Clifton Daniel

About the Presidency

VTR Date: July 25, 1984

Guest: Daniel, Clifton


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Clifton Daniel
Title: About the Presidency
VTR: 7/25/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. How could you help but take to someone whose very first words in a book just published are, “This confection of mine”, and who begins a later chapter, “I have dined with dukes and danced with duchesses”, then adds, “That’s a supercilious sentence if ever I wrote one, even if it’s tru, which it happens to be. But as I am incurably addicted to alliteration, I could not resist it.”

Well, I’m not good with celebrities. Never have been; never will be. Yet while Clifton Daniel’s new book, “Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen”, just published by Arbor Press, does at times seem largely to be a celebration of celebrity, it’s in fact so much more. Of the high and mighty, Mr. Daniel knew so many, starting with his father-in-law, Harry Truman. But saw them all with the steadied eye of an accomplished journalist with decades at The New York Times as foreign correspondent, and then its managing editor.

Mr. Daniel, thank you for joining me here today on The Open Mind. I, since I’m not good with celebrities, as I noted, I’m going to put aside the questions that your publisher has suggested, “Why are we so fascinated by the rich and famous? Are you concerned that “Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen” might offend some of the people mentioned in the book? What was the most embarrassing moment you experienced in the company of celebrities?” I’m going to go to something much more timely. You say in your book, “In my experience there was one man who certainly should have had the presidency of the United States, but didn’t get it. That was Hubert Humphrey.” And I wonder whether you fell the same way about Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey’s good friend and colleague.

DANIEL: I don’t feel the same way about Walter Mondale, although I think he is a man of high capability. I felt a special way about Hubert Humphrey, and I think everybody who knew Hubert Humphrey felt a special way about him. I say that it, in effect, that it’s too bad he was never president of the United States because he was exceedingly well prepared for it by his experience and by his character and by his personality, And it’s too bad he didn’t get the job because if he had got the job we would’ve never had Richard Nixon.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, you say here, “He was a nice man.” You say, “he had skill, humor, charm, and above all, compassion.” And you and I remember back to the old Leo Durocher days with nice guys finish last. Nice guy, is that your in experience a real qualification for leadership?

DANIEL: It’s not a real qualification for leadership, but it certainly is a useful one and it certainly is a good one. We have a nice guy who’s president of the United States now. It’s helped hi an awful lot. I don’t think that’s the sole qualification. If I thought it was I’d vote for him, but I don’t intend to.

HEFFNER: It helped him be elected once, and it may help him be re-elected. What kind of qualification or disqualification has it been, in your estimation?

DANIEL: Well, ion Hubert Humphrey’s case, this is something that I threw in at the end that he was a nice guy. One of the nicest people I ever knew in my life. And I think that President Reagan is a nice guy. Again, one of the nicest fellows I have ever known in my life. But there are other qualifications obviously. Nice guys sometimes do finish last. Hubert Humphrey didn’t finish as near the end as one might think. He very nearly defeated Richard Nixon. It was like this, you know.

HEFFNER: But that doesn’t count either in the electoral college or among the noses counted in the popular vote.

DANIEL: Unfortunately it doesn’t, but…No, not unfortunately. I, I change that quickly, because that’s what democracy is all about. If he doesn’t make that extra little difference, he doesn’t get elected. And so far as I’m concerned, that’s it. I believe in the democratic system. I believe in the electoral system.

HEFFNER: In the philosophy of as if then isn’t sufficient. If only, as if I remember in fact, I know you weren’t managing editor then of the Times but I remember, well, it was in the election of 1948 and I cut out a James Reston column, I guess it was the day after election, when Mr. Truman won and won substantially even though he was supposed to be beaten by, by Thomas Dewey, and I remember James Reston, your colleague, wrote a column in which he pointed out that if only one vote in 10,000 or one vote her and one vote there had changed, as if Mr. Dewey would have been president. That’s a strange kind of journalism, it seems to me.

DANIEL: Well, it isn’t a kind of journalism, it’s kind of speculation. Journalism is reporting the facts. One, in any medium, including this one, including The New York Times, is entitled to speculate on the “what if.” But the “what if” in the end doesn’t matter. The “what if” is just a form of entertainment. A form of intellectual exercise.

HEFFNER: Do you think that “what if” that victory in the president’s President Truman’s one campaign was terribly important in forming the kind of person he became thereafter, or do you have Harry Truman coning out of Missouri the same way as a young man as he was later on?

DANIEL: Well, Harry Truman, like the rest of us, I don’t think went into manhood exactly the way he came out. He cane out a much bigger man than he went in, which is really the secret of his success and the reason why today we call him a great, one-year great president. Our historians call him that. He went in a boy off the farm, a guy who really followed the plow, walked in the furrow behind the plow made by the horse of the mule that pulled the plow. A very humble position in life, I must assure you. But he ended up as leader of the free world. We forget, you know, that he was the leader of the free world. He wasn’t only the president of the United States. He was the leader of the western coalition, the leader of what we call the free world.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, when you say that, and when I think of the Truman doctrine, and when I think of all the major decisions he made, good as I think but perhaps bad or indifferent to others, there wasn’t much growing-uptime between the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first real decisions that Harry Truman had to make.

DANIEL: There were 62 days to be precise.

HEFFNER: Before the dropping of the bomb.

DANIEL: No, no. Between the time he became vice president of the United States until the time he became president. That is not a long time in which to prepare yourself for the greatest job on earth.

HEFFNER: Was President Roosevelt as indifferent as historians have noted about bringing his vice president into the major decisions that were being made at that time?

DANIEL: I can tell you one or two things about that, or three things. We know for a fact that he didn’t tell President Truman about the atomic bomb, which is the biggest single factor in human history that was involved in the changeover from one president to another.

We know from what President Truman has told me that he felt a certain resentment that he was not taken into the confidence of President Roosevelt who felt as indicated to me by President Truman, not by President Roosevelt, that President Roosevelt never had any notion that he would ever have to hand over this job to a man like Harry Truman. He felt not only that he was perhaps, certainly indispensable, but perhaps immortal. Of course, that was a mistake that we all make.

The third thing that I know about this I read only a couple of nights ago in a letter that I happened to find that my father-in-law wrote to my wife in which he remarked that only twice or maybe three tines since he had become vice president had the president ever called him in for a discussion of shall we say current issues or current problems. Three tines,. Of course he felt left out, and of course he felt neglected. And he was. He should have known, known more. The president, the president was a busy man. He was fighting a war. He was running a great country. He was running a great war industry. But he should have remembered. One can understand why he didn’t; gut he should have remembered that this man might someday have to pick up the burden that he, Franklin Roosevelt, was obliged by death to drop.

HEFFNER: You indicated a moment ago that President Roosevelt perhaps had the intimations of immortality that some of us, all of us I suppose, have until someday, sometime. But you also said did not divulge these things, would not share then with a man like Harry Truman, Us that an indication that the president would have been, President Roosevelt would have been more comfortable with a more sophisticated person in that position, with a more traditional kind of follower?

DANIEL: Well, there were obviously people that President Roosevelt was more comfortable with than other people, like any human being. People of his own background, people of his own education, let us say. I don’t think he ever felt any great community of spirit with President Truman. They’re so different in background, and they were not greatly different in philosophy, but they were so different in background, I don’t think there’s any community of interest and spirit between them at all. President Truman was chosen by President Roosevelt to be his vice presidential candidate not because they were pals. I stated this not long ago to Elliot Roosevelt, President Roosevelt’s son. And he agreed with me. They were not pals, they were not friends. He wasn’t chosen for the job because he was a buddy. There was no buddy system operating here. There was no old boy network operating here.

HEFFNER: What was operating here?

DANIEL: What was operating was politics. President Truman thought, or his advisors I think, to be more precise, thought that Harry Truman would bring strength to the democratic ticket, and for that reason he was chosen. But a more important point was that President Roosevelt had tired of Henry Wallace, and the people around him thought how terrible it would be if the power of the presidency fell into the hands of Henry Wallace. I’m not saying Henry Wallace was a bad man, I’m simply saying what I understood that they thought. That the power of the presidency should fall into the hands of Henry Wallace, they were sort of adopting an attitude of “anybody but Henry Wallace.” And the “anybody but” turned out to be Harry Truman.

HEFFNER: Do you think it made any difference to the development of this country that it was Harry Truman in the White House when the war ended and in the years that followed rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt?

DANIEL: Oh, of course it made a difference. But who can say, who can say what the difference might have been. I go back, when you ask me that question, my mind immediately turns to the defeat of Winston Churchill at the end of the second world war in 1945. I was in London. I witnessed that defeat. Everybody was astonished, astounded, except a few people I knew, one of whom said after being about among the crowds, said “They’ll cheer for him,” which they did “but they won’t vote for him.”

HEFFNER: That’s, that’s in this fascinating book of yours isn’t it?

DANIEL: It is in the book, and the man who said it was Sydney Gustman, who is the present vice chairman of The New York Times.

HEFFNER: I was going to say that when Mr. Gustman was here at this table talking about the power of the press and saying that we really don’t have that much power because there’s nobody in here but us chickens, and I couldn’t help as I read that comment of his to think that that kind of perception indicated the kind of power that the press still has. Are you suggesting that perhaps we would have turned away from Franklin Roosevelt?

DANIEL: I am suggesting, I think, really, that the country might very well have turned away from Franklin Roosevelt. But you had to remember that if things had gone as they did and I see no reason why they should not have gone as they did regardless of who was president, Franklin Roosevelt would have remained in office for, for four years if he had not died. The crucial fact was that he did die. But if he had not died, the country would have gone on, and who knows what kind of president he would have been. He might have been a very good one. But he would’ve by then have been exhausted, I think, by the whole thing. He would have been in office for four terms which is unprecedented in our history. It’s almost impossible to speculate on what would have happened if he’d been in. But what did happen, what actually did happen was extraordinary. And that was that a man who, as I said, had only 82 days of experience in the second highest office in the land became president of the United States, and he made some of the most fateful decisions made by any president, any human being in the history of the world.

HEFFNER: You know, I know that this discussion of ours, being taped as we go into July, will not be on the air before the democratic convention of 1984. But one has to think about the relationship between what you’ve just said and Mr. Mondale’s choice of a running mate. Today the notion that someone without that much experience, someone not that close to the president or to the candidate should be chosen as his vice presidential mate disturbs a very great many people. Do you feel that you could accept that notion today but look back on the Truman ascension to the White House and say that “that’s the way it was in those days. It worked well; it could work again?” Where are your sympathies today?

DANIEL: Well, because it worked well then doesn’t necessarily mean it work well now. I, I don’t know that there’s any way you could say that. It might work very well indeed. But we still ought to hold before ourselves, before our eyes, we ought to hold the idea that the president would pick for his running mate not somebody who would simply gain him votes in Texas or in the south or in the northeast or wherever, among women, or among Jews, among this group or that group, among blacks, but he ought to pick his vice president with the clear idea that this vice president within 24 hours after the inauguration of the president of the United States or even before the president of the United States had been inaugurated, that this person night succeed to the presidency. That’s the real obligation. Of course no president does that, and I don’t expect Walter Mondale to do it. But that’s the ideal. That’s what we ought to have in mind, that this man can be, he’s a hair’s breath away from the presidency. This man or this woman we have to say now because he is considering women.

HEFFNER: You, you would say that certainly that won’t be the major consideration. One has to consider it, it won’t be the major consideration, after the death of President Roosevelt? After the death of President Kennedy? After the resignation of Richard Nixon? We have come such an incredible way.

DANIEL: Do you think that Jerry Ford…Let me go back one step. Do you think that Lyndon Johnson, do you think that Jerry Ford, do you think that Walter Mondale himself, do you think that George Bush, the present vice president of the United States, any of these were chosen primarily because they would make a good president of the United States, or were they chosen because the men who chose them that is to say the presidents whom they served or with whom they served, thought that these men would bring some strength to their ticket?

HEFFNER: Well, clearly it’s the latter, and clearly you’ve demonstrated that that is the case in Mr. Roosevelt’s choice of Harry Truman. Question is though can we afford that in this time in 1984? That’s the real question.

DANIEL: Well, and the question may very well be answered after we appear on the air. I think I may…(Laughter) I think I must say that that is not the way the question will be decided. The question will be decided on the basis of what Walter Mondale thinks. Now, President Reagan’s locked in. He has to take George Bush whether he likes it or not. George Bush is in my view like Ronald Reagan. He’s a man I like. But whether he’d be a great president or not is another question.

HEFFNER: What would you have said in 19…What did you say in 1948? Now that’s a hell of a question, but I’ll ask it anyway.

DANIEL: I’ll tell you what I said in 1948, and…

HEFFNER: Excuse me, I really didn’t mean ’48. I meant ’44.

DANIEL: ’44.

HEFFNER: That fateful year when Franklin Roosevelt chose Harry Truman to be his running mate.

DANIEL: I had nothing to say, frankly, because I was far, far away. I was on the, well, not so far away as all that, only by our present standards, only 3,000 miles away. That’s not too far. I was in England when President Truman was chosen as the candidate for vice president. My curiosity began about him at that moment because I knew practically nothing about him. And who did? My curiosity began at that moment and grew. And it grew through 1948 when he beat the bejesus out of Tom Dewey. And that I delighted in because I did not like Mr. Dewey. You know, they used to say about Tom Dewey, “You have to know him well to dislike him.” Well, I knew him casually, but I could still dislike him.

HEFFNER: You qualified anyway.

DANIEL: Yes. He made a Trumanite out of me. I was for President Truman in 1948. Not because I knew President Truman so well but because I knew Dewey better. And I thought President Truman was the superior man.

HEFFNER: Let me, let me turn the conversation. We don’t have terribly much time left, but let me turn to something you say here. You had referred to John F. Kennedy’s comment before group of newspaper publishers and editors “If you had printed more about the operation you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.” And of course he was talking about the Bay of Pigs and I suppose he was addressing himself mostly to The New York Times’ change of its front page which you refer to in, in, in your new book. You knew about the preparation for Bay of Pigs. You could have, shall I say “blown the whole damned thing,” if you had printed the story as you originally were going to print it. You didn’t. What is a newspaper’s responsibility?

DANIEL: Well, as a matter of fact, we knew a great deal more about the preparations for the Bay of Pigs than we published at the time. We did not suppress the story as many people imagine. The story was printed that an invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro Cubans was to take place.

HEFFNER: Uh hum.

DANIEL: We eliminated the fact that it was organized and supported by the CIA, and we eliminated the fact that it was imminent. I have…

HEFFNER: Important facts.

DANIEL: Yes. I have…It happened to occur within ten days after the publication of that article. I had nothing to do with this. I was a bystander. I was a near bystander. I was right next door to where all this was decided. I had nothing to do with it. But I think we should take the much broader question which I was trying to approach, and didn’t always make clear to people and may not have made clear even now. And that is the function of the press begins a long way back. It begins when the whole exercise starts. When you first get any intimation that this thing is being organized. That’s what I was talking about, and I think that’s what President Kennedy was talking about. When President Kennedy came into office this thing has already been cranked up by the Eisenhower administration. The chiefs of staff supported it. The CIA said they had organized it and were paying for it. President Kennedy, who was a new and young and inexperienced president, if I may say so, bought it, took it. He, you know, I think he sort of said to himself, “All these big shots have decided this is a good idea. I must take their opinion; I have no alternative.” What he was saying was, “If you had told me, you, the press had told me earlier all about this.” It shouldn’t have been up to us to tell him. But nevertheless nobody else told him. “If you had told me earlier about this you might have, and told me more completely, you might have saved us from a great disaster.” And I think he was right.

HEFFNER: Wasn’t he, wasn’t he telling you that if the American people knew about it, if you had told the American people, then his hand would have been stopped?

DANIEL: It amounts to the same thing. I mean, you inform the people, the people begin to talk, their representatives begin to raise questions in Congress, and this matter is dealt with where it should have been dealt with, in a public forum.

HEFFNER: Well then, in “Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen”, you, you, you indicate that the president subsequently asked newspeople to recommend procedures that might be followed when national security issues were at hand. And that the determination on the part of the press people was that nothing was required. And I wondered as I read “Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen” how you would relate that to Grenada and to the decision there not to involve the press at all?

DANIEL: Grenada was one of those idiotic performances, if I may say so. We went and liberated a country that was, didn’t need liberating. We went to deal with an invasion of Cuban mercenaries who mostly constituted ditch-diggers with pickaxes and shovels in their hands, and a few military men. We went to rescue American students in a medical college who didn’t feel any need for rescue. And the American Army appeared and said, “You are hereby rescued.” It was, it was, if I may say so, making a mockery of the, of, of the power exercised by a great country like this one. Of course we should have known about it. We should have been told about it. There should have been some discussion about it. The average American didn’t, had never heard of Grenada, didn’t know where it was. He couldn’t even find it on the map. I went myself to look for it on the map and had a lot of trouble find it because it’s a little speck no, not as big as the end of my finger. It’s, it’s like a pinhead on the map.

HEFFNER: You readmit though that there are people who hold an opposite opinion, not about…

DANIEL: Of course.

HEFFNER: …its size, but about its importance.

DANIEL: Of course I do, but I think those people are mistaken.

HEFFNER: All right. But when the president invaded Grenada, if that’s the word, and kept the press out, the American people didn’t seem very much concerned about that.

DANIEL: They weren’t concerned, they were delighted. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to accept the view of the American people, does it? I mean, what…

HEFFNER: I think that…I…

DANIEL: …what is this, a democracy or a dictatorship of the majority?

HEFFNER: Well, but if one does abide by the opinions and the feelings…

DANIEL: But, the opinions and the feelings of the American people are never put to the test in any kind of vote or any kind of public discussion at all. After it was all over, the American people said, “Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! You know, we’ve been kicked around too much. Now we’ve done something.” What did we do? We took a little island that was some small speck on the map that most of them didn’t know it. Now, we had a previous experience like that under Gerald Ford, a man whom I like very much, and who…But we’d been kicked around a lot, and then he went and sent out a crew to rescue, sent out a naval ope…he started naval operations to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez. Who remembers the Mayaguez? It was a container ship that was stranded off some shore that I can’t even remember that was taken prisoner by some Southeast Asians of which nationality I don’t even know. I almost defy anybody in the audience to tell me which, which, which nationality. And he sent a naval operation to rescue these gallant Americans who had been taken prisoner by these terrible Southeast Asians. What did he do? He got 40 people killed in an operation which was entirely unnecessary because the crew of that ship was at that moment on their way back to the ship, had been liberated and had been freed and were going to bring the ship out.

HEFFNER: Mr. Daniel, someday we ought to do a program on the role of the unnecessary in American history. Meanwhile, thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”