Closeness counts

White House press secretaries are a breed of their own and have rarely been studied by political scientists. They are so close to the president that James Brady was tragically in the line of fire at the attempt on President Reagan's life. In the nature of things they must be in sympathy with the president whose views they attempt to articulate. They stand close in at a great public gathering, listening to the way the president utters the sentences written for him, buoyed by a hearty round of applause or cast down by the failure of a supposedly electric phrase to strike a spark. Some of these press secretaries have developed great power.

The Brady-Reagan relationship gave promise of being one of the happiest. I watched a group of reporters at breakfast the other morning pestering genial Jim Brady. He enjoyed it. He kept his affability and calm through eggs and bacon and I jotted down in my notes "a valuable man for the President!" Past White House secretaries, I thought, would welcome him historically as their equal. Alas, I did not know the tragedy ahead.

Let me review some members of this unusual calling. President Roosevelt's Stephen T. Early put the modern stamp on the White House-press relations. He was a witty, amiable expositor of the administration and served an amazing 142 months.

Harry Truman and Charlie Ross followed the Roosevelt team: Charlie was one of the most gentlemanly men who ever held the job. He was in Truman's high school class in Independence, Mo., and it was he (not the bespectacled Truman) that the class voted "most likely to succeed." Harry and Charlie sat down one night at the White House and called up their old high school teacher and thanked her for what she had done for them. Charlie was former head of the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. The best White House press secretaries, I think, are former newsmen.

The list comes down to modern presidents: the two Rons, for example, Ron Ziegler for Nixon and Ron Nessen for Gerald Ford. There was Jody Powell for President Carter -- who was ideal in that he knew the President inside out and talked with him 30 minutes every morning. (The least satisfactory press secretaries are the ones who don't know what is going on.) But Jody had the limitations of most of the Carter group: it was too ingrown and would have been better off with broader experience.

Of all press secretaries of modern times Jim Hagerty was most influential. He had been a first-rate reporter on the New York Times, as had his father before him. Ike left things "to Jim." Hagerty brought television into the press conferences, first with edited snatches and then with longer items (but live coverage waited for Jack Kennedy by way of Pierre Salinger).

Hagerty changed history at one point and it is this that I associate him. The CIA had invented the U-2 spy plane, a floppy-winged glider built round a jet engine that could fly right over Russia watching impotent Soviet attack planes below, and equipped with a camera that could see a golf ball on a green at 50, 000 feet. Suddenly it was knocked out of the air by a new Soviet rocket as Ike prepared for the summit with Khrushchev in Paris in May 1960. After the summit Ike was supposed to go to Russia, to return Khrushchev's visit to the US. His pleasant face in Russia might have tempered the cold war -- who knows?

The crucial question, though, was whether Ike would acknowledge that he had been spying on Russia, contrary to international protocol, or would issue a diplomatic plea of personal ignorance that would probably have preserved relations. First the administration issued ambiguous cover stories under Hagerty's directions, to the effect that pilot Glenn Powers was unfortunately "off course" when the Russians knocked him down, presumably destroying him and his plane. Ike was in Gettysburg chuckling over golf scores with George Allen.

On May 7 Khrushchev sprang his surprise. He had captured the US pilot and Powers was talking: Washington had directed the overflights. Would Ike take responsibility? To admit participation might ruin the summit; to feign ignorance would weaken him at home in a field in which he was sensitive. On a drive back to Washington hagerty apparently encouraged him to accept responsibility.

These events followed: On May 11 Ike said he knew of the flights; May 16 -- Khrushchev in Paris for the summit canceled the invitation to Ike to visit Russia (they had even prepared a golf course for him); Ike in Paris, grim, said no more overflights but called Khrushchev's "ultimatum" unacceptable. May 17 -- the summit (attended by DeGaulle and Macmillan) collapsed and so did Ike's hopes for detente and world conciliation.

Here was a case where a powerful press secretary, at a critical juncture, apparently gave council that changed history. Ah, me -- that is the business of White House press secretaries, to be very close to their president s.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Closeness counts
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today