Guests: Hughes, Emmett John; Sorenson, Theodore; Valenti, Jack
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Emmet John Hughes
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Our subject today is “The American Presidency.” Not, however, the imperial presidency, as it was just a year ago. At that time, we had historian Arthur Slesinger and former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy joining us in examining the problem of restraining an activist president, of establishing his responsibility to the will of Congress, and through it, to the will of the people. Instead, our attention now is focused on the somewhat more than faint glimmerings of another problem, one so opposite in its nature. For, perhaps ironically, there are those today whose real concern is for the very survival of a strong leadership presidency in what, for Americans, seems to be a new mix of, on the one hand, endless, perhaps totally unresolvable economic, social, moral, and environmental problems, and on the other hand, mass media, whose reach into our minds goes far beyond what we had ever dreamed of before. Mass media that seems to thrive on failure, not success, reaching nearly all of the people nearly all of the time with their accusations of inadequacy and their prophesies of doom. Historians and journalists have traditionally most highly regarded what they’ve called “strong presidents.” Meaning capable of facing national threats with “fullness in the right,” as Lincoln said, “as God gives us to see the right.” But more are our weakening, anxious and perilous times, along with all-pervasive news media that often seem to have positioned themselves in wheat we might call an adversary relationship, destroying presidential leadership, may make such leadership impossible, or at least so it seems to some of us. And I think this is probably the time to see how it seems to our distinguished guests, each one of whom has been closely identified with a recent President of the United States.
Let me introduce my guests now. First, Theodore C. Sorenson, practicing attorney in New York, former special counsel to John F. Kennedy, and author of the volume, “On Kennedy.” Secondly, Emmet John Hughes, now Professor of Political Science at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, who was presidential aide and speech writer for Dwight D. Eisenhower. And then, Jack Valenti, with whom I can claim an association in his capacity as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who many of us will know as former presidential aide to Lyndon Johnson. He will also regale us soon with a book about the presidency, or at least about Lyndon Johnson.
Gentlemen, I sounded sour at the beginning in terms of the potential for the survival of the presidency in our post-Watergate year. I wonder whether the warnings that have been sounded by many people about the potential survival of the presidency with an adversary press seem to be meaningful. Has it all been gloom, or is there some very real reason, in our estimation, for being concerned about the relationship that exists today between press and president? Mr. Sorenson, perhaps you would like to begin.
SORENSON: I think Mr. Heffner, you overstated the dangers. It’s true that there have been some people, after Watergate, who have talked of dismantling the presidency and dispersing its powers to the Cabinet, the Congress, the country. And I would be against that. But I am not against more precise standards for holding the presidency accountable. The press is one of the instruments by which we hold the president accountable in this country, and its’ a very good thing that it does. You talk of an adversary relationship. Thank God it’s an adversary relationship. The press has enormous power. The president has even more enormous power. Can you imagine what would be the situation if those two powers were combined against the rest of the institutions of the American government and the American people? They’re in an adversary relationship which I find very healthy.
HEFFNER: Gentlemen, do you agree?
HUGHES: I definitely agree with Ted on separating out the question of the adversary relationship of the press from the question of: Is the presidency too strong or weak? The role of the press should be adversary, and it might be critical of a presidency for being too strong or too weak; and quite properly so. The issue of the kind of presidency we want or need or should have, I think, is a wholly different issue. One of Ted’s former colleagues in the Kennedy White House, Richard Goodwin, stated one view of the post-Watergate presidency, I remember, in an article in The Washington Post not long ago, when he said that, “We must not only drive the thieves our of the den, but we make the den.” And a few weeks later Earl Warren shortly before his death used a different metaphor for exactly the contrary argument and he said, “We must not tear down the house because we didn’t like the last tenant.” And I think those two points of view state the real issue which transcends the question of the relationship with the press.
HEFFNER: Mr. Valenti?
VALENTI: Well, I don’t find the press a part of the problem that we…today at all. I think the press is reporting, more or less, what has happened. And presidents and press have always found themselves in adversary positions. And all you have to do is go through history and there is a book called “The Presidents and the Press” that some professor ad written in which he explored, from George Washington’s time until now, and he found, what I think, is a truism. That it is only a matter of months before a president, no matter who he is, finds that the press gives him a royal pain in his backside. And that’s the way it’s always been; and that’s the way it‘s always going to be. I think that one of the problems today is not so much the press and the president, but rather the expectation of the people about what a president can and cannot do. I, myself, believe that one of the problems facing America today is larger expectations than any mortal man elected by his peers can deliver. True, there ought to be hope. The kind of hope that, as a small boy, I found FDR to give. When I heard his voice on the radio, I felt like that tomorrow was going to be better. And my mother and father, who are simple people, and good people, not very knowledgeable about politics, followed FDR because they believed in him. But I don’t believe they ever expected that FDR was going to make their live a Nirvana. They weren’t expecting that. And so they were comfortable with this leader. That’s the problem I see today, is the demand for more than any elected official can deliver in a specified length of time. It is a national ambience of these rising expectations that are larger than we ought to have them.
HEFFNER: Well, if that demand is present, if, as you said, your parents believed in him, and if we assume that part of the presidency is establishment of a bond of belief between the people and the chief executive, national leadership, is it possible to maintain that believability or that belief at a time when you gentlemen seem to think that an adversary relationship is an appropriate one? Or, at least, Mr. Sorenson, you and Mr. Hughes seem to feel that that’s appropriate. You don’t deny…
HUGHES: It is always more appropriate.
SORENSON: I think the process should be skeptical. They should be probing. They should keep that president under very close watch. It does not mean that they tear down everything he says and stands for. But the same amount of skepticism would be good, would be healthy in the American public. I think it’s good that people have some hope that a president arouses their best instincts, but we have a tendency in this country to be reverential of the president, to treat him like a royal majesty. That is unhealthy. It means we’re likely to follow a resident blindly, even when he leads us into Vietnam or Watergate.
VALENTI: Well, let me take a little issue with Ted. I think we’re on the same side, and maybe I’ll spark a little controversy. I know it is conventional wisdom to say we shouldn’t be awestruck about a president, and we ought to treat him just-plain-Jerry, and just-plain-Jack, and just-plain-Lyndon. I don’t agree at all. I must tell you, in all honesty – I don’t know how Mr. Hughes or Ted feel – but every time I walked in that White House, or in the mansion, and I track down those halls in the rotunda and the blue room and the state dining room, I honestly thought I heard old Tom Jefferson somewhere in those halls. Now, I’m sophisticated; maybe. But the 15,000 people a day who visit that White House have the same beliefs about, “This is where it all began.” The White House is the only connection we have to the roots of our birth of our republic. We have a Constitution that nobody ever sees. But the only, I guess, living thing we have is the White House. It was there when John Adams in 1800…and every president since has lived there. I don’t think you can command the people of this country not to feel the magic and the legend, the inspiration indeed, even the half-monarchal trappings of the president. I don’t see how you can command them not to do that.
HUGHES: Jack, I don’t think that is the issue that Ted and I were trying to get at. I don’t know anyone, I haven’t lately heard anyone say, “I wish Jerry Ford would just be good old Jerry Ford.” And I don’t think Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was troubled by the fact that people felt he was too aloof, but sometimes that he was too very openly and, at times, crudely, Lyndon Johnson in the raw. I don’t think the problem is a feeling that we must strip the office of all glamour and historical recognition. But, in terms of the relationship to the press, I think it is a fact that the presidents of this century, certainly, who have been most open to new ideas, least insulated against the world, have been those who have had the healthiest communications with the press. And I mean specifically a Teddy Roosevelt or a Franklin Roosevelt or a Jack Kennedy. And it doesn’t seem to me any coincidence that these particular chief executives who are open to new ideas were also the ones who were most at ease in their meetings with the press. I think this is a fundamental test of a man’s ability to deal with the people who are not beholden to him, and that it’s very important. And that is not stripping him down or demeaning him. It is testing his ability to listen and to convey his own ideas.
SORENSON: Now, I do not demean any president, Jack. Occasionally a president will demean himself. I have great respect for the office. I certainly have reverence for the historical connection to which you refer. The same is true of any old building. I‘m perfectly willing to bow when I go by the Willard Hotel, but the man who is in the office has to be separated from the office. We make a great mistake if we assume that all presidents are all-wise and all-knowing and all-powerful because they happen to occupy that office that we respect a great deal. As far as I’m concerned, a president has to earn that respect. He has to deserve our trust. I hope every president will. I’m willing to let him start out with the benefit of the doubt. But he has to prove himself. And the press takes the same attitude. And I think it’s healthy. Yes, Jack Kennedy, Emmet, did have a good relationship with the press.
HUGHES: He had les…too.
SORENSON: It was still the adversary relationship we’re talking about. He knew that his interests and their interests conflicted. And if you understand it and accept it openly, I think, you’re going to get along in the White House.
HEFFNER: Let’s go back though to that first day of the first inaugural. John Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. It seems to me what you said before about the appropriate place of the president and of presidential leadership in this country is, to some extent, cast in doubt by the importance of those very first words of John Kennedy and those very first words of Franklin Roosevelt as president. And, talk about monarchical, perhaps that’s an inappropriate phrase. But there was this mystic chord, which, if it is reduced to any degree by this adversary relationship, perhaps will do us damage, or perhaps will do damage to the tradition of a strong president. Perhaps not a new tradition that will build up. Maybe Gene McCarthy’s tradition, where there’s a stronger Congress and there are stronger groups around the country. But don’t you feel that the, or do you feel, or to what degree do you feel, that those first words of John Kennedy and those first words of Franklin Roosevelt were extraordinarily important, and they came from, as Mr. Valenti said, “a man who had greater authority than simply the man who had constitutionally been placed there.” An authority that can be undermined by continuing carping, criticism on the part of the press, which indeed wasn’t as widespread in Kennedy’s days, certainly not in the days of Franklin Roosevelt, even though the editorial pages were all against him. Isn’t there something majestic that is undermined by this demand that we make that the president be quite as accountable as you have suggested?
SORENSON: If you mean by the first words, “I solemnly swear to uphold and defend”, I’m glad they all said that. But if there is some mystique, some majesty that is undermined by the press holding them accountable, then I say it’s a very good thing. Sure, a president wants to be inspirational. He wants to deserve and earn the respect of the public. But he has to do that through his work, through his ideas, through his actions; and not automatically by holding the office.
VALENTI: I subscribe to that, but it’s my understanding, and I feel that some members, not of the press, out of the Congress and observers politically inspired believe that we ought to strip the presidency. The president ought to not be called “Mr. President.” He ought to be treated like every other person. There have been a number of these. Even Ben Cohen had his little article in The Washington Post where you have a group of wise men around to sort of keep the president from becoming too regal. I honestly believe that, while I agree with what you say about the president earning everything he has to get from the people, that there has to be this mystery, this magic. Kierkegaard said something that I find quite logically connected with the presidency. He was talking about people believing in God. And he said, “One must leap into faith as one does into darkness, without any reassuring proof that God is there.” With the problems that are going to engulf this country in the next decade, many times a president, perhaps before he has even earned the right to be loved and believed, is going to have to say to the people, “Follow me, because we have to go there in order to be saved. And I cannot give you any proof that this journey will be safe. I don’t even know that we can make it. But you’ve got to follow me. Here we go!” Now, Ted, you and I both know that, essentially that’s what President Kennedy was saying in his inaugural address, and…
SORENSON: No. I can’t agree with that.
HUGHES: No, I don’t agree at all.
SORENSON: I’m a believer, Jack, in the strong presidency. I have written about it, I have supported it, and I will continue to. I recognize the need, particularly in the days ahead, for a strong president. But I will not compare him to God, and I will not follow him blindly.
HUGHES: And I really think Jack, the idea of an act of faith as the basis of presidential power, is a rather dangerous idea. If there is any myth about the presidency that I think is more pernicious than any other, is that very easily accepted popular attitude that goes under the slogan, “Well, he knows best.” The general assumption that because the President of the United States has so many sources of intelligence and information, the quantity of data before him is so formidable, of course, his judgment will be sound. Well, you know, in the process of presidential decision making that this doesn’t follow. President Lyndon Johnson had ample data before him to support several different and contradictory courses with regard to Vietnam. At the very time he was accelerating intervention in Vietnam, he has the report of a State Department task force advising him not to do it. Now, I’m not arguing at the moment the merits of – though I obviously disagree with what happened – but that is not the point. The point is that he has, indeed, a vast quantity of information, the most important points of which are contradictory. And the decision that he makes cannot be predicated on a quantity of absolutely certain data. Therefore, when the people assume I am not going to be critical, skeptical, or vigilant because he has more data than I have, then I think you have a serious breakdown in the democratic process.
VALENTI: I wasn’t for one moment saying, you know, “Follow me blindly,” just like I believe in God, or anything. Obviously I’m not. What I am saying though, is that I think there needs to be, in a democratic society such as we have, where we have only one man who is elected by all the people – that’s not so in parliamentary government, and it is not so in any western democracy that I know about today, except here. We all vote for the president, and nobody else. So I’m saying that encapsulated in that is a kind of mystery and magic that goes with the job. Not necessarily sustainable by one’s actions. But if you have yourself just totally skeptical, totally cynical about the president, I think you strip him away of…
HUGHES: None of us is cynical. And I think it’s one of the laws of presidential life that, almost without exception, every president starts out with a kind of franchise of goodwill. I may not have voted for him, but I hope he does well. You have the honeymoon with the Congress. As Harold Laski used to say, “It takes at least a full session of the Congress before the Senators take the buttons off their foils.” And we just witnessed recently a state of euphoria that followed Mr. Ford’s succession to the White House. It was a very funny experience to be in Washington the two weeks following.
VALENTI: But you understand why. It’s a contrast between two men.
HUGHES: But the interesting point is that, for about 15 to 20 days, all your political sages in Washington were saying, “This man is so smart, so stylish, and so credible, that he’s going to be unbeatable.” And then came the Nixon pardon, and everybody turned around and said, “Anybody can beat this man.”
HEFFNER: But it’s extraordinary that you say, “For 15, 20 days,” and isn’t that just exactly the point about the changes that have taken place? You quote Harold Laski talking about taking the buttons off their foils. We took the buttons off our foils after a session, perhaps, of the Congress, or after several months or a hundred days or what it might be. The question that does come up now – not in the matter of who’s right or who’s wrong – whether it is impossible that the accessibility of the media to all of us, and the continuing development of a more negative adversary relationship between president and press, may not be making us incapable of anything like an act of faith. And I’m not talking about an uncritical act of faith, I’m not…
HUGHES: I don’t see why that should follow.
HEFFNER: Well, because we all seem to have, even at this table, feet of clay. And what I’m suggesting and what I’ve heard suggested by so many people is that there is a concentration on the part of the press today on those feet…
HUGHES: But you never had a presidential campaign more dominated by media than 1972, and you never had a greater avalanche of votes in support of an incumbent president.
HEFFNER: But I don’t think that’s still quite the point. We’re talking here not about Mr. Nixon and what he had to work with at the end of that campaign in ’72, but the potential that perhaps Watergate itself has given the press new life, new spirit, to go beyond what in the past we might have considered an appropriately critical investigatory…
SORENSON: But the press can criticize: the president can destroy.
HEFFNER: Who was criticizing…
SORENSON: One man, as Jack Valenti says, alone is chosen by the American people. Because of that he has enormous power, the power to send half a million Americans halfway round the world to kill and be killed, the power to try to change our political system by stealth and usurpation. That’s what presidents have done. And unless we have the press boring in, watching them, being very skeptical all the time, I would worry about the existence of that power. Now, I think the power must be maintained. I want presidential power to be as strong as it has been, maybe even stronger on some economic issues. But the only way you’re going to justify maintaining presidential power is to have the press as one of the most alert watchdogs, holding him in, watching him at every turn, and being as skeptical as can be. He wasn’t, for 30 days. The press treated Gerald Ford kindly, and he deserved kind treatment for 30 days. They turned upon him only when he pardoned President Nixon in a very secretive way, which they thought was unjustified, when he had made an arrangement with Mr. Nixon on the custody of the tapes which was contrary to the interests of the Watergate prosecution, which Mr. Ford himself has now backtracked on, and when he said that, “Perhaps I’m going to have pardons for all of the Watergate defendants.” Well, it was at that point that the roof fell in on Mr. Ford.
HEFFNER: Mr. Sorenson, you’re making certain statements of presumed fact. There are others who would take those facts and present them in a different way, would not present the actions of President Ford in quite the way you have. Fair enough? You would admit there are those? Perhaps some few in your estimation, who would approve of what the president did? Is that acceptable?
SORENSON: Well, certainly. Undoubtedly there are those who approve. I stated facts as to what President Ford did. Now you can evaluate whether that was wise or unwise. There were some newspapers who supported his action. There were some who criticized his action.
HEFFNER: Yes, but is it possible to disassociate the attack made upon the president in the one area from a general attitude toward the president of the United States? In the past, this seems to have been the case. We could be critical about an act of the president. Today it would seem, perhaps because of the very power of the media that we find it more and more difficult to constrain ourselves. An attack upon a policy, an attack upon an act, seems to become generalized. You said in your book on Kennedy that, “the president never doubted the accuracy of Oscar Wilde’s observation, ‘In America, the president reigns for four years, but journalism governs forever.” And when you said a moment ago, the president can destroy; the press cannot. There may be those who would suggest to you that in the past several years in our country the press has continued while presidents have been destroyed.
SORENSON: Well now, tell me who has been locked up by the press. Tell me who has lost his life because of the press. And I will tell you a great many people who have been locked up or lost their lives because of the president.
HEFFNER: Yes, but in the ultimate question of survival of the presidency, and presumably that was the general theme for today, the presidents who have occupied that house that Mr. Valenti talked about before the two presidents before Mr. Ford, have been forced out for good and appropriate reasons, perhaps you and I would agree, others perhaps would not. These men lost in their battle with an adversary that was the press.
HUGHES: But I really disagree with this interpretation. I think a very simple and factual case can be made to exactly the opposite effect: Namely, that the adversary relationship of the press can save a presidency. It was not the press that destroyed the 37th presidency; it was Mr. Richard Nixon. It was not a wave of press hostility that led to the editorial avalanche of criticism following the release of the White House tapes, and one conservative newspaper after the other across the Midwest and out to the West calling for his resignation. What precipitated that was what Mr. Nixon did. Not what other editorialists had been saying about him. And, in the case of Mr. Johnson, I think it’s — Jack might not agree – but I had the impression…
VALENTI: I have a feeling that I won’t.
HUGHES: I think up to a point the Washington press had a great fondness for Lyndon Johnson, and it broke down on the question of credibility.
VALENTI: Well, I have to say, in all honesty, gentlemen, that I heard this all the time that Lyndon Johnson was forced out of office. That’s just simply not true. He decided not to run. He may have had a tough time. He told me that he thought he could’ve won the nomination and I don’t’ think anyone would’ve denied that. And he would’ve won the election, since Humphrey lost it by one half of one percent. But he told me he left the White House not because the press drummed him out of office – though I have to say, in all honesty, he never felt that the press was nuzzling him affectionately during his last two years – but he thought this country was in a polar state and that the people were furious and angry and enough of them felt this way that if he ran again he would divide the country, even though he would win the election. He felt that the presidency and the country ought not be put through that kind of torment. And so he renounced re=nomination. I know it is editorial, on-the-stand, conventional wisdom to say Johnson was drummed out of office. But it’s simply not so. Now, that’s my view of it, and that was the president’s view of it. And we may be the only two who feel that way. If feel like that Congressman Landgrab in Indiana who says, “My God, they’re going to take Richard Nixon and me out and shoot us together.”
HUGHES: I didn’t think he was drummed out of office by the press. You’re just adding another example to really what I was saying.
VALENTI: I understood you to say that.
HEFFNER: I’m the one who took the old doggerel and repeated it here, and repeated it, obviously, for the point of emphasizing what some people have said. And if I argue the point, it is because someone as distinguished as Katherine Graham, The Washington Post, in an address that she gave before the Magazine Publishers’ Association that was reprinted in New York Magazine, she doesn’t support the charges that I’ve quoted, quite. But she does indicate that the press seems to have taken on the manner and the role of adversary to an extent that maybe inappropriate. That the press has assumed a participatory role in the examination of those feel of clay that will be bad for the structure of our government, maybe bad for the press itself.
SORENSON: Well, I think we have to keep our metaphors separate here. The press, as Kay Graham said, should not be an actor on the stage. It should be a critic in the audience. It should continue in that critical role and keep everything that is going on the stage in close observation. But it should not be on the stage actually moving and shaking. I don’t want to whitewash the press. I have no doubt that there are members of the press who enjoy being actors on the stage, who want to not merely observe, but participate in these events, and who now, having grown accustomed to a diet of red meat, having helped bring down a president and help bring down a vice president, are looking around for more red meat. But that’s a very small part of the problem. If I were to criticize the press, I would criticize them for not being sufficiently observant and critical. I would criticize them for the fact that after the Watergate break-in occurred, only two city reporters on one newspaper, The Washington Post, really persisted. And it took the Congress and the courts to bring out into the open what Mr. Nixon had been doing and fortunately preserving on tape. It wasn’t the press which brought Mr. Nixon down. It was Mr. Nixon bringing himself down with the help of the other institutions in this country that are supposed to bring him down.
VALENTI: Well, let me ask another question. I’m not one to be critical of the press, like Ted Sorenson. I might want to run for public office someday, so I don’t want to be critical of the press. I know a Congressman who told me, who got elected interminably, that one maxim, he says, “Never fight with a daily newspaper; they publish every day.” But one of the questions that I’d like to ask is, how far do you go in the shredding away of the garments of the public man? How much do you assault him? How deeply do you go into his family’s life? I must say that I’d like to, if I were a public man and the press called me up and wanted to know something about my family or some loan that I got that I didn’t think was any conflict, I’d say “None of your damned business.” There are some things that a public man ought to have private. Or are we now, post-Watergate, to make certain that every public man not only lives in the fishbowl, but we have a camera underwater with him all the time? I think that’s a big question that needs to be asked, because I’m troubled by it. I must say, I’ve no public life, so I have no personal interest in this, but I do feel for public men today. I think it’s a real burden. These are sour times for public men. And I’m just wondering how far we go in demanding that they show us they have no clothes on every hour of every day.
HUGHES: Well, I spent 20 years in journalism, Jack, so I’ve got a tendency to be prejudiced in favor of the press, despite my dedication to the idea of a strong presidency. And the question you raise, I don’t think it has any simple answer. There is a role, and a proper and a necessary one, for the investigative power of the press, as well as its adversary role. But I do detect a change in the temperament and tone of the press in the last few years, and especially since Watergate in one sense. That I recall years past when the private lives of prominent men in Washington were generally considered off-limits for newspaper coverage by a Washington press corps that knew everybody’s private lives. And I’m sure each of us could think of instances and cite cases where it was general knowledge of exciting, titillating aspects to a Senator’s life of a Congressman’s life. And if he were a candidate, for example, or if he were running in a primary, I recall no single instance where that aspect of his life was made an issue by the press, There was a self-restraint, as there has to be in any profession, and a sense of discrimination. I think it could be argued that post-Watergate, there is a tendency in certain parts of the press to say, “Anything is fair game, any aspect of a man’s life. And we don’t care what the consequences are.” I think this explains some of the pursuit of what I think are essentially irrelevant aspects of Nelson Rockefeller’s life. I think this is what explains the extraordinary publicity The Washington Post of all papers, gave to the incident involving Wilber Mills, one evening, the famous Tidal Basin incident. I could hardly believe that The Washington Post was running three-and-four-column headlines on the front page, two successive days, describing this unfortunate incident. I don’t think that would have happened ten years ago.
HEFFNER: Should it have happened?
SORENSON: I think that… I don’t want to get into discussing the Mills incident. I’m very sympathetic with the question which has been raised. I agree that wholly private matters ought to remain wholly private, whether they occur in the lives of public officials or anyone else. The problem is in determining what is wholly private. A loan may be regarded as no conflict of interest by the recipient, but it may not be so regarded by outside parties. Many presidents and other public officials want to have it both ways. In order to build up their cult of personality and the following and enthusiasm of their fans, they ask the press to glorify certain aspects of their private lives that show them as being charismatic or sports enthusiasts or family men or dog-lovers, or what might have you. But then they want to shut the press out. They want to pick and choose where the press will come into their private lives.
HUGHES: That’s very true.
SORENSON: And that’s difficult for them to do.
HEFFNER: If you ran the zoo, Mr. Sorenson, what would you do about that? What do you think the appropriate role of the press, vis-à-vis a political person’s private life is? Or those – forgive me for going back to those feet of clay – but picking around until we find that the man who thrills a nation with his inaugural address, still has and has had feet of clay, and it becomes important, seemingly, in this adversarial relationship, to make certain that everyone knows about it. Where do you draw the line?
SORENSON: As I said, I would try to draw the line as to what is private and what would affect his public responsibilities and duties.
HEFFNER: Who draws the line?
SORENSON: Obviously there’s no law that could draw the line.
HUGHES: Responsible journalists have to. And I think the case that – and you would know the details of this much better than I, Ted – but the case of the Bay of Pigs is an example where, as I understand it, The New York Times had the story…
SORENSON: Well, now we’re getting out of private lives and…
HUGHES: …a day…No, but this is a matter of discretion. And the editors of The New York Times decided that this story was too charged with danger in terms of national security to print, and they exercised self-censorship, and I believe President Kennedy later said that it would have been much more fortunate if The New York Times had gone ahead and blown the whistle. I think it’s very hard to generalize about these situations.
VALENTI: It is. And I think what happens, what Watergate has done, is something that’s quite normal. It’s introduced a spirit of competitiveness now. And I dare say that the next time somebody finds a tape on a door, there are going to be ten bureaus in Washington that have got four teams of investigative reporters. Nobody is going to be caught napping again. And so what you have is an escalation of probing. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. I don’t know. But I do know that it’s here, and it’s going to be here for quite a while. Now, the unhappy recipients of these searchlights are going to be public men. And the price that we’re going to pay in the public arena is a stripping away of every veneer of protection that a man has about the fact that he maybe scratches his backside, or snores, or maybe he eats with his hands, suddenly becomes big news, and it’s printed. I merely say that while I know it is, one ought to say that the press is our guardian of liberty and we ought to be skeptical. I think the public man is a fellow who is being put upon now simply because the White House was tenanted for a short while by a group of people who were arrogant and unthinking and wanted to bring all of the freedoms of this country in really shattered circles at their feet, by using FBI, and the CIA, and IRS. I think that’s a terrible legacy that we’re going to have to live with a long time in the presidency and beyond it.
HEFFNER: All right, but isn’t the real problem there not the lot of the political person who’s going to have to live in this way – and I would suspect that you’re right – but what may be the meaning of that phenomenon to the potential for a strong leadership presidency, to the potential for developing the kind of leadership I have always presumed that we need, and I still presume that we do need? If we accept not the validity but seemingly the fact of this new phenomenon, of its existence, aren’t we then saying, by definition, for good or for bad – and no one’s suggesting that we muzzle the press – but that for good or for bad we’re going into an era in which the kind of strong presidency based upon the kind of, not reverence perhaps, but belief that wasn’t tarnished by too freewheeling a press, that this may be over, and that the presidency as it’s existed, if we have to know about Abraham Lincoln’s depressions, I wonder whether we can tolerate an Abraham Lincoln in the…
HUGHES: I really think this is an attempt to make a coefficient where one doesn’t exist. The presidents who have gotten into trouble have been the ones who, almost invariably, stepped over that invisible line, often in a spirit of hubris, after a landslide election. They weren’t pushed over that invisible line by the press, critical or sympathetic. When Franklin Roosevelt headed for disaster in 1937 with the Supreme Court Packing Plan, it was his own initiative and his own confidence and arrogant confidence that the mandate of ’36 made him safe. The press didn’t drive him to do that. Now, we read criticism today from the same sources who were so complimentary about Mr. Ford in the first months of his office, and what are they critical of? They’re critical of his not being strong enough. I don’t think that the simple existence of an adversary press means that that cripples the presidency at all.
SORENSON: I agree with that. The criticism of Franklin Roosevelt was not only relentless, but it was often personal, aimed at his wife, at his children, at his dog. And yet he was a very strong president.
HEFFNER: Yes, but Mr. Sorenson, the critics of the present scene say that it is this very fact that it may be frightening because at that time, just as at the time of Harold Laski talking about the time before the Congress took the buttons off their foils, that the mass media of today and the concentration of the power in the media today gives us a different ballgame. And it’s true.
SORENSON: The concentration in the power of the presidency today gives us a different ballgame. They go together, they match each other, and I say, I repeat, thank God they’re not on the same side.
HUGHES: You have turned around – and I’m not saying this makes it wrong – but it’s been the conventional wisdom about mass media for the last decade, and as I try to discuss this in my book, one of the things that has been charged as a threat of excessive presidential power has been the existence of nationwide mass media, especially television. The president alone can get prime time for an hour, two hours, go into 60, 70 million homes. It is an automatic technological ally of executive power. The Congress can’t go on nationwide television, but its very nature, or the Supreme Court. And ironically, this, as I say, has been the conventional wisdom, that the mass media serve as tools of presidential power. The fact is that the two presidents who have had most opportunity to enjoy the power of television were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. And their command of television did not, oddly enough, enhance their popularity by any visible standards.
HEFFNER: When I was reading your book, Mr. Hughes, “The Living Presidency,” and you talk about the resources and dilemmas of the presidential office, I became aware, in talking about the press, that this business of the availability of the media to the occupant of the White House is a phenomenon that, you’re quite correct, we’ve observed for the past decade. But what I’ve been referring to and that many people refer to, and I think in Katherine Graham’s piece, is the critical capacity of the newsgathering and news interpreting press, not the technical means of capturing…
HUGHES: You mean more the printed media than television?
HEFFNER: No, no, no. The news reports, CBS, NBC, ABC news reports, the job that has been done, if that’s not too strong a word, on recent presidents by the newsgathering television people.
VALENTI: I would say that I don’t…whether there’s a job done. Let’s look at it without the adversary relationship. Let’s put the president on the press’s side. Let’s see what’s available. I think that any public man in public life would rather be on the Chancellor, Brinkley, or Reasoner, Smith or Cronkite show for 45 seconds than to be on the front page of any newspaper in the country. More people will see Chancellor and Cronkite, just those two programs, in two nights, than will see all the movies in this land in one month. The statistical evidence of the power of television is mindboggling. I don’t know what FDR would have done if every night they would see him being cranked into that wheelchair and held up to a rostrum. I don’t know what he would have been if that television camera had been in that Oval Office with him instead of people grouped around the desk. I think it would have been a different kind of a presidency. I don’t know if he would have survived it.
HUGHES: Jack, they had photographic journalism then, and it was a code of photographic journalism that they did not take those pictures.
VALENTI: I wouldn’t call it that. Today no such reservations would exist. The point is that the drum fire of comment, good or bad, critical or abhorring, on the eleven o’clock and the ten o’clock news, and the six o’clock, six-thirty and seven o’clock news, where you’re getting on the national network shows 30 million people a night per show, and there are only 63 million newspapers, the daily circulation is 63 million of all the newspapers in this country. So, I think what Dick Heffner is saying, and what I am in accord with, is there is a great deal of power in the television medium that never existed in the history of the presidency before. And I think it came into being probably with the Kennedy era. And it has now escalated to a point where there’s nothing to compare with it. And I do not say this pejoratively or admiringly, I’m trying to state what the facts are.
HUGHES: But when you say, Jack, that it is too early to make a historical judgment of any soundness as to whether this power of television in the long run or the medium run is going to operate in favor of presidential power or as a vehicle for exposing presidential ineptitude? I don’t know which way it’s going to work. Do you?
VALENTI: Well, Emmet, I must tell you, I tried to get President Johnson to go on television more than he did. This may come as a surprise to you. I wanted him to use television as an educational and communications medium with the American public, to take ten minutes every six weeks – because I think you can stay on too long – take ten minutes and say, “Now let me tell you why we’re in Vietnam,” or, “Let me tell you about the civil rights problem that we have so that you understand you could talk to your Congressman about it whichever way you stand,” or, “Here is the problem with pollution or crime, or so forth.” I didn’t think Lyndon Johnson used television near enough, nor did I think he used it in the way as a teacher or confidante, an instructor or communicator to the American people that he ought to. And I don’t believe that Nixon used it well at all. I think that Nixon was more self-serving and coming on with speeches rather than a kind of conversational tone about, “What are the problems in this country, and let me tell you about them.”
HEFFNER: Mr. Hughes, when you say that perhaps not enough time has gone by for us to make judgment, I thought it was the business of professors, such as we are, to look into the future, and to make guesses, because when you reach the point at which you’re talking about famous last words, it’s too late. The guesses that seem to be being made now is that we have an acceleration of the concentration of power, particularly in the television medium, and that with that concentration the old rules have changed. The assumption that you can’t have an adversary relationship at a time when the press wasn’t that powerful can no longer hold. Mr. Sorenson says, perhaps it can hold because the president has become so much more powerful, and you need these two giant forces to balance each other. What about the rest of us, caught in the middle, those of us who need, to some extent, some capacity to have faith in an institution and in an individual? That’s not asking too much. And it’s not to point the accusing finger at the press to say that perhaps it will not any longer permit us to have that faith. Jack Valenti talked before, earlier, about his parents believing in FDR, and maybe we had too great expectations. But isn’t that belief necessary to hold a people together, and isn’t that belief becoming less and less possible thanks to the strengthening of this adversary relationship?
SORENSON: We’re coming to find semantic distinctions here between blind faith, faith, belief, confidence, respect.
HEFFNER: Let’s leave out blind faith. I don’t think anyone here is talking about blind faith.
SORENSON: Well an act of faith that Jack Valenti is talking about, and that Kierkegaard talked about, really is a blind faith. And in a sense, that’s what you’re talking about, because if we’re talking about a president earning the trust of the people, I’m all for that. If he deserves the confidence of the public, that is the best thing that a president can do. After all, the television, with all their resources, really is not responsible, to the best of my recollection, for the uncovering of a single lead in the Watergate story. They were simply reporting what the institutions of government were doing. That can hardly be said to be evil or wrong in any way.
HEFFNER: Well, in a sense, I think I led us down the garden path by posing this as an argument between those who defend the presidency and those who defend the press.
SORENSON: Well, that’s my point. I am a great defender of the presidency, and I want us to have a strong president in the future. And I refuse to believe that a strong press is going to interfere with that.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but then that was the point I was going to get back down to. Whether, if you set aside the pejorative notions and just ask yourself whether, at a time when it is possible to reach so many people with the negatives that you can come up with, if in what may be the responsibility of the press, is it possible at the same time, given that responsibility of the press, to assume that we are going to be able to have a strong president? It’s not a matter of whether we should or shouldn’t, but whether, indeed, we really can, now that every public man’s life is so exposed, unless we’re going to assume that we’re going to find angels who will occupy the White House. Doesn’t it seem as though we may be in a situation where we can’t any longer look to that strong, strong presidency? And perhaps we have to develop counter-institutions.
HUGHES: I don’t agree with that, and I keep saying no. I really disagree. I’m a very fervent advocate of a strong presidency. I have deplored what I think is one of the serious overreactions to Watergate, namely, “Let us remake the office of the president because Richard Nixon came so near to ruining it.” It seems to me a most tremendous piece of historical illogic, because the implied judgment is that, since the 37th president so defaulted let us punish the 38th president and his successors. And I don’t believe in any of that logic. At the same time, I really cannot accept the proposition that a strong, aggressive, inquisitive, skeptical press means you cannot have a strong presidency.
HEFFNER: Well, what about Mr. Sorenson’s point though? He says “strong press, strong presidency.”
HUGHES: He doesn’t put them as antitheses.
HEFFNER: Oh yes, he says they should be in an adversary role.
HUGHES: Yes, but an adversary relationship can help a presidency to be strong in one way by helping it to be capable of self-criticism. We look at the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, for example, who was the first to allow television in – did he allow television or transcripts, full transcripts?
HEFFNER: Televised, yes.
HUGHES: Or both. Well, that was exposure. Unprecedented. And he, after eight years in office, he left as a totally trusted president. He could have been re-elected to a third term. The problems that both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had in terms of credibility and the trust and the measure of faith that I believe the president has to have, they initiated those problems, not the press.
VALENTI: Let me tell you something. I honestly believe that scrutiny of television on Eisenhower might have made him a different president. Nobody went down to Gettysburg and checked on gifts to Eisenhower or anything like that, and nobody…
SORENSON: Sure they did. That was in the press.
HUGHES: I read stories about it. I…
VALENTI: Yes, but my point is…
SORENSON: They checked on Lincoln, and they checked on Cleveland, and they checked on Washington. The press has been engaged in harsh personal criticism of the president since the beginning or our…
VALENTI: That was not my point. I was leading into it in a kind of prefatory probing there. I want to point out that I’m not against the press and pro-president as an adversary position. I’m merely saying that the whole ambiance of politics has undergone a radical change, and particularly as a result of Watergate. And the landscape will not be the same for years to come. I do not know whether that is good or bad for a strong presidency or good or bad for a healthy country, or good or bad for a stable kind of government apparatus. I don’t know. I merely say it has changed radically. And the impact of television daily bombarding our homes is the most powerful single communicative force known to this society. Again, I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. But I’m really saying that the whole ground rules of politics and insofar as it attends to the president, who is the largest political figure, these have all been changed. And we’re going to see, in the next several years whether it has a pejorative effect or not. Maybe, as Emmet says, that’s going to be good, and as Ted says. The kind of abrasive consorting of press and president in the full view of everybody perhaps makes for a more stable society. That I don’t know. I want to withhold judgment upon it. Because I think the thing we need more in the Western developed countries today than ever before is some stability, some continuity. We’ve had for presidents in 11 years, for varying and sometimes sorrowful reasons. We had four presidents previous to that in 28 years. I mean we need stability. Somebody has to know that something will be present tomorrow that we can hold on today. That’s what we need. Now, whether or not this new environment of communications and of probing for Achilles’ heels in our public men is going to be good or bad, I don’t know. But I do know it’s here and it will be here for some time.
SORENSON: I agree that the post-Watergate environment is a very different environment. And I think there will be some drawbacks. And I think some good men may even be discouraged from seeking public office because they would be concerned about this kind of media probe. But you have to compare that to what we have been through and with the dangers of calling off the hounds of the press. And I don’t think we can afford to take the risk of calling them off.
HEFFNER: Do you have to add to that picture, as Mr. Valenti suggested, the anxieties that we experience as a nation today where we came through the Depression and the Second World War, but perhaps they never rocked us quite as much as the seemingly insoluble problems.
SORENSON: No. What has rocked us has been the discovery of what has been going in the White House, and because we have lost faith in our single most important institution. And it can only be restored by a strong and honest and responsible and accountable president.
VALENTI: I’ll buy that. I think that’ a true statement. I think that is true. And I think we have to have that in the White House. The only point I’m making is that the entry of that man into our public life may, may be made more difficult by the fact that we have lost our capacity to believe in magic, and that…
HUGHES: I hope we have, Jack.
VALENTI: No, I think that…
HUGHES: Why do you want to believe in magic but also worry about high popular expectations?
VALENTI: Well, I’m not saying, “Magic” as an all-embracing word meaning kind of hope, and belief, and all the things that children believe in tooth fairies and make me believe that tomorrow is going to be better than it is today.
HEFFNER: The program on magic comes next month. But gentlemen, thank you so much for joining me today, Theodore Sorenson, Emmet John Hughes, Jack Valenti. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”