His years saw the change in the unofficial network policy of giving the President air time. In the past the networks had asked whether the national interest was involved. Under Johnson that changed—he asked and they gave. He went to great pains to have his appearances filtered by the White House correspondents as little as possible. Where Kennedy thought of exchanges with reporters as part of the game, and knew that the process of give and take—or, more accurately, the semblance of give and take (he was taking more than he was giving)—worked to his benefit, Johnson was far more wary of journalism’s sharks. In addition, Kennedy knew that the presidency did not endow him deep down inside with any qualities that he did not already possess; he was still a mortal working politician who had been given great new technological advantages. But Johnson, like Nixon after him, was less confident and secure, and he wanted the presidency to invest in him qualities that were not already there and did not necessarily belong to mortals. He was the President. He was special. He was above other human beings. He was above his fellow citizens, who were no longer citizens, but subjects; he was a democratic Monarch, and he did not like that last vestige of democracy, working reporters who seemed to keep nibbling at him.
He tried to change the rules of presidential television, to expose himself to less questioning, and to use TV as much, as possible as a forum for his (regal) announcements. But even under the best and most controlled of circumstances he felt miscast. The medium was theirs, not his. “I can’t compete with Walter Cronkite,” he once said. “He knows television and he’s a star. So when I’m with him I’m on his level and yet he knows what he’s doing and so he does it better and so I lose.” Press conferences, to his mind, elevated others to his level and thus lowered him to theirs.
Reporters in particular were a problem, still given to covering him as if he were a working politician instead of President of all the people. Even on CBS, his favorite network, there were reporters like Dan Rather who were a constant irritation to him. Johnson alternately cajoled, ignored, and threatened Rather. From time to time Johnson reminded Rather that he had friends at CBS, and suggested that perhaps the way to get ahead was to play ball.
Indeed he did have friends. Why, his very best friend in the world, he liked to tell young CBS reporters, was Frank Stanton, and anyone who worked for Frank Stanton could count himself lucky. Even at the very end, when he had been forced out of the presidency, he would point to a knoll on his ranch and say there, right there, was where Frank and Ruth Stanton were going to build a home.
The friendship had started in the 1940s when he was a young congressman looking for a network connection for Lady Bird’s little radio station. Bill Paley sent him to see young Frank Stanton. Stanton knew what a congressman was. He decided that, by chance, just what CBS needed was a little affiliate station in Austin, right between those big stations in Dallas and San Antonio. Over the years Frank Stanton counseled the Johnsons on that station, made sure they got the best of advice, and certain benefits, such as the coaxial cable long before larger stations received it. Senior CBS executives could recall going into Stanton’s office and hearing the president of CBS on the phone to a CBS affiliate in Texas saying that Senator Johnson was going to be on Face the Nation that Sunday, and Stanton hoped the station would carry it.
We all like a little help from our friends, and this relationship, so mutually beneficial, flowered. The station, first radio and then television, was the key to the expanding Johnson fortune. Johnson’s own increasing political influence did not hurt the lobbying efforts of Stanton and CBS. Stanton was also there to help Johnson on trips to New York—theater, hotels, small help like that. And he advised him on how to deal with the elite of the eastern Establishment, big help like that. There were a variety of services. It was Stanton who sent Fred Friendly, then considered CBS’s best producer to help President Johnson with mastering the art of television performing in 1964. When Johnson had trouble with his White House desk because his legs were so long, Stanton, amateur carpenter, redid the desk legs for him. The LBJ-Stanton relationship was special: the Johnson White House was a relatively open place, and staffers on domestic affairs cut across lines easily. But not when a problem called for Dr. Stanton. Johnson might say to a staffer, “Call Frank Stanton and tell him…” Then he would stop in mid- sentence, check himself; and say, “No, I’ll call Stanton myself.”
Johnson appointed Stanton to serve on USIA advisory board. As the Vietnam War heated up, Stanton was thus in a certain conflict between two roles. He was upset by CBS’s coverage of opposition to Johnson’s war policy. In 1966 he called up Fred Friendly, after a disaffected Senator William Fulbright had appeared on Face the Nation, to say that a rotten thing had been done to the President of the United States. That year too Friendly arranged a lunch for Bill Paley and Walter Lippmann, which Paley had sought. It was difficult to arrange because both Paley and Lippman were difficult to organize. Friendly expected Stanton to be a co-host for the occasion, but Stanton ate separately in the CBS dining room; he would not break bread with the dean of the Fourth Estate, who had become an outspoken critic of the President and the war.
Murray Fromson, CBS correspondent, reported that American bases in Thailand were being used as staging areas for the bombing of North Vietnam; Stanton was furious and complained to Friendly that this was a violation of embargoed information—a position neither true nor plausible, since the North Vietnamese, unlike the American people, knew precisely what was being done at the Thai bases; it was only the American people who had been kept ignorant. Friendly pointed this out to Stanton, who said yes, that’s true, but it might be embarrassing to the government anyway.
And week after week, at the news executives’ lunches with Paley and Stanton, Stanton would pass on what flak he had caught from Johnson that week, the litany of complaints, how angry Lyndon was about this piece of coverage, that bit of commentary. The news executives who watched this performance wondered what was behind it. Many saw that Stanton had placed himself in a somewhat twisted position: the star testifier before Congress, Statesman of Broadcasting, chief CBS lobbyist was trying to let CBS News know how much tension it was already causing (and thus, in a subtle way, suggesting that additional critical coverage might be too much). At the same time he was trying to let them know that he, Stanton, was shielding them from the heat of the outraged, all-powerful President of the United States, his friend, CBS affiliate owner Lyndon B. Johnson. It did not sit well with the newsmen present.