The President and the Press

"I was determined to tell my story directly to the people rather than to funnel it to them through a press account." —Richard Nixon, Six Crises

The executive suite on the thirty-fifth floor of the Columbia Broadcasting System skyscraper in Manhattan is a tasteful blend of dark wood paneling, expensive abstract paintings, thick carpets, and pleasing colors. It has the quiet look of power. Over breakfast in the small private dining room of the executive suite, Frank Stanton, the president of CBS for twenty-five years, talked candidly about the relationship between government and the television industry. I was interested, I explained, in pressures by government on the TV networks. I particularly wanted to know about telephone calls from Presidents; I recognized that this was a delicate subject, but I assumed that as head of CBS he had received some. He had, as it turned out, from several Presidents.

"I had a curious call from LBJ," he said. "It was one night back in 1968, at the time of the Democratic platform committee hearings in Washington." Johnson called on a Tuesday, Stanton said; it was August 20, and Dean Rusk was scheduled to testify at an evening session of the committee. As Stanton recalled the conversation, it went as follows:

LBJ: Are you going to cover Dean Rusk tonight?

STANTON: Yes. We're covering the whole thing.

LBJ: No, I mean are you going to cover it live?

STANTON: Why?

LBJ: Rusk has an important statement.

STANTON: If you're saying Rusk is going to have an important statement, we'll cover it live. But he has to be there on time.

LBJ: OK, just tell me the time--I'll have him there.

STANTON: Well, 9:00 P.M. But you really have to get him there on time. We'll be cutting into the Steve Allen show, and people are going to be furious if there is nothing going on.

Stanton knew that the Steve Allen show (which on that night starred Jayne Meadows and the Rumanian National Dance Company) began at 8:30 P.M. and ran for one hour; viewers would naturally be disappointed, he reasoned, if time were preempted for a political broadcast and the screen showed an announcer doing "fill." The CBS president had visions of the Secretary of State arriving late and the television audience getting nothing: no Steve Allen, no Jayne Meadows, no Rumanian dancers, not even Dean Rusk.

The conversation with President Johnson continued:

STANTON: How long will Rusk speak?

LBJ: Not long--why?

STANTON: We've got a special on blacks coming on at 9:30 P.M. and I don't want Rusk to collide with that.

The President assured Stanton there was no need to worry; the Secretary of State would be there on time, and he would be off before the special.

Johnson was true to his word. Precisely at 9:00 P.M. CBS correspondent Roger Mudd began introducing the broadcast from a booth in the hall.

"Suddenly," Stanton said, "you could see Mudd look up, startled. Rusk was starting in right at 9:00 P.M., straight up."

The President of the United States had called the president of CBS and sweet-talked Steve Allen off the air and the Secretary of State on the air, in prime time, for a specific political reason, which he did not share with Stanton. That afternoon Democratic liberals had circulated a draft plank for the party platform calling for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson wanted Dean Rusk on nationwide television, at an hour when he would have maximum exposure, to head off the inclusion of any such plank in the platform.

Rusk followed his marching orders. "We hear a good deal about stopping the bombing," he said. "...If we mean: Let them get as far as Dupont Circle but don't hit them while they are at Chevy Chase Circle, that would be too rude, let us say so." The party platform, Rusk said, should "state objectives" but not outline "tactics or strategy." In other words, no antibombing plank.

Rusk, in fact, made no important announcement; but presumably Johnson had to tell Stanton something to justify handing over the network to the President at 9:00 P.M. As it turned out, however, viewers were treated to a drama that was entirely unexpected, even by the President. Just as Rusk was finishing his twenty-five minute statement, he was seen being given a piece of wire copy announcing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In plain view of the television audience, Rusk huddled with platform committee chairman Hale Boggs for a moment, and then announced: "I think I should go see what this is all about." And he hurried away.

Stanton, of course, had been watching CBS, waiting for that important statement. About twenty minutes later he got a call from the President. Did Rusk show up on time? Johnson wanted to know. Yes, said Stanton, hadn't the President been watching?

"No. Dobrynin came in to tell me what happened [in Czechoslovakia] and I've been tied up. I've just convened the National Security Council."

"Can I use that?"

"Yes."

"Excuse me, I want to tell our people this."

Stanton hung up and passed on his scoop to CBS News.

It eventually became known that a summit meeting between Johnson and the leaders of the Soviet Union was to have been announced at the White House the next morning, August 21. But the Czech invasion killed the projected meeting, to Johnson's bitter disappointment, and there was never any White House announcement that it had even been contemplated. In retrospect, Stanton harbored some suspicion that Rusk had planned to announce the summit meeting that night on CBS. Now Stanton was a very old and close friend of Lyndon Johnson's, and he was understandably reluctant to think that the President might have been fibbing to him about Rusk having an "important statement" [see Endnote].

When the President of the United States wants network time, he calls up and gets it. Or he has one of his assistants call. Not only Lyndon Johnson, but all recent Presidents have had a consuming interest in television. The medium has a fascination for Presidents, an interest that is easily understood, since so much of their political success depends on the skill with which they use it.

A telephone call from a President to the publisher of the New York Times, for example, is not an unknown event, but one cannot, somehow, picture Lyndon Johnson calling up Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and saying: "Punch, Dean Rusk is going to have an important announcement tonight, and I want you to give it page-one treatment, eight-column head with full text and pictures. What time does your Late City close?"

But when a President calls the head of CBS, or NBC, or ABC, it is not easy, or even advisable, to brush him off. In the fall of 1971, Julian Goodman, the president of NBC, went to Rome for a staff meeting of NBC correspondents in Europe. One of the reporters at the private meeting complained that Nixon was "using" the television networks to speak to the American people whenever he pleased, for free; he had done so something like fourteen times up to that date.

Goodman agreed. But the correspondent persisted. "Julian, what is your attitude toward President Nixon's requests for television time?"

"Our attitude," said Goodman evenly, "is the same as our attitude toward previous Presidents: he can have any goddamn thing he wants."

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