00 PM Senior Citizens’ Lunch and Rally Bixby Park Band Shell, Long Beach
1:00-1:15 PM Press filing.
The reporters began to wake up as they walked into the chilly Studio 22 at CBS. There was a bank of telephones, hastily hooked up on a large work table in the middle of the studio, and six or seven reporters made credit card calls to bureau chiefs and home offices. Dick Stout of Newsweek found out he had to file a long story and couldn’t go to San Francisco later in the day. Steve Gerstel phoned in his day’s schedule to UPI. Connie Chung dictated a few salient quotes from McGovern’s breakfast speech to CBS Radio.
A loudspeaker announced that the interview was about to begin, so the reporters sat down on the folded chairs that were clustered around a monitor. They didn’t like having to get their news secondhand from TV, but they did enjoy being able to talk back to McGovern without his hearing them. As the program started, several reporters turned on cassette recorders. A local newscaster led off by accusing McGovern of using a slick media campaign.
“Well, I think the documentary on my life is very well done,” McGovern answered ingenuously. The press roared with laughter. Suddenly the screen of the monitor went blank— – the video tape had broken. The press started to grumble.
“Are they gonna change that first question and make it a toughie?” asked Martin Nolan of the Boston Globe. “If not, I’m gonna go wait on the bus.” Nolan had the unshaven, slackjawed, nuts-to-you-too look of a bartender in a sailor’s cafe. He was one of the biggest wiseacres on the bus, and also one of the most literate writers.
The videotape was repaired and the program began again. The interviewer asked McGovern the same first question, but Nolan stayed anyway. Like the others, Nolan had sat through hundreds of press conferences fighting a nearly irrepressible desire to heckle. Now was the big chance and everyone took it.
“Who are your heroes?” the newscaster asked McGovern.
“General Patton!” shouted Jim Naughton of the Times.
“Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln,” said McGovern.
“What do you think of the death penalty?” asked the newscaster.
“I’m against the death penalty.” There was a long pause. “That is my judgment,” McGovern said, and lapsed into a heavy, terminal silence. The press laughed at the candidate’s unease.
By the time the interview was over, the press was in a good mood. As they filed back onto the buses, the normal configurations began to form: wire service reporters and TV cameramen in the front, where they could get out fast; reporters for the dailies in the middle seats, hard at work; McGovern staffers in the rear seats, going over plans and chatting. Dick Stout and Jim Naughton held their tape recorders to their ears, like transistor junkies, and culled the best quotes from the TV interview to write in their notebooks. Lou Dombrowski of the Chicago Tribune, who looked like a hulking Maf padrone, typed his Sunday story on the portable Olympia on his lap. The reporters working for afternoon newspapers would have to file soon, and they were looking over the handouts and their notes for something to write about.
So it went. There was another interview in another chilly studio, this time at NBC. The reporters this time sat in the same room with McGovern and the interviewer, so there was no laughter, only silent note-taking. After the interview there were phones and typewriters in another room, courtesy of the network. Only a few men used them. Then to Bixby Park for a dull speech to old people and a McGovern-subsidized lunch of tiny, rubbery chicken parts. Another filing facility, this one in a dank little dressing room in back of the Bixby Park bandshell. While George droned on about senior citizens, about 15 reporters used the bank of 12 phones that the McGovern press people had ordered Pacific Telephone to install. At every stop there is a phone bank, but the reporters never rush for the phones and fight over them as they do in the movies. Most of them work for morning papers and don’t have to worry about dictating their stories over the phone until early in the evening. Earlier in the day they just call their editors to map out a story, or call a source to check a fact, or sometimes they call in part of a story, with the first paragraphs (the “lead”) to follow at the last moment. There is only one type of reporter who dashes for the phones at almost every stop and calls in bulletins about almost every thing that happens on the schedule. That is the wire service reporter.
The Wire Services
If you live in New York or L.A., you have probably never heard of Walter Mears and Carl Leubsdorf, who were covering McGovern for the Associated Press, or Steve Gerstel, who covered him for United Press International. But if your home is Sheboygan or Aspen, and you read the local papers, they are probably the only political journalists you know. There are about 1,700 newspapers in the US, and every one of them has an AP machine or UPI machine or both, whirling and clattering and ringing in some corner of the city room, coughing up stories all through the day. Most of these papers do not have their own political reporters, and they depend on the wire service men for all of their national political coverage. Even at newspapers that have large political staffs, the wire service story almost always arrives first.
So the wire services are influential beyond calculation. Even at the best newspapers, the editor always gauges his own reporter’s story against the expectations that the wire story has aroused. The only trouble is that wire stories are usually bland, dry, and overly cautious. There is an inverse proportion between the number of persons a reporter reaches and the amount he can say. The larger the audience, the more inoffensive and inconclusive the article must be. So many of the wire guys are repositories of information they can never convey. Pye Chamberlain, a young UPI radio reporter with an untamable wiry mustache, emerges over drinks as an expert on the Dark Side of Congress. He can tell you about a prominent congressman’s battle to overcome his addiction to speed, or about Humphrey’s habit of popping 25 One-A-Day Vitamins with a shot of bourbon when he needs some fast energy. But Pye can’t tell his audience.
These days, the Dean of the Political Wire Service Reporters is Walter Mears of the AP, a youngish man with sharp pale green eyes who smokes cigarillos and has a nervous habit of picking his teeth with a matchbook cover. With his clean-cut hair style and conservative sports clothes he could pass for a successful golf pro, or maybe a baseball player. He started his career with the AP in 1955, covering auto accidents in Boston, and he worked his way up the hard way, by getting his stories in fast and his facts straight every time. He doesn’t go in for the New Journalism. “The problem with a lot of the new guys is they don’t get the formula stuff drilled into them,” he told me as he scanned a morning paper in Miami Beach. “I’m an old fart. If you don’t learn how to write an eight-car fatal on Route 128, you’re gonna be in big trouble.”
About ten years ago, Mears’ house in Washington burned down. His wife and children died in the fire. As therapy, Mears began to put in slavish 18-hour days for the AP. In a job where sheer industry counts above all else, Mears worked harder than any other two reporters, and he got to the top.
“At what he does, Mears is the best in the goddam world,” says a colleague who writes very non-AP features. He can get out a coherent story with the right point on top in a minute and 30 seconds, left handed. It’s like a parlor trick, but that’s what he wants to do and he does it. In the end, Walter Mears can only be tested on one thing, and that is whether he has the right lead. He almost always does. He watches some goddam event for a half hour and he understands the most important thing that happened— – that happened in public, I mean. He’s just like a TV camera, he doesn’t see things any special way. But he’s probably one of the most influential political reporters in the world, just because his stuff reaches more people than anyone else’s.”
Mears’ way with a lead makes him a leader of the pack. Covering the second California debate between McGovern and Humphrey, Mears worked with about 30 other reporters in a large, warehouse-like press room that NBC had furnished with tables, typewriters, paper and phones. The debate was broadcast live from an adjacent studio, where most of the press watched it. For the guys who didn’t have to file immediately, it was something of a social event. But Mears sat tensely in the front of the Press Room, puffing at a Tiparillo and staring up at a gigantic monitor like a man waiting for a horserace to begin. As soon as the program started, he began typing like a madman, “taking transcript” in shorthand form and inserting descriptive phrases every four or five lines: “Humphrey started in low key,” or “McGovern looks a bit strained.”
The entire room was erupting with clattering typewriters but Mears stood out as the resident dervish. After the first three minutes, he turned to the phone at his elbow to call the AP Bureau in L.A. “He’s phoning in a lead based on the first statements, so they can send out a bulletin,” explained Carl Leubsdorf, the No. Two AP man, who was sitting behind Mears and taking backup notes. After a minute on the phone Mears went back to typing and didn’t stop for a solid hour. At the end of the debate he jumped up, picked up the phone, looked hard at Leubsdorf, and mumbled, “How can they stop? They didn’t come to a lead yet.”
Two other reporters, one from New York, another from Chicago, headed toward Mears shouting, “Lead? Lead?” Marty Nolan came at him from another direction. “Walter, Walter, what’s our lead?” he said.
Mears was wildly scanning his transcript. “I did a Wallace lead the first time,” he said. (McGovern and Humphrey had agreed near the start of the show that neither of them would accept George Wallace as a Vice-President.) “I’ll have to do it again.” There were solid, technical reasons for Mears’ computer-speed decision to go with the Wallace lead: it meant he could get both Humphrey and McGovern into the first paragraph, both stating a position that they hadn’t flatly declared before then.
“Yeah,” said Nolan, turning back to his Royal. “Wallace – —I guess that’s it.”
Meanwhile, in an adjacent building, The New York Times team had been working around a long oak desk in an NBC conference room. The Times had an editor from the Washington Bureau, Robert Phelps, and three rotating reporters watching the debate in the conference room and writing the story; a secretary phoned it in from an office down the hall. The Times team filed a lead saying the debate was inconclusive. Soon after they filed the story, an editor phoned from New York. The AP had gone with a Wallace lead, he said. Why hadn’t they?
Marty Nolan eventually decided against the Wallace lead but NBC and CBS went with it on their news shows. So did half the men in the press room.
Back on the Bus
In Long Beach, Walter Cronkite showed up and rode on the press bus to Fullerton Junior College. Most of the reporters were quite dazzled and wanted to know why Cronkite was around. “He wants to be one of the guys and to get a feeling for something outside Moscow,” Connie Chung explained. Fred Dutton, Gary Hart and Bill Dougherty of the McGovern staff had joined the bus too. They were singing football songs and hymns in the back seats. In fact, things were getting chummy as hell. Actress Shirley McLaine was sitting in Marty Nolan’s lap. Gary Hart was cracking jokes with The New York Times and Newsweek.
Fullerton Junior College looked like a large complex of parking garages, but the sweltering gym was packed with kids who treated McGovern as if he were Bobby Kennedy. The cameramen surrounded McGovern as he fought his way to the platform and the kids tried to push through the cameramen. The heat and commotion got to the reporters as they squatted around the platform and McGovern began to speak – —they made frantic notes although the candidate said nothing new. Gradually they wound down.
“If there is one lesson it is …” said George.
Carl Leubsdorf put up his finger. “I know what it is,” he said to Liz Drew of PBS. “Never again.”
“It is that never again …” said George.
By the end of the speech no one was taking notes. As deadlines began to loom for the big city daily reporters, the early afternoon up was trickling away. Walter Cronkite went back to Los Angeles because his back was bothering him and he needed to rest. The rest of the press flew to Oakland.
The schedule began to go to hell. Instead of going to San Francisco, the bus took the press to an airport motel called the Oakland Inn, where McGovern was going to have a hastily scheduled press conference with some black ministers. The press went to a small function room in the motel that had phony wood panelling on the walls and gold vinyl chairs. While the reporters began to munch at the Danish lying on a small table in the rear, or worked at the five typewriters on a large table at the rear, the cameramen set up in the front. Soon there was an outcry from the print press. “Do you want to go to a press conference where we stand behind the cameras,” James Doyle of the Washington Star asked Adam Clymer of the Baltimore Sun.
Doyle found Kirby Jones, McGovern’s press secretary, and chewed him out. Jones made some excuses.
“Yeah,” said Doyle, “but you’re never organized at these press conferences.”
Jones shrugged and walked away.
The press had to sit behind the cameras for the press conference, which was short and dull. As the reporters were getting up to stretch, Kirby Jones and Gordon Weil, another McGovern aide, began to pass the word that the Field Poll results were out: McGovern was 20 points ahead.
It was the only hard news of the day. Harry Kelly of Hearst, Steve Gerstel of UPI and James Doyle all headed for the typewriters and began to hunt-and-peck. Pye Chamberlain, Curt Wilkie and about 20 other reporters headed for the four pay phones in the hall outside the function room. People were getting testy. Carl Leubsdorf of the AP leaned over Jimmy Doyle’s shoulder, took a good look at Doyle’s lead and then asked, “Hey, can I see?”
Doyle looked up and registered what was happening. “Jesus, no!” he exploded. “Fuck you! Get outa here!”
A few moments later Steve Gerstel sauntered over to Doyle and said, “Let me see your lead, Jim.”
“You might as well,” Doyle said unhappily. “The AP just catched it.”
Leubsdorf walked by again on his way to the phones and patted Doyle on the back. “I like it,” he said, and chuckled.
An hour went by, and everybody got a chance to file on the Field Poll. The scene began to look like a bad cocktail party. Haynes Johnson of The Washington Post, Liz Drew of PBS and Jules Witcover of The L.A. Times were doing Humphrey imitations. Kirby Jones was trying to get nine people to go in the helicopter to San Jose as “pool” reporters – —that is, to write a report for all the reporters who could not fit in the chopper. The San Jose rally promised to be McGovern’s major lunge for the Bobby Kennedy Chicano constituency, but no one wanted to pool. San Francisco is a great restaurant town. Finally Jim Naughton, Marty Nolan and a couple of camera crews signed up.
At 7, Kirby announced another press conference— – McGovern would read a statement on Nixon’s Moscow trip. At 7:30, Kirby announced that he would read the statement. There was a general groan. Kirby launched into the predictable text. “Stop the presses,” said Haynes Johnson, shutting his notebook.
A few minutes later, just before the press buses took most of the reporters to San Francisco, where there would be another press room with typewriters and a good bar, Marty Nolan came up to me. “Ya know,” he said. “I wrote a short article not too long ago about the campaign press. There was only one really good line in the thing. It was that the press always loses interest in a candidate just as the public gets interested. I never have figured out why.”
The Muskie Three
Long ago, even before the primaries began, three of the most intelligent political reporters— – Bruce Morton of CBS, Jim Naughton of The New York Times, and Dick Stout of Newsweek— – were assigned on a permanent basis to cover Ed Muskie. It was a great compliment to their abilities that they were put on the front runner’s campaign, but with the decline of Muskie they found themselves further from the center of the action. By the time Wisconsin rolled around, in April, they began to look like characters in a Solzhenitsyn novel – —forgotten men, and for no reason but fate’s perverse amusement.
The member of the trio most deeply affected by the Muskie fiasco was Stout, who had spent the longest time with Muskie. Stout had covered the Man from Maine in the ’68 and ’70 elections, had traveled to Moscow and Israel with him, and had come to know him more intimately than any other writer. Stout looks like an overgrown schoolboy— – tall, hulking, overweight, his suit always rumpled, and his blond forelock constantly falling down over his perspiring forehead and his glasses. He came from Indianapolis, went to De Pauw, worked for papers in Dayton and Chicago, and finally joined Newsweek’s Washington Bureau. He is an excellent writer, witness his book on Eugene McCarthy or his campaign piece in the March Atlantic, but little of his prose survives the blades of the Newsweek blender.
One night I asked Stout if he ever filed any memos intended solely for the edification of his editors and publisher. He said that he did, but that he hadn’t issued a memo since the summer of 1971, when he had dined with the Muskie family at their home in Maine. After dinner he had rushed back to his room in the Narragansett Hotel in Kennebunkport and scribbled in his notebook for an hour. He had detailed Muskie’s swearing at the table in front of his kids, his pride in property, and his arguments with his wife, Jane. (After supper, Muskie realized that he needed his tuxedo the next night, and it was too late to send it to the cleaners. Muskie and Jane got into an argument over who was going to iron the tux. “You iron it,” Jane said finally. “You’re the tailor’s son.” Muskie exploded with rage.) Stout worked this up into a memo and showed it to his bureau chief who said, “That’s great, send it up to Os” [Osborn Elliot, Editor of Newsweek].
“I sent it to him thinking it was for his eyes only,” said Stout, “but it ended up as a major item in Topic A, the Newsweek house organ.”
Acorrespondent’s career usually depends on the fortunes of his candidate. If you write about the front runner, you are guaranteed front-page play for your articles, and, as Walter Mears once told me, “Everything is measured by play in this business.” If you ride the Winner’s Bus you have a shot at the White House assignment, which is the biggest plum in political journalism; it is boring, but you get front-page space every day, and the White House assignment often leads to executive positions on the newspaper. Even if you miss the White House, you can always write a book about a losing presidential nominee; but nobody wants to read about a losing presidential hopeful.
So the correspondents do not like to dwell on signs that their Winner is losing any more than a soup manufacturer likes to admit there is botulism in the vichyssoise. If the Winner turns into a clear-cut loser, they may get assigned to the new Winner, or they may not. And the months they spent making notes for a book go down the drain. For these reasons, the men on the Winner’s Bus subconsciously pull for their man to come through.
When Muskie’s campaign began to go down the tubes, it didn’t do much for the morale of Messrs. Stout, Morton and Naughton. “It didn’t matter six beans to me whether Muskie was or was not the nominee,” Naughton said months later. But after Florida, Naughton began to have trouble getting his stories in the Times. Half the time, he had to contribute his information to some other Times reporter who was writing a more general story about the campaign. “We all have large egos or we wouldn’t be in this business,” said Naughton. “It made it a bit harder to go through those 20-hour days when you didn’t see any personal involvement in print.”
After Muskie’s birthday party in Green Bay, I walked into the dark hotel bar and spotted Naughton, Stout and Morton at a table behind a column in the middle of the room. They were exuding gloom like three guys who had just dropped their life savings at the track. They were drowning their sorrows. Five rounds of Scotch-on-the-rocks came to the table before closing time.
Stout was slumped in his chair with his collar open. Having abandoned all hope that he was riding on the Winner’s Bus, he had found some degree of peace. He was trying to bet everyone that McGovern would win in Wisconsin. No one wanted to bet against him.
Morton, who had weathered six —months in the CBS Saigon Bureau and Nixon’s 1968 campaign, was smoking nervously. He was 42, but his neat blond hair, his smooth features, and his eyeglasses made him look like an Eton boy. There was a weird contrast between his deep, confident voice and his frightened eyes.
At the third side of the table was Naughton. If Dickens’ Tiny Tim had gone to Notre Dame and reached the age of 34, he would look like Naughton – —small, frail, with badly cut short blond hair, red-rimmed eyes, a small puckered mouth, and a bargain basement suit. He was probably the most popular reporter on the bus. Soft-spoken and considerate, he used his unflagging sense of humor to deprecate the deference that people showed him because he was the resident Timesman. His black typewriter case was decorated with a “Dingbat for President” sticker. The son of a dispatcher for a shipping company on the Great Lakes, he was the first writer in his family, and his greatest ambition was to someday take over Russell Baker’s humor column in the Times.
He had come to the Times from the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1969, and had served as the backup man at the White House before he got the Muskie assignment. It was extraordinary for a rookie at the Times to rise so fast to such an important job. His assessments of Muskie would be read in the White House, the Kremlin and Peking, and by all the powerful men who wanted to know what the next President of the United States might be like. What was more, he was writing for the ages. “The Times is after all a record of history,” he once told me. “I wouldn’t want to vilify Richard Nixon if he doesn’t deserve vilification – —even though I may feel he deserves it.”
Naughton’s articles about Muskie were very cautious. “Naughton didn’t have the confidence in himself to buck conventional wisdom,” says an older, more experienced journalist. “I think his major problem was that he didn’t understand the internal politics of the Times. When he got a job as good as he got, he should have known he had clout to write it the way he saw it.
“But never did Jim say anything first. He was filing AP shit. Every time he talked about this problem or that flaw, it had already been headlined in The Washington Post or a national magazine. I think he knew what was happening, but he just wasn’t sure of his instincts.”
There are several examples of Naughton’s pulling his punches with Muskie, but one stands out— – the “crying incident” article. In his story of February 27th, which was buried inside the Times, Naughton did not mention that Muskie “broke into tears” until the sixth paragraph. David Broder, the chief political writer for The Washington Post, played the incident in his lead, thereby producing a piece that had a devastating effect on the Muskie campaign. Naughton, constantly on the Muskie bus, saw the incident as a minor feature in a generally bizarre day of campaigning. Broder, who had just flown into New Hampshire for the weekend, saw it as a major news story.
Since the New Hampshire primary, I had formed my theory about the Winner’s Bus, and I wanted to try it out on Naughton, Stout and Morton. For some reason, even in the general emotional sag that followed the Birthday Party, I didn’t feel too bad about inviting myself to join them in the Northland Bar, or about bugging them with my theory.
“I think that you’re going kind of easy on Muskie,” I said. “I don’t mean that you’re fudging things for him consciously, I just think that you give him the benefit of the doubt because you’ve put in a lot of time with him and you’d like to see him get the nomination to justify that time. I mean, life is short, and four or five months is a pretty big investment of time.”
“Well,” said Morton gravely and politely, “Stout has been with him on and off for three years, for that matter. But I don’t think we’ve favored him.”
“No,” said Naughton, “I think we’ve been hard on him, if anything. We took him to task for not disclosing finances, just among other things.”
Stout leaned back in his chair and pointed at me. “Listen to the kid,” he said. “He’s got something to say.”
That took me by surprise and I didn’t know quite what to say. I began to attack Muskie in vague terms. “He’s a whore like Humphrey,” I said. “He’ll sell out to anybody who will give him the Job.” The funny thing was that the more I attacked Muskie, the more they found themselves defending him.
“I’d rather see the nomination go to Muskie than to Humphrey, who is a complete whore,” said Naughton. “I’m a pragmatist, and I think Muskie may be the best we can get. Coming off the White House beat, almost any Democrat looks attractive. Muskie has impressed me as being honest and candid— – he’s not just a politician.”
“He wants to be President so bad he can taste it,” I said.
“No,” said Naughton. “The man is really a fatalist. He’s been pushed into this race and he’s accepted his role, but he’d be happier being a senator from Maine for the rest of his life.”
Morton nodded. “I’ll grant you that he’s petulant, that he’s ill at ease with the press, and that he doesn’t know what to say sometimes, but that doesn’t mean he’s all bad.”
“You’ve got to remember that he’s a state politician, and that he’s being advised by people who have run state campaigns,” Naughton said earnestly. “But he’s learning. He’s educable. That’s why we told him about the importance of having an open administration during that bull session in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We can educate him before it’s too late.”
Just before closing time, Naughton and I made a trip to the bar to collect the last round of drinks. As we stood at the rail, I realized for the first time that we were both quite drunk. Not pig drunk, but unnaturally loose-tongued. Naughton was talking to me intensely, but it was hard for me to concentrate on his words because Dick Stewart, Muskie’s press secretary, was sitting only a few feet away singing “On the Street Where You Live” at the top of his lungs. But I remember the gist of what Naughton said, and he has since repeated the rest for me.
“When I was in Cleveland and I was a young political reporter – —fairly naive, fairly idealistic, fairly liberal – —there was a state representative named Carl Stokes who came along. Black. A man of immense charm. Seemed to me to represent what was right, what was the future— – I thought he would make one helluva mayor. And my news stories may have reflected that and I’m sure my columns did. And that may or may not have helped get him elected.
“And as soon as he got elected, he turned around and shat on all the people who had worked their asses off for him. He was just a bastard. He had terminal ego. And that convinced me you should never place your trust in a politician. And I think that was a very valuable object lesson.”
As the months went by, Naughton’s confidence built up and he seemed to remember that object lesson more and more. The Times assigned him to Humphrey for ten days in Pennsylvania and then moved him to McGovern, the new Winner. He seemed to be more on top of McGovern’s campaign, and around the time of the Eagleton affair he wrote a truly tough article which detailed the Machiavellian way in which McGovern disposed of his running mate.
In early August, in the press room of the Biltmore Hotel in Providence, Naughton was playing five card stud around a long green-clothed table with Stout and several reporters. Frank Mankiewicz and Dick Dougherty of McGovern’s campaign were in the game too. It was the end of McGovern’s first day of presidential campaigning.
Suddenly Naughton interrupted the betting and dirty jokes with a soft-voiced rap. “You know,” he said, looking at Dougherty, “I was watching out there today and they were asking McGovern about issues he was talking about 18 months ago. That’s really something. They wanted to know if he would stop the war, they wanted to know about tax reform, they wanted to know about amnesty…” Naughton seemed to be trying to send the McGovern staffers a message.
“Aw,” said Stout, counting his quarters, “Naughton’s going soft on McGovern.”
“I wish he had a little sooner,” said Mankiewicz.
Not all political reporters travel regularly with the candidates. The chief political correspondents of the big metropolitan dailies and the more rugged columnists occasionally appear on the bus to get the smell of a campaign. More often, however, they can be found criss-crossing the country consulting with governors, party officials, state organizers, and occasionally hoi polloi. The big political correspondents are not necessarily household words, but they have enormous influence over their fellow journalists and over politicians. Here are some of the Heavies:
“Take a look at Johnny Apple over there,” said a celebrity-watching politico on the closing night of the Democratic Convention. “He practically goes around with a T-shirt saying, ‘I work for the Times: I’m Number One!'”
R.W. “Johnny” Apple, Jr., The New York Times’ national political correspondent, was standing in a shadowy area at the south end of the blue wooden stands of the press gallery. A chubby man with a pug nose and narrow eyes, he was wearing a polo shirt and slacks and looked like a country club golfer. All of a sudden Ted Kennedy, who had just finished his speech nominating George McGovern for President, came around a corner a few feet away from Apple, walking briskly and followed by his entourage.
“Hey Ted,” shouted Apple, and waved him over. They chatted for about a minute.
“You know,” said the politico as Ted left Apple, “Johnny thinks he’s better than the pols he writes about. He thinks they need him. He seems to forget it’s The New York Times they need, not him. If Johnny worked for the Denver Post and he said, ‘Hey Ted,’ Teddy would have kept on walking.”
Johnny Apple never hesitates to let you know that he is important. He once described to me the elaborate 20-man “grid system” that the Times had developed to cover the primaries. “And then, floating above all that,” he concluded, “is me. Nobody has as much authority as I do. I can do virtually any story I want to, and I can help shape what other people do.”
In the eyes of many of his colleagues, Apple is a compulsive bullshit artist, the kind of man who cannot resist adding $5,000-a-year when he tells you how much he makes. Returning to New York from the Times’ Saigon Bureau, Apple announced that he had killed several Vietcong, which prompted one Times-man to mutter: “Women and children, I presume.” At least a few journalists see Apple as a ruthlessly ambitious office politician who has stabbed and flattered his way up through the ranks of the Times. Not many people have ever accused Apple of dishonest reporting; it’s Apple’s personality that turns them off— – his braggadocio, his grandstanding, his mammoth ego. In a business populated largely by shy egomaniacs, he sticks out like a drunk at a funeral.
I first met Apple around noon on the Sunday before the California primary. Along with a dozen other very heavy media people, he had passed up the tacky Wilshire Hyatt House in favor of the posh Beverly Wilshire, in Beverly Hills. Most of his fellow journalists were lounging by the pool, but Apple had been pounding on his Olivetti since 8, finishing up his story for Monday’s paper. He was phoning the last paragraphs to New York as I arrived. In a room as elegant as a DR store window, with — bronze foil wallpaper and mod furniture, he was sitting in white BVDs taking a last hurried look through the mess of yellow legal paper on the desk.
As he lathered soap on his face to shave, Apple enthusiastically outlined the Times’ campaign coverage. Talking nonstop, he pulled on some sports clothes, led me through the hotel and commandeered a good table on the shaded patio of the hotel restaurant. Having ordered a Bullseye and a pack of Salems, he started attacking the basket of sweet rolls on the table. We were talking about the piece he had written for that morning’s paper, in which he flatly predicted that a pack of Southern Governors trying to stop McGovern would get nowhere.
“Believe it or not, they gave me an unlimited travel budget at the Times,” he said, buttering a roll. “So when I get into a situation like that piece this morning, I know 15 people in Georgia who I can get on the phone and will level with me, and I know another ten in Kentucky, because I’ve been all these places three and four times. That piece took about 65 phone calls – —two whole days and part of a third. I’m a great string-saver— – while I’m doing one story like that I’ll duck into a phone booth and make half a dozen phone calls for another story.”
The waiter brought the poached eggs and caviar we had ordered. “The important thing is the amount of money a publisher is willing to contribute to travel,” Apple went on. “Because travel is the soul of this business. You’ve gotta be there, you can’t do it all on the telephone.
“Tell ya a little story. When Tunney [Sen. John Tunney, D-Cal.] and Moretti [Robert Moretti, Speaker of the California Assembly] made their announcement for Muskie, which I had a couple of days early, a rather bitter California reporter said to Moretti, ‘How come we have to read what you’re going to do in national politics in The New York Times, when we cover California?’ And Moretti looked at the guy and said, ‘If you’d been in my office four times in the last year drinking Scotch the way Johnny Apple was, maybe you wouldn’t have to read about it in The New York Times.'”
Which implies that Apple got the story from his well-primed source, Moretti. That is not exactly what happened, according to a Tunney aide. The Tunney aide claims to have fed the story to Apple via a couple of intermediaries and for his own purposes. In other words, Apple was being used.
The Tunney endorsement was a big story, the first of a string of front-page scoops that Apple got on major political figures endorsing Muskie. Tunney was a bosom pal, law-school roommate and fellow Senator of Ted Kennedy; if Tunney came out for Muskie, it was probably with Kennedy’s consent and meant that he wasn’t going to run.
Late in November ’71, Muskie approached Tunney to ask for an endorsement. Tunney checked it out with Kennedy and got the green light. So Tunney’s aide went ahead to make a deal: Tunney would endorse the Man from Maine if Muskie would promise to make him chairman of the California delegation at the Convention. Muskie agreed, and Tunney scheduled the press conference for a week later— – Wednesday, December 7th.
Meanwhile, Alan Cranston, the other Senator from California, got wind of Tunney’s plans. Cranston decided he’d better endorse Muskie, too. So he called up Muskie and offered his endorsement in return for a promise that he would be chairman of the California delegation at the Convention. Muskie said yes. When Tunney’s people found out that Muskie had promised the chairmanship to both Tunney and Cranston, they were furious. They called Muskie and raised hell. As usual, Muskie couldn’t make up his mind what to do.
So, late on Monday December 5th, two days before the scheduled announcement, Tunney’s aide decided to pull the rug out from under Cranston by leaking the Tunney endorsement to The New York Times. He found out that Johnny Apple was in Columbus, Ohio, seeing an old friend, John Gilligan, the Governor of Ohio. The aide phoned Mark Shields, a Gilligan aide; Shields relayed the information to Gilligan; and Gilligan leaked the story to Apple. A three-cushion shot with Apple as the eightball – —it was hard for anyone to trace the story back to Tunney’s aide and accuse him of screwing Cranston. On December 7th, Johnny Apple’s story – —”Tunney Endorsement of Muskie in 1972 Race is Reported Near”— – appeared on the front page of the Times. It was almost an exclusive, but not quite. Just for insurance, Tunney’s aide had also leaked the story to Sam Roberts of the New York Daily News.
In the next month, Mark Shields, the Gilligan aide, became a national coordinator of the Muskie campaign and proceeded to leak several Muskie endorsement stories exclusively to Apple – —including the news that Leonard Woodcock of the UAW was going to come out for Muskie. Several high-level members of Muskie’s staff were outraged that Shields was favoring one reporter, and felt that Shields ought to be punished. But Shields, one of the shrewdest men on Muskie’s staff, was sure he had done the right thing. By giving the stories to The New York Times, he had guaranteed: a) that the Times would give them front-page play and b) that every other paper in America would give them prominent coverage. Once a story hits Page One of the Times, it is certified news and can’t be ignored.
“You build up the confidence in people,” Apple was saying as he sipped his Bullseye. “They tell you things.” No small part of Apple’s success as a builder of sources has been his position as a powerful member of the Times. He got that position by being a red-hot, gungho over-achiever. Which is what he has been for as long as anybody can remember. He was Editor-in-Chief of the yearbook at his Ohio prep school, Western Reserve Academy. At Princeton, he ran the newspaper, got elected vice-chairman of the student council, and was thrown out for bad grades. He worked for the prestigious Wall Street Journal, did a hitch in the Army (moonlighting for a newspaper in Virginia), and finally graduated Magna Cum Laude from Columbia in 1961. He was editor of the newspaper there, too. After a couple of years as a writer and producer for Huntley-Brinkley at NBC, he joined the Times and became a protege of Abe Rosenthal, who was then the Metropolitan Editor.
Apple practically ran up the ladder of good reportorial jobs – —Bobby Kennedy’s 1964 Senate campaign, the Albany Statehouse, Vietnam, Nelson Rockefeller’s ’68 Presidential campaign, Africa, and then the whole national political scene. He was a golden boy. Someone once asked Abe Rosenthal what was the best decision he had ever made. “Hiring Johnny Apple,” Rosenthal shot back immediately.
Johnny Apple’s confidence isn’t shaken very often. One of his virtues as a journalist is that he takes confident stands in many of his stories. He doesn’t hedge a lot of bets. “Part of that is because I have the strong backing of a strong newspaper,” he said at the Wilshire. “I’m never questioned on what I write. Never! Occasionally there will be a small hassle about phraseology – —but as to my overall judgment of what a situation is, they don’t argue.”
So it shook him like an earthquake when the Times killed his major Democratic Convention story – —his on-the-money analysis of the South Carolina vote. On Monday night, when the McGovern forces purposely “lost” the South Carolina challenge rather than risk a narrow “Twilight Zone” victory that would have brought up sticky parliamentary questions, Walter Cronkite announced that it was a serious setback for the McGovern people and NBC acted confused. But Apple filed 500 words explaining the whole Byzantine mess, and showing that it was really a victory for the crack McGovern troops.
Apple knew it was coming. The week before, he had written about the parliamentary skirmishing that was likely to break out at the convention. That morning, in Monday’s Times, he had a piece outlining the parliamentary game plans that the McGovern generals might put into effect. At 1:00 that afternoon, he got a memo from Jim Naughton predicting the McGovern tactic. And when the vote actually came up, he was sitting on a folding chair at the Times’ counter in the Press bleachers, keeping a tally for Max Frankel, the Washington Bureau Chief.
“When two states switched – —I knew people in the delegations – —I turned to Max and said, ‘Throw something in the story about how they’re switching votes to put off the main showdown until the California vote,'” Apple recalled later. “Then I wrote a new top for my ‘Convention Notes’ column, explaining the whole thing. We sent it off and heard not a single word. We presumed it was in the paper, everybody was happy, and we went off to bed.”
Around noon the next day, Apple sauntered into the Times office to look at his story in the late edition, which was flown to Miami every morning. The Times had the biggest office of any newspaper at the convention – —it occupied half of the vast “East Riviera Room” of the Fontainebleau Hotel. The far wall of the office contained plate glass windows that looked out on the pea-green Atlantic. The near wall was a tall aluminum partition that had been erected to make the Times office a little fortress within the gilded and thickly carpeted ballroom.
When Apple walked in and picked up the Times, a UPI machine was softly spluttering away, a couple of operators were typing on the big Western Union machines, and several Timesmen were working behind an array of steel desks. Apple carefully scanned the first section of the paper for his story. He couldn’t find it. It didn’t take him long to realize he couldn’t find it because it wasn’t there. The editors in the “bull pen” in New York had axed it. His face turned crimson, he wheeled, and then he lashed the Times against the aluminum partition. It made a sound like a locomotive hitting a Mayflower moving van. Several writers jumped in their seats. “Those motherfucking cocksuckers ought to be fired!” he screamed, referring to the editors. “They are a goiter on the body of journalism!”
At least, that’s what he says he screamed. Some witnesses claim that he quit on the spot, but Apple denies it. “I had a cow, to say the least,” he chuckled over long distance when I called to ask about the incident. “But I didn’t resign. I only said I was going to resign. The whole incident was over within an hour because I had to get the hell to work on the next day’s story. Gene Roberts, the National Editor, got on the phone to New York. He was extremely angry and felt that we had been ahead on the parliamentary story, we had far more on the maneuvering than anyone else, and then, when the denouement arrived, they cut us off. They had no reason for doing it, no matter what the reason was.”
It was rumored that the New York editors had killed Apple’s story when they saw Walter Cronkite saying that the South Carolina vote marked a defeat for McGovern – —that they had chosen to believe Cronkite over Apple. Everyone at the Times denies this, including Apple. “No,” he said, “somehow one of the editors decided we didn’t need any additional information to that in Max’s story. Or that it didn’t fit with what I had written before. He took one or two paragraphs out of mine and slapped them down in Max’s story.”
In the end, the editors retooled Apple’s story and ran it a day late, but it is difficult to measure the long-range effect of the whole explosion. Apple has reached the higher echelons of the Times, where politics is practiced almost as much as journalism, and the South Carolina incident occurred just as he was jockeying for the position of Washington Bureau Chief. Max Frankel was getting a promotion, and the job was up for grabs. During June and July, Apple’s hair was short and neat. He had gotten a haircut, it was said, to show the Powers in New York that he was just as clean cut as Anothony Lewis (London Bureau Chief and columnist), Robert Semple (White House Correspondent) and Hedrick Smith (Moscow Bureau Chief), who were also contenders for the prize.
But when Apple showed up in August for the Republican Convention, his prematurely grey hair once again flopped over his ears and crawled down the back of his neck. The night before the Convention, he was hopping around the Poodle Room in the Fontainebleau, a dark and noisy bar where middle-aged hookers hustled overweight Babbits from Midwestern delegations.
“You’re going hip,” I said. “You’ve turned into a goddam longhair.”
“Come on,” he said, genuinely insulted. “You know my hair’s always been long.”
A young Timesman wandered up and began to make in-jokes about internal politics on the paper. All Times-like propriety had dissolved many drinks ago.
“Hey,” the young Timesman needled Apple, “too bad about the Washington Bureau. What are you gonna do now?” It was an open secret that the fix was in for Anthony Lewis to be the new Chief.
“Same thing I’ve been doing all along – —I’m just a reporter,” Apple said with his best country-boy smile.
“Naw,” said Apple, “I never expected them to consider me seriously for the job.”
“You know you wanted it.”
Apple shrugged the way Rocky used to shrug when pressed about his presidential aspirations. “Do I look like a Washington Bureau Chief of The New York Times,” he asked rhetorically. And he flashed a big What-Me-Worry smile. He had not watched a hundred concession speeches without learning a few tricks of the trade.
* * *
Most people in America, even the literate, two-paper-a-day folks, have never heard of David Broder; but he is the single most powerful and respected political journalist in Washington and in the Trade. He is Johnny Apple’s counterpart— – national political correspondent— – on The Washington Post, which is generally considered to be the country’s number two newspaper, coming in close behind the Times for prestige. The Post is definitely big time, but Broder’s reputation has now transcended the prestige of the Post. If he were to quit tomorrow and begin publishing a mimeographed tip sheet in his basement, Broder would still probably wield the kind of influence that can change campaigns in their course and other reporters in their opinions.
Many of the reporters on the bus believe that in 1968 Broder divined, through some dark kind of journalistic voodoo, that Nixon would choose Spiro T. Agnew as his running mate. As a result they see Broder, and sometimes venerate him, as a certified oracle. The Agnew story hardly ever fails to come up whenever Broder is introduced, and it has probably done more than anything else to enhance his reputation. Broder has a good time exploding the myth.
“That story of mine was a plant,” he laughed.
“A plant?” I said, incredulously. “From whom?”
“From Nixon!” said Broder, as if he still couldn’t believe it himself. “We were on a plane flying from Pendleton to Portland, Oregon, and Nixon sent somebody back to the press section to get me to come up and talk to him and in about two minutes’ time he had gone from the fact that he was confident of Oregon, to the fact that Oregon would cinch him the nomination, to the fact that he was now thinking seriously about what kind of person should be his vice-presidential running mate. He threw out a couple of obvious names that you would have to think about and then he said, ‘What would be the reaction to Ted Agnew, what kind of a reputation does he have among the reporters?’
“And so we talked some about Agnew, and Nixon said, ‘You know he’s quite an urban expert, he was a county executive, he’s a lawyer,’ and I said, ‘OK, I’m beginning to get the message.'”
High up in his subsequent story, Broder mentioned the Agnew possibility, wrapping it in many qualifications. “I wrote it in May, and promptly forgot about it – —it never crossed my mind again that it was a serious prospect, and I was as astonished as everyone in that convention when it came to pass. But out of that, I’ve become ‘a great confidant of Richard Nixon’s’ and ‘the only reporter who knew he was going to pick Agnew.'”
With his short, greying hair, his horn-rims, and his unhurried, straightnecked, dignified walk, Broder has the look of the youngest full professor on the faculty at M.I.T. He seldom wears anything but white shirts, patterned ties and conservative suits— – even in Miami Beach. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he got out of the Army in 1953 and went to work for the Bloomington (Ill.) Pantograph. Two years later he arrived in Washington where he worked briefly for the Congressional Quarterly and then for the Star. In 1965 he became the national political correspondent for The New York Times, only to resign a year and a half later, having run into irreconcilable differences with the national desk in New York. Since then he has been at the Post.
What separates him from the pack is his incredible detachment, which is not cynical, or even bemused, but scholarly. Of him a professional political hustler, a guy whose livelihood often depends on his success at “planting” stories, says: “You can’t feed a story to Broder. If you call him up with a tout, he’s insulted, he usually won’t use it. He likes to find things out for himself. And he doesn’t like to just break a story, he likes to look at the story and see what it means.” Even when Nixon handed him the Agnew plant, Broder treated it as if it were a package that ticked and refused to make much of it. He is so patient and methodical that he seems much more like an historian than a newsman.
Broder goes in for analysis and really couldn’t care less for big names. Which is rare in political journalism, because one of the few obvious compensations of the job is that it puts you close to powerful people. On an afternoon last June when most reporters were knocking themselves out to find out Teddy Kennedy’s latest whim concerning the Vice-Presidency, Broder said to a couple of reporters visiting the Post: “Teddy— – I’m getting so goddam tired of trying to figure out what he means when he says things.”
I will now be an old fart for one minute,” Broder said when asked to discuss fallibility in political journalism, “and tell you that the most distressing thing about covering politics is that the guy who was absolutely right, whose wisdom was almost breathtaking one election year – —you go back to that same man for wisdom some other year and he’ll be just as dumb as dogshit. That’s why it’s not a science. You can say, ‘In 1968, I learned the following key lessons, which I’m going to write down in the front of my notebook and look at them twice a day all through 1972’— – and you’ll get absolutely deceived by doing that.”
That was absolutely true; anyone who tried to apply old lessons to 1972 would have looked hopelessly bad. Broder had tried to avoid the trap of fighting the last war, but he had gone astray nonetheless in 1971 and early ’72. He had devoted a lot of space to Muskie (always with the caveat that it was nonsense to consider the contest locked up), he had spent no less than ten days researching and writing an exhaustive article on the Birch Bayh Machine, and he had generally slighted the candidacy of George McGovern. I kept asking Broder where he had gone wrong, and whether it had been possible for even the wisest of men to foresee the situation this year.
“The one thing I’ll say in my defense,” said Broder, “is that I repeatedly wrote, ‘Front runner is a meaningless term.’ There’s a lawyer named Milt Gwirtzman who works for McGovern and I keep cribbing his laws of politics, and his first law of presidential politics is that nothing that happens before the first presidential primary really has any relevance at all. So those three years are a very artificial environment.
“They’re campaigning for us and putting on parades for us in the press. They’re putting on shows for other politicians; it has very little to do with the voters. A good case could be made that we shouldn’t say anything about them at all, except that’s an impossible rule to follow in this town because the appetite for politics is continuous. Also you want some sense of the evolution of these guys as personalities. But no matter how you play it, you’re going to end up with a rather low yield of significant information in an odd-numbered year.
“I was very proud of that piece I did on how Birch Bayh, who seemed to have no following at all in the country, had nonetheless assembled this marvelous machine. Turns out I should have been looking at McGovern – —bad judgment on my part. But I’m damned if I can tell you even in retrospect how I should have known at that point.”
Underestimating McGovern was one mistake that Broder continued to make, which was why he was willing to put big money on the Hump in California. He still hadn’t adjusted to the new political situation. He figured that the Hump would have his first big Jewish vote in California, his first big black vote there, plus a big last ditch effort by labor. And he was right about all that (with the possible exception of labor). “Now where I was wrong,” he said ruefully, as he continued to nurse his Coke, “and where I have been consistently wrong all year, was in sort of underestimating the ability of the McGovern people to maximize McGovern’s assets.”
His wrongheadedness on this point often smacked of righteousness. He repeatedly indicated in his writing that he was afraid the McGovern delegates wouldn’t be housebroken. In his column of June 20th, he cited several examples of McGovern delegates misbehaving at state caucuses. (Except for pushing through a resolution sanctioning homosexual marriage, the delegates didn’t do anything Richard Daley hadn’t been doing for 40 years.) Then Broder wrote:
“As word of these and similar incidents in recent weeks has filtered back to Washington, a shudder of apprehension has gone through Democratic ranks. For the first time, there is beginning to be widespread concern that the Miami Beach convention hall may prove to be the disaster for the Democrats that the San Francisco Cow Palace was for the GOP in 1964.” Of course, it was the best behaved convention in history.
I finished up the interview by asking Broder what changes he would like to see made in political journalism. First he said the press was still using very primitive means to “gauge and describe the dynamics of public opinion.” He liked the fact that the Times and the Post had both hired pollsters to help them out this year.
“The second thing that interests me,” said Broder, “is the suggestion that you’re getting now from some social scientists and psycho-historians that the press ought to look much more seriously at its role as the chronicler of critical incidents that shape the personality of these men who are running for President, instead of just sort of doing canned feature stories about these guys. But I don’t want to go too far in that, because I’m mortally afraid of unleashing a bunch of newspapermen who would fancy themselves as amateur psychiatrists.
“The third area in which I think we still do a kind of poor job is institutional reporting,” he said. “The story always tends to be this-guy-versus-that-guy, instead of the development and change of an institution. That the story may not be personal combat but the development and change of an institution is a notion that’s very hard to get into the heads of newspaper people. Because they want to know ‘what’s the lead?’ But you could look at the Democratic Party, the majority party in the country, and what has happened to it – —and not just Fred-Harris-out-Larry-O’Brien-in or McGovern-versus-Muskie. And maybe McGovern wouldn’t have surprised us if we’d done that.”
But, sighed Broder, there were not enough resources to handle that kind of story, even on the super-fat Post – —not enough money, manpower, time or space. He himself had drawn up the blueprint for the Post’s election coverage, late in the summer of ’71, stretching five full-time men from the national staff and a few younger reporters from the state and city staffs so that they would cover all twelve Democratic candidates, plus the two Republican challengers – —there was no one to spare for the Democratic Party saga.
There are other bylines that stand out from the pack, and which merit the attention of anyone trying to find out what is really happening in the campaign, or the shape of the dent that the campaign is making on the country. Three that come to mind immediately are Jules Witcover, Richard Reeves and Haynes Johnson.
Witcover, the chief political correspondent for The L.A. Times, is a tall, thin, shy man with a slack jaw, blank eyes and receding dark hair, who could easily be mistaken for a Secret Service man or special-assignment cop. He is always at the candidate’s side, inconspicuous and still, listening hard to every word and filling his square, palm-sized notebook with volumes of detail. While holding down his reporting job he has written three excellent political biographies – —of Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew— – which cost him most of his weekends and spare moments over the last four years. He is up at six every morning, it is rumored, and writes until eight, going over his notes and assessing the events of the day before. He takes every aspect of his work seriously, even down to the lampoon songs that reporters write.
“It’s a funny thing,” he told me as we rode out to Warner Brothers for a screening of The Candidate one morning. “I was remarking to some of my colleagues just the other day that we privately had Muskie’s weaknesses pretty well identified in January, but we didn’t write them hard enough. We kinda gave him the benefit of the doubt. But we wrote songs – —satires, parodies— – just for our own amusement, and most of the ingredients of those songs were the difficulties that Muskie was having about his temper and his inability to make decisions quickly.”
Witcover not only analyzes songs, he also writes them. He had a hand in “The Ruthless Cannonball,” the classic seven-verse ditty that reporters wrote on Bobby Kennedy’s Indiana whistlestop train. He reportedly worked on the number about Frank Mankiewicz, written in June, that went: “Mankiewicz, Superstar, put out the light in Pierre’s cigar.”
Early in the year, Witcover traveled with Muskie. His track record on that campaign was good, but not spectacular. He did not sound strong alarms about Muskie’s flaws until after New Hampshire. “I was aware of the organization that McGovern was building up there,” he says, “and aware that Muskie wasn’t doing anything. But I bought the Muskie people’s story that they were OK because Muskie had been in and out of the state for 20 years. Muskie intimidated the press. We wanted to have chapter and verse before we went at him.”
However, last November Witcover wrote one Muskie piece that was regarded as a classic on the press bus. Witcover had witnessed Muskie playing poker on a plane and wrote a long lead describing the Senator’s shoot-for-the-moon poker-playing style. “It was a great piece,” a colleague says admiringly. “It showed the crazy contradictions in Muskie. Jules described Muskie the harebrained poker-player versus Muskie the cautious guy who won’t take a leak without checking all the angles.”
Certain reporters seem to have an affinity for certain candidates. Johnny Apple, with his emphasis on contacts, heavies, and name-dropping seemed to go well with the Muskie campaign. Witcover, with his meticulousness, his dedication, and his quietness, seems to be a good match for McGovern. He also has a good sense of the maneuvering that goes on among a campaign’s staffers – —perhaps because he covered the bureaucratic infighting at the Pentagon for three years in the early Sixties.
Covering McGovern, Witcover has come up with two scoops. When he arrived in California last May, he found that the local reporters on The L.A. Times had locked him out of the primary coverage. (On any large newspaper, there are always pitched battles between the local reporters and national reporters when a major candidate comes to the paper’s home town— – it is not unlike the feuding between state troopers and the FBI over a big case. The local reporters usually win.) Undaunted, Witcover went off and smoked out one of the most important stories in a dull primary. Witcover had heard that there was a group of big investors in the McGovern campaign that called itself the Woonsocket Club (after the name of Eleanor McGovern’s home town). The conventional wisdom was that McGovern contributors were farmers and faculty wives who scraped up five dollars to send to the Prairie Populist; but the Woonsocket Club consisted of millionaires.
Witcover approached McGovern’s finance chairman, Henry Kimelman, in the Wilshire Hyatt House and tactfully let Kimelman know that he was aware of the basic facts about the Woonsocket Club. Kimelman, in turn, consulted with other McGovern staffers and convinced them that it was best to level with Witcover and give him the whole story. So Witcover became the first journalist to report that a number of “fat cats” were pumping massive funds into McGovern’s effort, and to name them. It amused Witcover to use the term “fat cats.” It didn’t amuse McGovern’s staff or the fat cats.
On Friday, July 28th, Witcover was sitting in the press room at the Hi-Ho Motel in Custer, N.D., when the phone rang. It was George McGovern asking him over to his cabin for what turned out to be an hour-and-a-half interview. The next morning, Witcover had an exclusive in The L.A. Times: “Public and political reaction to Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton’s disclosure of past hospitalization for nervous disorders has been so negative that Sen. George S. McGovern is convinced that Eagleton must withdraw from the Democratic ticket, the Times has learned.” Although it was obvious that the story had come from McGovern, Witcover was not supposed to identify his source. But Richard Stout of Newsweek and Dean Fisher of Time were both in the press room and heard Witcover accept McGovern’s invitation to do an interview. In their files, they both wrote that McGovern had used Witcover to send Eagleton a message. Witcover himself still observes the strictest protocol about this point. “I didn’t attribute the story,” he reminds you. “You read that McGovern was the source in Time and Newsweek.”
The question remains: Why did McGovern single out Witcover? “I guess it’s because I represent a large West Coast newspaper and Eagleton was on the Coast at the time,” Witcover said a couple of weeks later, as he sipped a tall bourbon in the press room of McGovern’s Providence hotel. After some prodding, however, Witcover came up with an additional theory. A week before the New York primary, he had approached Gordon Weil, McGovern’s personal aide, to ask about doing an interview with McGovern on the subject of the Vice-Presidency. Witcover had just brought out a book on Spiro Agnew, and was something of an expert on the matter of the veeps. A few days later, Witcover got the interview. McGovern told him that he wanted to avoid waiting until midnight of the final day, as Nixon had done in ’68, to choose his running mate. He was already planning a thorough search for the right candidate, so that there would be no last-minute snap judgments. Then the discussion moved to the last chapter of Witcover’s book, in which he had argued that the office of Vice-President was no longer a joke, that there were “persuasive reasons for giving future Vice-Presidents of the United States something much more and much better to do.”
“Maybe that’s part of the reason he called me in Custer,” Witcover said very seriously in Providence. “I don’t know, but he may have had that discussion in mind.”
* * *
Richard Reeves of New York Magazine is a tough, opinionated product of Jersey City who regards politicians as the natural enemy of reporters; he is on a shooting spree this year, having cut the umbilical cord with what he calls the “Mother Times.” He did newspaper work in New Jersey, moved to the New York Herald Tribune, and in 1966 went to the Times, where for five years his attitude ranged from “manic depression to mild discontent.” He became the New York Political Editor, commanding a staff of five reporters and covering the Lindsay-Pro-cacino mayoralty race in ’69 and the Rockefeller-Goldberg shutout election in ’70.
Reeves wanted to cover national politics and asked to be transferred to Washington, but the Times kept persuading him to take other jobs in New York. Finally, he demanded a guaranteed assignment on the ’72 campaign. His editors said that they would release him from the Metropolitan Staff in March ’72 to cover Lindsay and hinted that he might well end up covering the Democratic candidate in the general election. But they warned him that he would probably start out working under someone from the Washington Bureau – —probably Christopher Lydon, a young man whom Reeves had recruited for the Times. At the same time, late in ’71, Reeves discovered that he could make more than $30,000 a year writing for Harper’s and New York Magazine, where he could say virtually anything he wanted about the campaign. With some trepidation he quit the most powerful newspaper in the world to go free lance.
Reeves is an affable man, 40ish, with shaggy brown hair and a prominent nose. He sucks continuously on a pipe and shoots the breeze in a rich and confident bass voice. But he is not humble and he does not go out of his way to find nice things to say about pols. “If there’s anything good about the guy, fuck it, his press officer will get it out,” Reeves said over scallops in a Miami seafood joint. “So why should I waste my time, for McGovern or for anybody else? I don’t tend to think in terms of their problems.” If anything put a hard shell on his sentimentality, Reeves thinks it was growing up as part of an ethnic minority in Jersey City – —he was one of the few WASPs in town. “The big thing about growing up the way I did,” said Reeves, “was that we really thought we were better than anybody else and it’s easier to make God-like decisions when you believe that.”
In 1972, Reeves has been writing with a sweeping authoritativeness that most writers reserve for their fantasies. True, he warmed up with a piece on Ed Muskie that was uncharacteristically equivocal and verged on being kind. “First the bad news: Ed Muskie is a kind of likable Richard Nixon,” said the piece, which ran in New York. “Now, the good news: You will like Ed Muskie— – there is something real there.”
The voters disagreed violently with that opinion. Nonetheless, Reeves’ piece was the most insightful single portrait of Muskie’s campaign. He detailed Muskie’s foibles, outlined the mechanics of Muskie’s bandwagon strategy, and printed an exclusive quote that would haunt Muskie for months. On Meet the Press, David Broder had asked Muskie why he refused to reveal his money sources. The next day, Reeves pressed Muskie on the matter and Muskie replied, “The answer to Broder’s question is that if I did that, I’d be out of the race. That’s a simple fact.”
Reeves even explained why Muskie would be out of the race: his contributors were terrified of John Mitchell and the FBI. Throughout the whole controversy over Muskie’s refusal to disclose, Reeves was the only reporter who publicized this simple, but unprovable, explanation.
If Reeves allowed himself to like Muskie a little, it was because Muskie had been honest with him, and also because Reeves was convinced Muskie truly “loved America” and understood what was best about the country.
He was not so lenient with George McGovern, whom he regarded as a garden-variety pol with an unwarranted reputation for saintliness. “George would rather be President than be right,” Reeves claimed in a New York piece last May. In the article, Reeves became one of the first journalists to reveal that McGovern was fudging on busing (saying one thing in Florida, another in Massachusetts); that McGovern’s accusation that 40 percent of American corporations were paying no income tax was “ridiculous”; that McGovern gave little indication of caring much about the poverty-stricken Indians in his own South Dakota back yard; and that McGovern’s ADA rating had plummeted from 94 to 43 in 1968, the year he ran for re-election.
It was a disheartening story. Reeves didn’t give McGovern a single break. Although he supplied ample evidence for his argument, the story had little of the both-sides-now “fairness” that the Times would have expected of him. But at the outset, Reeves laid out his premise, which is a valuable one:
“Politicians are different from you and me. The business of reaching for power does something to a man— – it closes him off from other men until, day by day, he reaches the point where he instinctively calculates each new situation and each other man with the simplest question: what can this do for me?”
If any one reporter can be said to have pioneered the “Mood of the Country Piece,” it is Haynes Johnson of The Washington Post, and he is still writing them better than almost anybody. Suddenly, in 1972, the Mood of the Country piece became a vogue – —the Times has several men doing them and the networks and newsweeklies have been making valiant attempts. For at least ten years, Johnson has been visiting key precincts, talking to voters, “trying to relate campaigning to the people, to show how they perceive it and feel about it.”
He is doing all right for himself. He stayed at the Beverly Wilshire during the California campaign, and on at least one morning he found time to lie in his tan bathing trunks in a chaise lounge by the pool. He is large, athletically built, squarefaced, and wears glasses with thick black frames. Usually, he dresses as blandly as a doctor. He had recently finished his main California article that contained his customary mixture of anecdote, statistics, and confident summation. His piece gave the lie to the fuss that the rest of the press was making over the primary. “Despite all this collective political sound and fury, or perhaps because of it, this campaign is characterized by public indifference,” he wrote. “You cannot travel across California today without being struck by the lack of emotion being generated by the politicians.”
For a journalist, he is highly educated; he not only went to the University of Missouri School of Journalism but also got a master’s degree in American History from the University of Wisconsin. He worked for the Washington Star until 1969, covering the ’60, ’64 and ’68 campaigns. This year he was hors de combat until the Pennsylvania primary – —he was finishing a series on the American Labor Movement with Nick Kotz, also of the Post; the piece turned out to be an excellent example of the “institutional reporting” that Broder longs for.
“I’ve always been appalled by group journalism, by getting caught up in a group feeling,” he said as he dragged on a Marlboro and squinted into the noonday sun. “I’m kind of a loner. The hardest thing about traveling alone is you have to do the little things like make the hotel reservations. You sort of miss the bus, where they shepherd you and you don’t have to worry about the traffic to —the airport, because you know they’ll get you on the plane.”
“But it’s worth it,” he said. “I like wandering around the country on my own. I’m doing these pieces much more – —I hate to say scientifically – —but that’s the way it is. You get out with a boundary map for a precinct, you try to get about 20 interviews for each precinct and you know exactly how they voted before. Then you make your analysis.”
Time and Newsweek
Time magazine has 4,250,000 paying readers. Newsweek has 2,615,091.
Time and Newsweek may look alike, read alike, and have the same people on the cover week after week, but there is one crucial difference: 1,634,909 readers. Given that monstrous gap to close, Newsweek runs a relatively lean, we-try-harder, underdog operation. And Time, home free in the circulation race, fairly reeks of extravagance.
Item: Time threw big parties at both conventions, with sumptuous buffets and special preference to advertisers. On the first night of the Democratic Convention, Time collected the floor passes from all its correspondents and gave them to big advertisers so that the advertisers could walk around the convention floor and gawk for a couple of hours.
Item: Time hired a fleet of 15 Cadillac limousines that stood ready to whisk its correspondents and messengers to any point in Miami, including Flamingo Park. (“The Zippies all wanted a ride,” said that particular correspondent.)
Item: Time ran its convention operations out of a sultan’s tent in the Fontainebleau’s Exhibition Hall that made every other newsprint operation look like a hovel. On three sides, the Time office was fenced in by blue muslin curtains, with a grey-uniformed security guard at the entrance flap. (No other publication had thought of that touch – —the security guard.) The fourth side of the office was the back wall of the Exhibition Hall – —a riot of red whorehouse flock, adorned with an orchestra of plaster cherubs. At any given moment, a dozen correspondents sat in a row, staring right into the blue curtains and banging out reams of copy, while a crew of shirt-sleeved editors huddled around a complex of steel desks, making tactical decisions. The lines to the Front (at the Convention Hall) were kept open by a lady telephone operator in a flowered dress who manned a full-sized switchboard and set off beepers in the pockets of stray editors and correspondents; and by a dozen couriers who sat on a row of chairs behind the switchboard – —half of them were sons of Time editors who had reportedly been flown in at company expense. (The New York Times, which ran many more words about the Convention than Time, managed to get along with no switchboard and no couriers.)
All in all, Time brought 130 people to the Democratic Convention, including 23 photographers who exposed 400 rolls of film in the first three days. Several senior editors were there, but were not often seen outside of the tennis courts and parties. The senior editors wore hotel haircuts, pin stripe suits and horn-rim glasses. “You could switch the senior editors with the board of directors of the Chase Manhattan Bank,” said a Time staffer, “and nothing would change at either the magazine or the bank.”
All of the National Bureau chiefs came to Miami for the week, except for the Chief of the Austin Bureau. There just wasn’t enough room for him, so as a consolation prize he was flown to Hyannis to babysit with Ted Kennedy. There was room, however, for most of the 23 members of the Washington Bureau, which, as Time’s largest outpost, fills 80 percent of the “Nation” section every week.
A lot of Time’s best correspondents work in the Washington Bureau— – top-notch reporters like Champ Clark, Hays Gorey, Simmons Fentress, and Dean Fischer, who could probably hold down front line positions on The New York Times. A lot of them are legends within the Time organization, but to the public at large they are about as well-known as engineers at Cape Kennedy. Everybody in the Time office, for instance, knew that Champ Clark was writing an epic-length narrative of the convention and that every line was uproariously funny. But Clark never saw his narrative, much less his byline, in print. Most correspondents have to live with this frustrating condition, which is sweetened by the fact that they make around $30,000 a year. The correspondents file about 750,000 words every week, and then the editors take over. The editors work in the New York office, and their job is to throw away about 700,000 of those words. Then they rewrite about 85 percent of the remaining copy.
The Washington Bureau puts out a little sheet of its own, called the Washington Memo, which contains some of the gossip and rumors that the correspondents think unfit to go in the magazine. The Washington Memo is sent to Time’s New York office and most of the bureaus, but each copy is numbered and copies are not allowed out of the office. The Washington Memo is supposed to keep Time editors abreast of back room happenings in the Capitol, but most correspondents refuse to give their best stories to the Memo. “Some editor will just phone you and try to get you to do a story about some rumor that you put in,” says one correspondent, “and you know it’s true, but you feel bad because you know you can’t ask your source to back you up on it.”
There are other gripes that the Washington correspondents sometimes voice, very privately, about the editors of the “Nation” section.
“This whole bit about the Eastern Press Establishment has some basis in fact,” says one correspondent. “These six or seven guys who determine the final editorial content of the ‘Nation’ section all sit around New York most of the time. Occasionally, they try to shake them out of their Ivory Tower. They bring ’em out. They brought the ‘Nation’ section, lock stock and barrel— – the editors and the researchers – —down to Washington last year. Now they bring ’em down to Miami, the whole crew, and they assign each one of them to a correspondent, kind of like on the buddy system.
“A lot of correspondents just sort of ignored their ‘Nation’ person, and a lot of the ‘Nation’ people went off and played tennis. A few of the ‘Nation’ people did make an honest effort to tag along, find out what was going on, and meet the people they were writing about. But for the most part, it was a king-size waste of money.”
The “Nation” people, in fact, don’t have much contact with politicians and they don’t seem to have heard of the first rule of Old-Fashioned American Political Journalism, which is that all poltical types ought to be regarded as guilty until proven innocent.
The “Nation” section’s two-week junket to Washington is a case in point. Each morning, the whole section met to be addressed over breakfast by some Washington notable. On the first morning, says a correspondent who was there, the notable was Chief Justice Warren Berger. When Berger was done with his spiel, the whole table, except for the correspondent, gave Berger a standing ovation. Thinking about it later, the correspondent felt that maybe they had applauded out of respect for the office of Chief Justice. The next morning, however, Ron Ziegler, the former Disneyland ad executive who became Nixon’s press secretary, spoke to the Time editors. They gave Ziegler a standing ovation, too.
On yet another morning, Wilbur Mills was the honored guest. The same correspondent took the opportunity to ask him whether he had lobbied to become Speaker of the House when John McCormack had stepped down. According to an observer, Neil MacNeil, Times congressional correspondent, “went bananas.”
“How could you ask the Chairman that!” MacNeil demanded of the correspondent. “He was very insulted.”
* * *
Newsweek’s temporary bureau in Miami was just a few feet up the hall from Time’s. Enclosed on all four sides with crummy blue muslin, it was smaller, humbler and quieter than Time’s office. No guard and no switchboard. Just a couple of reporters chatting around the coffee urn, a secretary on the phone, and three or four other reporters pecking at typewriters. Most of the editors were back in New York. But if there is less boondoggling around Newsweek, and less conspicuous waste, its bureaucracy is still very much like Time’s. The correspondents ship out tons of copy, and the New York editors dump, trim, or rewrite almost all of it.
“My copy usually ends up looking like a goddam chicken that’s been hit by a fucking truck,” says John J. Lindsay, a Newsweek Washington correspondent, who is known by his friends as “Real John” to distinguish him from the Mayor of New York.
“You’ve got to be happy if they get your facts right,” says Lindsay. “Since January I don’t think I’ve recognized a damn thing I’ve filed. I just pour everything out of the goddam boot. Otherwise, you get a phone call at 3 in the morning asking you why you left out that the candidate had his teeth drilled that morning.”
John Lindsay is one of the legends of political journalism, a sensitive and observant man who sees the world with such painfully honest eyes that he has almost been forced to develop a cynical, witty manner to deal with what he sees. We were leaning on a disused bar at the rear of the Fontainebleau’s Fontaine Room, a blue ballroom decorated with painted statues of busty Marie Antoinette shepherdesses in low cut bodices. In front of us the 300-odd members of the Democratic National Committee were sitting in gold chairs and waiting for George McGovern, the newly nominated candidate, to come and address them.
Lindsay looked quite sporting in his striped blue blazer and beige espadrilles, with his horn rims and silver hair. He grew up in a small Massachusetts town and was in politics for one brief moment in his teens, when he managed a losing campaign for a man who wanted to be State Representative from Milford, Mass. Since then he has confined himself to writing about politics. He worked ten years on The Washington Post but daily journalism frustrated him because he rarely had time to “take that last step and lock in a story.” So he moved to Newsweek.
“I can’t write worth anything,” he said with a sad smile, “but I’m a good reporter, I can cut through the bullshit. And there’s a lot of bullshit in this business. You’d almost have to get in on a phone line, or something like that, to get the real story— – ’cause what goes on up there on the platform isn’t really what’s happening.” Without the aid of any phone taps, Lindsay has a pretty good idea of what’s happening, and in the next few minutes I got a sample of some of the political perceptions that must be cut from his copy – —I have never seen anything like them in Newsweek.
First of all, Lindsay was sighted by one of the ubiquitous political fixers who were plying their trade in Miami.
“Hi,” said Lindsay. “Who are you working for now?”
“Oh, Matty Troy, the liberal gauleiter!” said Lindsay. A perfect description! Matty Troy is a flashy egocentric who supports McGovern, drinks with Jimmy Breslin, and runs the borough of Queens with an iron fist – —a liberal version of one of the Nazi gauleiters who ran German provinces in the Thirties.
Lindsay and the Troy aide began to discuss the McGovern forces, whom they mistrusted. “Give me an old pol like ‘Onions’ Burke [a one-time heavy in the Massachusetts Democratic Party],” said Lindsay. “If he was gonna double-cross you, he would wink while he was shaking your hand. But these guys don’t even give you a. tip-off.”
McGovern suddenly appeared at the entrance of the ballroom, surrounded by aides. As TV cameramen crowded him, he edged his way to the gold-curtained stage, where Lawrence O’Brien, the Democratic Party Chairman, was sitting. O’Brien was being kicked out of his job to make way for Jean Westwood, McGovern’s choice. McGovern reached the podium and acknowledged the applause of the Democratic National Committee. Then he began to sing O’Brien’s praises, saying what a great chairman O’Brien had been.
“Keep looking for the cloud,” said Lindsay. “They’re gonna take McGovern up on a cloud.”
“I would like to thank Mr. O’Brien for his wonderful service to the Party,” McGovern intoned.
“Not to mention for saving the nomination for me last week,” Lindsay said out of the corner of his mouth.
McGovern finally got around to nominating Jean Westwood as the new Party Chairman. The Committee dutifully elected her and she accepted.
Then McGovern nominated Pierre Salinger, his choice for Vice-Chairman of the Party. Salinger was standing underneath one of the sexy shepherdesses. The TV crews trained their lights on him and the cameras whirred. He was obviously thinking over his acceptance speech one last time – —everyone expected the Committee to vote him in without a peep.
But suddenly Charles Evers, the black committeeman from Florida, was on his feet nominating another candidate – —Basil Patterson, a black man from New York.
“Black power strikes again,” was Lindsay’s comment.
McGovern looked agitated. He leaned toward the microphone and said: “I would like to make a suggestion.”
“Take a dive, Pierre, take a dive!” said Lindsay, reading McGovern’s mind.
“I think that either Pierre Salinger or Basil Patterson would be perfectly acceptable to this Committee,” said McGovern.
“I think Pierre just got the signal from George to jump out the window,” said Lindsay.
Salinger put up his hand and announced that he wanted to address the committee. He walked quickly to the stage and stood beside McGovern at the podium. Looking deflated, he said brusquely that he sensed it was the will of the Committee that Basil Patterson be the next vice-chairman.
“He not only sensed it,” piped Lindsay. “He saw how many weren’t standing up!”
Then McGovern took the microphone to praise Salinger for withdrawing. “I would like to thank Pierre…” McGovern began.
“For taking that beautiful parachute dive!” Lindsay said, trying not to laugh out loud. He peered over at the side of the ballroom, trying to catch a glimpse of Frank Mankiewicz and Gary Hart.
“Boy, did the McGovern boys ever bail out on that one,” he said. “But tomorrow we’ll find out it was a beautiful scheme that Mankiewicz had in his pocket the whole time.”
McGovern was still droning on and Lindsay was getting restless. “I’ve had enough of this shit,” he said finally, and went off to file his story.
I looked very carefully in the next week’s Newsweek, but I couldn’t find a word about the National Democratic Committee proceedings.