Pierre Salinger -- ABC News's controversial American in Paris
Paris — Pierre Salinger is about to be embroiled in another controversy. The text of a secret recording of the meeting between UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim and the Iranian Revolutionary Council will soon be published in a book based on "America Held Hostage: The Secret Negotiations," Salinger's now-famous three-hour marathon ABC documentary.
Mr. Salinger's original coverage of the embarrassingly unsuccessful Waldheim attempt at negotiation incurred the wrath of the secretary-general when it was first aired. There is no doubt that publication of the transcript in November will simply fan the controversy -- and there is no doubt that the aggressive, ready-for-battle Pierre Salinger is looking forward to the new controversy.
If you are one of the growing multitude of viewers of "20/20" or ABC's "World News Tonight," you have been seeing a lot of Salinger in the past year. His marathon news special on the hostages caused a furor when it first ran on ABC and was repeated shortly afterward. Not eligible for an Emmy in 1981, it is almost a certain winner for 1982. And the book version is certain to revive many controversies.
For almost a full year, Salinger used his extensive personal sources to track many of the secret negotiations that went on, including the unrewarding attempt of Dr. Waldheim to solve the question by journeying to Tehran.
In November, Doubleday will be publishing an expanded version of that news special with new material added by Mr. Salinger, who indicates that he believes the new material will not make the secretary-general any happier than he was when the original TV now aired.
Salinger is a phoenixlike public figure who seems to rise and reconstitute his position time and time again. Now ABC News bureau chief in Paris, he first came to public attention when, after years of experience on newspapers, he agreed to serve with gruff jocularity as President Kennedy's press secretary. Later he filled the same job for a while when President Johnson took over, eventually returning to politics to work for the nomination of Robert Kennedy, until his assassination ended that venture.
For a while little was heard from this French-speaking American, whose mother was born in France and whose French-speaking grandmother lived with the family as he grew up in San Francisco. Then Salinger surfaced again when he was appointed senator from California when the job was vacated because of illness. Finally he ran on his own a few months later and lost, taking on a vice-president job at Continental Airlines for a few years.
After Bobby's demise, Salinger came to France, joined the staff of the French newsmagazine L'Express, and married a French newswoman who had come to interview him in 1964. In 1979, ABC president Roone Arledge, with whom he had worked on the winter Olympics, appointed Pierre Salinger head of the network's Paris news bureau . . . where I interviewed him a few weeks ago.
Ensconced in commodious, if unconventional, ABC News headquarters in a lovely old apartment-office building near the Trocadero Gardens, within view of the Eiffel Tower, I found Salinger five flights up after a precarious journey in a typically French rickety elevator.
"I started out with what we had at the time of the show," the shirt-sleeved Salinger says about "America Held Hostage." "But I have now added considerable material. The major thing is that I have managed to get my hands on a secret cassette recording of the meeting Waldheim had with the Iranian Revolutionary Council . . . a transcript of what was said. It will come as a revelation to many people who followed the year-long negotiations with the Iranians."
Did Salinger have the cooperation of UN officials?
He smiles as he shakes his head. "You can be sure it was done without their cooperation. My source is other than the UN."
Just to make sure that there will be a controversy around publishing time, Mr. Salinger and his publishers are planning an American visit around publication date in the fall.
Pierre Salinger, according to Parisians, has taken to France like a duck (roasted, that is) takes to orange. "With my French background and my knowledge of the French language, I took a liking to Paris and decided to stay here," he says now. While he maintains an apartment in Paris, he and his wife also have a chateau in the Loire Valley. "But that is only a country house for weekends," he explains with lord-of- the manor casualness.
How does he like on-the-air reporting, as opposed to print news work?
"I still find it difficult," he confides. "I am not an actor. I probably had the greatest work problems in my life during my first year on TV. It was hard to adjust after 25 years in written journalism until I discovered that TV is basically a writer's business, too. If you write the words briefly and informatively, then deliver them reasonably well, the producers will always find the right pictures to put behind you."
Will Salinger remain in Paris permanently?
"I have a five-year contract, which i signed in September, which guarantees me staying here in Paris."
Does that mean politics is out for the future?
He shakes his head, almost sadly, and looks out through the huge French-doored window behind his desk: "No, that's over. I've done that."
Salinger's boss, Mr. Arledge, has been criticized in some professional news quarters for being too "entertainment-oriented." Has Salinger found that to be so?
Salinger's face flushes, and it is apparent that he is reacting to attacks not just upon a boss, but upon a friend.
"The man is a genius. He is one of the few people in television news who knows how to utilize the electronic capacity of TV to full advantage. He knows how to transmit the information he wants to in the best way possible.
"And on top of that, he has a real sense of what is news. It took him exactly one minute on the phone to give me the OK to go ahead with that hostage story."
Salinger believes the three-hour length of his Iranian documentary has broken ground for such thorough investigative work on TV in the future. He considers the recent five-hour CBS documentary on US defense a natural continuation of this kind of electronic reporting.
But how about French politics? The interview was conducted shortly after socialist Mitterrand had won a resounding victory. Is there something for the United States to fear in this leftist turn in French politics?
"It is clear that the French want a change. And Mitterrand, because of the size of his victory, can still choose to move in the direction of social democracy or further to the left. With a strong majority, it is going to be hard to tell the French people that he can't get his whole program through. And , let me tell you, that whole program is quite radical."
Salinger is very busy -- he is working on reports on Mitterrand and the new government at the same time he is preparing to fly to Poland to do a "20/20" piece on Roman Polanski, who is playing Mozart in a Polish version of "Amadeus." But he takes a few moments more to take me on a tour of the office, which is, in effect, a typical huge French apartment. In one of the back rooms there is a set which includes a desk and a sign in back with the word "Paris" for on-camera location identification.
As Pierre Salinger points it out, he says: "We try not to use that very much."
We shake hands and he walks me to the door of the elevator before I risk the rickety ride down to the street. While he seems to be completely at ease in his ABC News office, somehow I envision him as even more at ease at the gate to his Loire Valley chateau.