on the World Today
PRESIDENT JOHNSON’S press conferences resemble the bouillabaisse concocted by the chef in one of those questionable restaurants not listed in the touring guide. It is included on the menu only when he is in the mood to prepare it. The quality greatly varies. It is a bit too thick and mushy, and often so overcooked that the ingredients are indistinguishable. It has a strong aroma. A little of it goes a long way. And there are lots of surprises in the bottom of the pot.
It is a familiar dish to anyone who has ever worked as a White House reporter. But it has occurred to me that probably there are many others who have never done more than sniff, tentatively taste, and push the plate away, not realizing that this is fare which must be consumed slowly and thoughtfully to be fully appreciated. For example,
I have just finished picking through the transcript of the press conference held by the President before his trip to Asia, and I enjoyed it immensely.
The President’s games
I doubt that the President’s busy schedule has allowed him the time to read Dr. Eric Berne’s best seller, Games People Play. But I believe he would enjoy the book, because he plays certain standard, recognizable games himself at his press conferences. For example, he began this one with a long, rambling rundown of his travel plans, which led eventually to the point he felt compelled to make: he was bitter, indignant, and resentful because some reporters had dared suggest that the timing of the Manila conference just might have had a connection with the fall elections.
There were several reasons for the timing, he said, and not one of them had anything to do with the fact that a new Congress would be elected only six days after he returned from two exciting weeks of headline-making and peace-seeking in the Far East. He said he and the South Vietnamese had agreed in Honolulu to meet again “in six months or so to take stock.” He said he also was responding to “pleas” from Filipino, South Korean, and Thai leaders that he meet with them. He said he had wanted to make the trip after “my Congress” adjourned, but - drat the luck — it just so happened that both Prime Ministers Keith Holyoake of New Zealand and Harold Holt of Australia were up for re-election in November, and they “felt that I could more appropriately be away . . . when I wasn’t a candidate . . . than they could when they were both candidates.” He concluded sorrowfully, “I’ve been criticized some for accepting. I only wonder what would have been said about me if I’d said no, I refuse to come and talk to our allies about our problems or our program.”
The name of that political game is “How Dare You?” and it is always entertaining to watch the President play it. He is like the audacious fox in the movie cartoon who stands just outside the hen-house door with a struggling chicken hidden behind his back, draws himself up to his full height, and indignantly says to the big angry rooster that is confronting him, “Sir, are you daring to suggest that I —”
Of course the Asian trip was timed to influence the elections back home; the capacity to make such a maneuver is one of the acknowledged political privileges of the presidency. Obviously it was inevitable that there would be stories commenting on the domestic advantages to be gained. And, of course, the President had the perfect political right to smile sweetly and deny it all. But his indignation is genuine. Unlike the cartoon fox, who always breaks and runs sooner or later, Johnson stares you down —and more often than not, walks away with the chicken.
After this opening round of “How Dare You?” the President quickly changed both the subject and the game. He said he was “very, quite pleased with die apparent tremendous response to the proposals I made . . . yesterday to increase social security benefits and to extend Medicare to the disabled.” Republican leaders had, in fact, charged that this was only an election gimmick, and proposed that Congress act on it before adjournment. So the President’s remark now could only mean one thing — that he was warming up for a game of “You Asked for It.”
“I have had, as you know, as I stated last April, my top advisers in the government working on improving the system for almost six months,” he said. (“How Dare You?”) Now, he added, “I was particularly pleased to observe . . . the really historic move on the part of my friends that are Republicans in the Congress, to support social security legislation.” (“You Asked for It.”)
Ninety-nine percent of them voted to kill the original social security bill back in the thirties, and 93 percent of them voted against Medicare, he said. “Now they seem to be in a big hurry to pass a bill as soon as they can,” Well, since they asked for it, he said, “we welcome them to the vineyard. . . . I’ll have our people work through the nights, if they care to act on it before going home,” and “if they care to come back after the election — those of them that are coming back — I’d be glad to have them act on it then.”
A little later in the press conference, the President also used another of his favorite defenses, “Look What I Have to Put Up With.” Earlier in the day, Senator John Stennis of Mississippi had criticized the Administration for “piecemeal” planning of the war in Vietnam, predicted that 5000 Americans would be killed there next year, and estimated that another $15 billion in supplemental appropriations would be requested to finance the fighting.
Asked his opinion of all this, the President replied, “Oh, I welcome their . . . recommendations on military strategy.” (“Look What I Have to Put Up With.”) The problem is, he said, that men like this are well meaning enough but just don’t have access to information the way he and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff do.
Then he suggested, rather abruptly, that members of the Senate who say such things are guilty of harassing the President in a time of crisis. “You recall Senator Borah, who was somewhat guilty of harassing another President at another period,” he said. “And one time he said he had better information than the President. Well, in light of the developments a little bit later, that statement didn’t stand up very well.”
But Stennis might well have pointed out that he made his speech in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee, the very same subcommittee which was critical of defense planning and mobilization in the Korean War, when Senator Lyndon Johnson was its chairman.
Johnson’s next opponent noted that “it has been suggested that another pause in the bombing would bring about a good atmosphere for your trip.” and asked him to “discuss the pros and cons of another pause.”
The President responded with a game of “Are You Suggesting . . . ?” He readily would agree to a mutual pause, he said. But, “ I don’t quite understand why [“Are you suggesting that . . . ?”] you want me to have Our marines and our airmen pause and put their hands behind their backs while the other people don’t pause, and continue to shoot at them,”
Johnson casually stepped around a basic challenge to Administration logic when he said this, for he equated the tactical importance of bombing in the north with the tactical importance of North Vietnam’s ground operations in the south.
Some months ago a Pentagon study group, acting on personal instructions from Defense Secretary McNamara, tried to determine exactly how many tons of supplies per month were required by Communist forces in the south to continue fighting at their present force levels. McNamara was told that it was nine tons.
The study enabled him to stand fast last February in Honolulu, when South Vietnamese leaders demanded that U.S. raids on the north be stepped up in intensity and spread over larger target areas. It was then that authoritative stories were leaked saying that even if the raids were increased to four times their present level, they would have no major effect on the military situation in the south, and that stepped-up raids on oil and gas dumps could never cut the level of supply to the point where there would not be enough fuel to transport the minimum supplies needed to the south. Thus, although the bombing in the north can be related strategically to the guerrilla activity in the south, it is impossible to draw a tactical parallel. But that is just what the President did.
Straight in the eye
Bill Moyers, the White House press secretary, has said that Johnson much prefers the medium of television to get his messages and thoughts through to the American people. He said television is a “pure” medium which gives Johnson the chance to look the public straight in the eye, and which rules out the possibility of inaccurate interpretation.
No doubt this does represent the President’s view. But the fact is that he misuses the medium during his televised press conferences, for the audience he eyes is not “the public,” but the reporters seated in the room before him. There is an argumentative undertone to all these appearances — an aggressive defensiveness, as it were, a prevailing sarcasm which suggests that just once, in public, he would relish telling those who write about him what he thinks of them and their work. The script stays the same, even though the President sometimes thrashes around in search of a new format. He tries homey, FDR-style meetings around his desk, then East Room extravaganzas. But no magic format switch, none of his jumping from weeks of silent sulking to unexpected extroversion can hide the essential fact that the President and the press find each other incompatible.
Typically, the President concluded this press conference with a game of “Nobody Loves Me But the People.” To begin with, he said, the press has not been accurately reporting the national mood. Through journalism, “sometimes we don’t get it firsthand, and sometimes there’s a little personal equation that gets into it, and sometimes personal opinions are substituted for facts.” (“Look What I Have to Put Up With.”) “I think it’s good to get out and see the people and talk to them,” he said. “In my travels over thirty states, I have never said, ‘You’ve never had it so good.’ That is the expression of what people concluded I said.” ("How Dare You?”) “I have seen on the faces of the people of this country a happiness, and a pleasure, and a satisfaction that is not always reflected in what I read.” (“Nobody Loves Me But the People.”)
Related to all this presidential compulsion for games is the fact that Robert Fleming has ceased to be the presidential deputy press secretary in anything but name. Of all the many people who have attempted to conduct Johnson’s press relations for him, Fleming’s tenure was the shortest: he was out of the job soon after he was placed in it.
The search for a new man to replace Bill D. Moyers as presidential press secretary began nearly a year ago, when both Johnson and Moyers concluded that Moyers could more profitably spend his time on policy matters. Both agreed that in an electronic age, his replacement should be a television man.
During the next few months, Moyers conducted an informal talent search, and discussed the possibility with several Washington television executives and commentators. Eventually Fleming, who was then the Washington bureau chief of the American Broadcasting Company, was offered the post. Because he had no experience inside government, he was given interim appointment as deputy press secretary, with the understanding that he would take over after a period of orientation.
But, alas, within weeks of his appointment last February, it became apparent that a horrible mistake had been made. Fleming and Johnson simply didn’t “fit” —Johnson, who likes his lieutenants sharp and lean, found Fleming ponderous and heavy-handed. But what could be done about it?
Abrupt changes of assignment are not at all unusual in the Johnson White House; they are easy enough to effect when the men involved all work behind the scenes. But in this instance, the change had to be made in the one White House office which is visible to the public eye. The result was a series of changes in office assignments which assumed the zany, breathtaking quality of a chase sequence in a Marx Brothers movie. Fleming moved a desk into Moyers’ office. They shared the office for a few weeks, then Moyers moved out, secretarial staff and all. Fleming moved to Moyers’ old desk and brought in new secretarial help. Thus it appeared the change had been made — except that Moyers, working from an office in the rear, continued to brief occasionally and retained the title of press secretary.
By late spring, and without announcement, Moyers had moved himself and his furniture — but not his secretarial staff— back into the press secretary’s office, and Fleming had moved into a smaller adjoining office.
Concurrently, a new face appeared on the scene, that of George Christian, a former press secretary to Texas Governor John Connally. He was given an office with the National Security Council complex in the White House basement, where, it was said, he would take longwinded State Department papers and translate them into readable Texan for the President.
By midsummer, Moyers’ secretaries were back at their old desks in the press office. Shortly after that, Fleming moved out of the press office completely and into the office vacated by Moyers. And shortly after that, Christian moved in with him, and recently has begun to act as a presidential spokesman. A big, bearlike man of thirty-nine, Christian is the perfect embodiment of the Connally Texas statehouse aide to whom Johnson has been turning increasingly for help.
Now it is assumed that Christian is being groomed to replace Moyers eventually as press secretary. But the change will not be made anytime soon, for the belief is that Fleming’s troubles came from the fact that he “was brought along too quickly,” and should have been given more time to feel his way into the job. In any event, the real press secretary at the White House will continue to be the same games master it always has been — Lyndon Johnson himself.
— Douglas Kiker