Above Photo: Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota on Meet the Press in 1968. Unknown, dedicated to Bettmann Archive, presumably U.S. Senate or photographic company working with Senate, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Last weekend the New York Times published a report that President Biden has been missing in action in recent months when it comes to serious question-and-answer sessions with the Washington press corps. The obvious reason for the lack of press conferences is “to protect” the president from unscripted exchanges that often result in missteps and confusion.
Had I been writing the piece, I might have added that the president is intent on not blurting out an unwanted truth. And he is not alone in avoiding the press. The fact is that Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have similarly disappeared in recent months when it comes to give-and-take sessions with the White House press corps.
In their place we now have John Kirby, a retired admiral who is a nice enough guy. He was a press guru at the Pentagon a decade or so ago when I was writing lots of tough stuff on national security issues, usually with no named sources, for the New Yorker. He made no pretenses then about being a policy maker, and he is no different now. Yet it was Kirby who was left to take a battering from a miffed press corps press earlier this month when the administration released a blame-anybody-but-us policy paper—distributed on just a few moments notice—dealing with the flawed US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The senior officials who should have been explaining that policy were Blinken and Sullivan—and perhaps even the president. In my view, his decision to pull the American military out was a high point of his diplomacy since taking office. It was bad luck that a terrorist bomb killed thirteen US soldiers and at least sixty Afghans, eviscerating all that was good in America’s change of policy. Yes, mistakes were made—the rush to get American troops out of harm’s way led to the disastrous early shutting of the vital Bagram airbase—but Biden did what he is being paid to do: he made a tough decision. He has yet to do so about Ukraine, or China, or the recent perhaps game-changing developments in Israel. And he has not addressed the fact that under his administration signs have emerged that America may no longer be the dominant global power in foreign policy, international trade, and general esteem. At some point, if Biden wants to be re-elected, he will have to face a press corps that will ask the questions about subjects—such as his current low standing in the polls—that now seem to be taboo.
All of which brings me to tell you what I know about going with the second string in dealing with the media. I was definitely below the cut line during my five months as press secretary and sometime speech writer for Senator Eugene McCarthy, a liberal Democrat from Minnesota who decided in late 1967 to challenge fellow Democrat Lyndon Johnson for the presidential nomination the next year. McCarthy had spent a decade in the House before winning a Senate seat in 1958, and was far from a flame thrower when it came to the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, he decided to do what Senator Robert Kennedy, the all but inevitable heir to the throne, chose not to do in late 1967: take on an unpopular sitting president.
I was not a political junkie and knew nothing about McCarthy, a two-term senator whose contempt for the war turned out, to my surprise, to be extreme. But I did know that the antiwar Democrats were desperate to find someone credible to challenge Johnson and get him out of office. Not likely, so I thought. In mid-December a neighbor of mine named Mary McGrory, then the must-read columnist of the Washington Star, a long gone daily, came over for a martini, which she often did, and told me I needed to be McCarthy’s press secretary. Mary was a fixture in Washington’s Irish mafia and since she had given up on Bobby making the run she decided it was up to Gene to do it. The ambivalent McCarthy, she said, was willing to take a flyer, but he needed help, lots of it. And I needed to be his press secretary and write his speeches.
I hated politics and all the compromising involved, but I had resigned from the Associated Press’s Washington bureau earlier that summer and just finished a book—any money coming from it was months away—and I was anxious about being just another freelance, and thus broke, Washington journalist. So it was arranged—the next day, if I recall it right—for me to sit down with the senator and see if it could work. I had gotten to know three or four senators since I hit Washington two years earlier, and I liked their quickness and willingness to work. At his office, I got the immediate sense that the Minnesotans working there were hostile to the notion of a separate campaign office that would include none of them. McCarthy himself was a handsome man who’d been a varsity athlete in college and looked fit. He was totally diffident toward me, just as he was about the idea of challenging a fellow Democrat who happened to be in the White House. I gave him a sheaf of magazine stuff I’d written—slim pickings to be sure—and he glanced at the pieces, looked over the young punk in front of him, and said, “I guess you’ll do.” I don’t think our meet and greet took more than ten minutes.
I called McGrory up and told her she’d thrown me to the wolves. Stick it out, she said. Gene was giving a speech the next night in New York City to an anti-Johnson Democrat group. She said it could lead to some serious campaign money, and I should go listen. I did, and I heard the senator, who I thought had been disdainful of the antiwar movement, give a forceful and compelling denouncement of the Vietnam War as immoral and take a step further by accusing Johnson of violating his oath of office. I’d been obsessed about the war for years—it wasn’t an accident that I would pursue a tip two years later and find the story of the My Lai massacre—and I had never heard a national politician describe Vietnam as the moral horror it clearly was, let alone suggest that Johnson was denigrating his office.
And so I decided to give it a shot. A McCarthy campaign press office had been set up in downtown Washington and I was suddenly in charge of it. The young anti-war woman running it seemed terrific, and she became my deputy. I needed one quickly because the senator and I were to fly to Los Angeles the next day, and I was going to be his batman for the trip. I spent the rest of the day and much of the night going through my collection of antiwar tomes by authors such as Bernard Fall, then the leading expert on Vietnam and the war, and various publications by church groups that had been tracking the murderous war since the first American troops arrived. I put together a collection of 40 pages of homework and gave it to McCarthy.
He brought his poetry to read on the trip—he was passionate about it—and wasn’t interested in his first class seatmate. But one of the articles was about the trial of five antiwar activists, including Dr Benjamin Spock, America’s favorite pediatrician, accused of aiding and abetting draft dodgers. McCarthy, who had four children, was interested. When we hit Los Angeles, the senator did a fund raiser or two with the Hollywood crowd, but the big event for him was a long-scheduled speech at an end-the-war rally at UCLA. It was a big audience—maybe seven or eight thousand in all—and during the Q&A session he was asked about the Spock trial. I learned about the genius of the senator as I listened to him put what he had casually read on the plane into a strident and accurate defense of what Spock and his colleagues had done. He was with them, he said to a roar of applause.
Most important, as we learned the next morning, the senator’s defense of Spock and his co-defendants made national news, and I had helped him do so. It was the high point of my tour as a press secretary. Not being house-trained in public relations, I broke every taboo of the trade.
A few days after returning from Los Angeles I got a telephone call from the candidate’s wife, Abigail, who told me to minimize any public emphasis on the family’s Catholicism, which she thought would be a disadvantage in southern New Hampshire. I told her I worked for her husband and not for her. I learned quickly that Gene was deeply religious and had spent time in a seminary after college but had moved back to the secular world after less than a year of seclusion. His faith was his own business, and no one else’s, and to pretend he wasn’t a Catholic was loony. Big mistake. I did not know about “pillow talk,” the political phrase for the power of a candidate’s wife. I had made her a pillow talk enemy by my second week on the job.
I was later exposed to the power of pillow talk in 1981. Ronald Reagan had won the presidency and I was two years into a long book on Henry Kissinger. Reagan’s national security adviser was Richard Allen, an arms control expert who worked for Kissinger in the early Nixon Administration days and was unafraid to tell me things I needed to know. Allen was most puckish and he and I sometimes exchanged stupid and smutty jokes when he was in the White House. Reagan adored this sort of thing, Allen told me, and one afternoon after I came up with a a good one over the phone, Allen said, “The President would love this one,” and he asked me to hang on. I listened as Allen then called the Secret Service agent on duty outside Reagan’s office and asked, “Is she there?” She being First Lady Nancy Reagan. The agent said yes and Dick told me he’d deliver my joke when she was not around—not a good move. Allen would not last many more months as national security adviser. But he did tell one story worth repeating. It was known that Reagan did not want to be awakened even if the National Security Agency came up with a hot intercept marked “Critic”—the designation meant the message had to be on the president’s desk within minutes. One very early morning Allen was informed that the Israeli air force had successfully attacked and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor outside Baghdad. This was something that had to be shared with Reagan. He called the special telephone, and the president answered, listened carefully to the message, and after a long pause said, “Well, Dick, boys will be boys,” and went back to bed. (Dick told the story in different ways over the years, but the punchline has remained intact.)
I thought my job was getting reporters to interview McCarthy and generate publicity and perhaps a few more contributions to the campaign, which needed money badly. Nope. McCarthy was not a fan of the Washington press corps, especially because he was treated as an oddity by reporters. I constantly urged and begged him to do more interviews, and he—this was two months into the New Hampshire campaign—accused me of planting reporters in the back seat and trunk of every car he was riding in. “The reporters love you,” he said to me again and again, “but they’re supposed to love me.” As McCarthy was gaining traction among moderate Republicans and the working class in New Hampshire, Ward Just, a wonderful reporter for the Washington Post (and later a prolific novelist), fresh from a long stint in Vietnam, called me to say he wanted to come up to New Hampshire to see firsthand how an avowedly anti-Vietnam War candidate was doing. I told the senator about Ward’s plan and, to my surprise, he made a face and said, in essence, No way. Why not? He gave me a sharp look and said, “Don’t you remember what Ward wrote about me in Newsweek?’ I had to call the Newsweek offices in Washington to find the quote: Ward had written a small gossipy item six years earlier about McCarthy in a section of the magazine called Periscope that was filled with little oddities, and he depicted Gene as walking like a priest. The senator kept on asking me for days if knew how a priest walked. Ward came, of course, and McCarthy spent time with him, but he resented every minute of it.
Most important in my demise were my constant attempts in the speeches I occasionally drafted—the campaign had hired someone much more gifted in the role—to get the candidate to include a call for a guaranteed annual income of $12,000 for every American in need. My staff had been pushing me to get the senator on board, but the operatives running the campaign, most of whom were already measuring their White House offices, thought the idea was political suicide. I finally got McCarthy to sign off on the proposal, and it was included in a speech he was to give in early March, when the polls were showing that President Johnson, who had hesitated about running in New Hampshire and was a write-in candidate, was not going to win big, if he won at all.
By this late date—the primary was on March 12—McCarthy’s surge was a great political story and my office was responsible for chartering a commercial jet and billing the reporters on each leg as the candidate gave speeches to constantly growing crowds. The job was getting less and less fun for me, because with success came more reporters and more demands for unwanted interviews, and less access to the man himself for me. But the final draft of the speech included the call for a guaranteed annual income and the press release I wrote for the forty or so journalists that were following the campaign and traveling with us emphasized it. Some of the old-timers asked me again and again whether the senator was really going to do it. The speech was going to begin late and the reporters for morning newspapers and the wires had to file early to make the first edition. I assured them all that the commitment was in.
But McCarthy dropped the commitment when he delivered the speech. I was off stage and as the senator went by he asked me, “Whatcha think?” I said D-minus. Wrong answer, as he and I knew. At the bar that night, two or three of Gene’s old pals told me they had been upstairs in the hotel having a drink with Gene and some of his wife’s money boys and I was doomed. And so I was.
I hung in past the primary, in which McCarthy came within a few points of the president, who then announced that he would not run for re-election. That would bring Bobby Kennedy into the race, and surely undercut the McCarthy campaign. I had done the best I could, but I was never inside the decision-making process of the campaign, just as John Kirby and others in the press operation in the White House will never be, either.
To pretend that President Biden is focused on trying to reach the American people by different means, and not avoiding the give-and-take of a news conference open to all, as a White House aide told the New York Times, is just horseshit.