Once again I find myself turning to Helen Thomas's "Front Row at the White House." She stirs up so many memories of the days when the presidency was my beat. Often as I read her book I chuckled to myself - as I did when I came upon this: "(President) Ford did a lot of traveling in his short time as President, sometimes making more headlines for the gaffes than the policy. On a visit to Japan he wore formal attire of striped pants and a cutaway coat for his meeting with Emperor Hirohito, but the pants stopped somewhere around his ankles."
Well, right here is my opportunity to claim a minuscule place in history: I was in the small pool of reporters covering that early-morning Ford-Hirohito get-together and I was the first to note Mr. Ford's embarrassment and shout to my colleagues, "Hey, the president is wearing short pants today!" We laughed all the way back to our hotel. And the picture showing Ford's shortcomings made page 1 in papers all over the world, completely overshadowing the president's diplomatic activities on his trip to Japan.
That's really not so funny after all - and nothing to boast about. It's a good example of how the press, by playing up a trivial incident sometimes unintentionally diverts the public's attention from important news. I didn't think of that back then. And, after all, Ford did it to himself. A president or presidential candidate can't let himself look ridiculous without drawing a lot of attention. Remember Coolidge and his Indian headdress and Dukakis driving that tank.
Ms. Thomas writes about another presidential embarrassment, this one to President Carter. It was 1980 and the scene was the Democratic National Convention after Mr. Carter had fought off a challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy during the primaries.
"I will never forget," she tells us, "that sad and humiliating moment on the big stage when Carter went over to shake Kennedy's hand and Kennedy turned away from him."
I recall it well too; I was watching from just a few feet outside the stage. And I thought to myself at the time, as Carter kept chasing Kennedy to no avail; "There goes the election for Carter."
This memory caused me to think back on the beginning of that Kennedy challenge of Carter. And, again, I chuckled. The big question had been: Would Kennedy take on Carter or wouldn't he? It was the big political story of the moment, every political reporter in Washington was looking for the answer.
Just at that time and only by happenstance I had as my guest, at a press dinner, a man who had been very close to the Kennedys over the years. At one point he startled me with words like these: "Several of us were at a meeting with Kennedy last night at his home. We were talking about whether he should run or not."
"And will he?" I asked, incredulous over what this man was volunteering. "Yes," he said. "Ted is going to run. In fact, we were making plans last night."
He told me who the others were in the group: all of them Kennedy heavy hitters. I called a couple of them and they confirmed what I had heard. And then, after checking around, I wrote a story that stated flatly that Kennedy was going to run. My sources had requested no attribution. But my editors were told who they were. It was a "scoop" that had just fallen into my lap. It's hard to take too much credit for that.
Almost immediately there was a "denial" from the Kennedy camp. I had told my editors that this was predictable - even though the story was true.
And after the "denial" and on the next day after we printed our story this incident occurred:
My lunch-break walk took me near the south side of the White House and, as I was crossing the street at a light, a car drew alongside and stopped. Then I saw the driver lower his window and a laughing Ted Kennedy leaned out and yelled as he drove past, "Hey, Godfrey, you got my campaign going!"
So thanks, Helen, for the memories.