Print media often referred to the Daily News Summary as the most exclusive newspaper in the world. It was a fair description because they were written to please just one person, RN himself. They began during the 1968 primaries by Pat Buchanan, who chose articles “the old man would need to see.” He turned them over to a crew consisting of Rose Woods, Marje Acker and Shelley Buchanan to clip them out of the papers and make them presentable to RN.
The readership in 1969 began with just a handful of senior staff, but had nearly 100 “customers” when I arrived in early January of 1972. Distribution had expanded to include the Cabinet and various agencies in the executive branch. Because the president read it, we had a pretty large captive audience for our readership.
The senior staff used news summaries to stay informed, but perhaps more importantly hoped to stay a half step ahead of the president. The staff quickly learned that RN used the news summaries as a management tool. RN’s annotations in the margins generated memoranda directed to officials throughout the executive branch, memoranda that were monitored by the Staff Secretary to ensure RN got answers.
Captive audience or not, the White House staff regarded the news summaries as a great resource and time saver. Ben Stein, then a lawyer-speechwriter, recalled his view of the news summaries in an email last week:
“The Daily News Summaries were an amazing feat. News and opinion were collected from a wide variety of print and broadcast sources nationwide. They were presented in many pages of typescript, the reading of which made a young speechwriter or any other White house or administration official incredibly well informed. I particularly recall the dry wit with which some of the stories were presented. There was a real human intelligence and sense of humor involved even in the darkest days. To think that these were done in a matter of hours is testament to extreme brilliance, devotion, and mordant wit. They were astonishingly great works of journalism and art.”
From a member of Henry Kissinger’s NSC staff, Kathy Troia (now McFarland), came these reflections:
“The NSC staff was more focused on reading the classified cables and the DOD early bird news summaries. For us the earthquakes were when something that should have stayed in the classified channel ended up in the news summaries. At that point, no summaries would do – we needed to look through the entire article word by word for clues.”
The Washington press corps, however, had suspicions about RN’s exposure to news, skepticism that seemed to peak during the long months of Watergate investigations in 1973 and 1974. Was the president getting the ‘unvarnished’ truth? wondered UPI’s Helen Thomas, a question often echoed by pundits such as the late Peter Lisagor, PBS commentator and columnist for the Chicago Sun Times. It was a curious phenomenon inasmuch as Buchanan and Allin had allowed numerous White House reporters to come into the news summary offices to see how they were prepared, as well as make their own selection of summaries to review, page-by-page. Among those who came through during my time (1972 – ’74) were Aldo Beckman of the Chicago Tribune, Courtney Sheldon of the Christian Science Monitor, Dom Bonafede of the National Journal and perhaps a dozen others. Even syndicated columnist Jack Anderson took several editions of news summaries for detailed review. And Pulitzer Prize winner Theodore White came through in 1972, pausing briefly to look at my stack of papers and ask, “Do you actually read all those?” White was doing his homework for what would be the last book in his series on four presidential elections that began with 1960 and ended with “The Making of the President 1972.”
When the trip to China concluded, each member of the news summary received a unique memento that hangs my wall to this day. It was a photograph of a television screen at the moment Chou En Lai greeted RN on the tarmac in Beijing. It perfectly symbolizes how the news summary staff saw much of RN’s presidency during those years.
RN wasn’t finished, however. Barely two months later he ordered the U.S. Navy to mine North Vietnam’s Haiphong harbor on May 8th, then went to Moscow for a summit 14 days later. The days immediately after the harbor was mined, however, the scheduled summit in Moscow was all but pronounced dead by some of the prominent talking heads of the day. “Surely the Soviets will not stand for this,” CBS’ Eric Sevareid intoned, which White House reporter Dan Rather supported with his view that “this certainly puts any summit in doubt.”
Of course history records that the Moscow summit did indeed take place and resulted in a historic strategic nuclear arms limitation agreement, commonly known as SALT I. I confess I later took advantage of how the two summits of 1972 unfolded. The national press association dropped its usual single-speaker format after the Moscow summit to gather a dozen or so members of the press who had gone to Moscow. Dan Rather was among them. It was only by chance (honestly) that I was an invited guest to have lunch there on that day. And I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I saw that Dan Rather was there to answers questions. The custom at that time was for members and guests to write out a brief question to be read by the moderator to the guest speaker. I took my chances, wrote out my question, and added it to the stack that found it’s way to the front table. I had marked my question for Rather was read by the moderator. By chance, question was picked.
“For Dan Rather,” the moderator began, “ ‘why, after President Nixon trapped Soviet ships in Haiphong Harbor when he ordered it mined on May 8, didn’t the Russians cancel this summit?’ “
“I must admit,” Rather replied, “I really don’t know.” I knew what the answer had to be, but I wasn’t sure Rather could actually bring himself to utter those words. The experience brought a smile on my face that lasted until the end of the year.
All of 1972 was filled with a sense of purpose, mission and high morale. As the campaign season approached, there was an early clue that people around the Oval Office were feeling good. The upbeat mood was signaled when chief of staff H.R. Haldeman approved the entire news summary staff as part of the White House staff contingent to the Republican National Convention in Miami. Although we continued to publish a news summary every day, there was a little time in the mornings to explore. A memorable moment happened when I walked into a virtually empty convention hall – except for a lone figure near the stage. I slowly walked in that direction, but it wasn’t until I was a few feet away that I could identify the man quietly seated on a steel chair. It was Jimmy Stewart. I introduced myself and asked if there was anything I could do for him. “No, I’m fine,” he said calmly in that special voice everyone knows. “I’m just waiting for some technicians to get here for a ‘mike check’.” A real gentleman, a guy next door, a real pro. I couldn’t bring myself to take advantage of this chance encounter with a true giant of the entertainment industry. I thought that those moments of quiet just might be among the few he’ll get.
Miami ended with RN’s expected renomination – and our quick return to Washington. But we took some lasting memories. Some of the senior staff, for example, had been invited for cocktails aboard W. Clement Stone’s yacht. Not unusual, except for the part gift guests received: an oversized bronze coin embossed with Stone’s image. As fun as that must have been, I think the Jimmy Stewart memory is the better of the two.
Back at the White House we knew there would be a lot of work ahead, but the press would quiet down a little while RN took some “down time” either in Key Biscayne or San Clemente. That meant the White House itself was a little more relaxed and offered chances to take friends though the West Wing and places where guided tours simply don’t go – including a long look at the Oval itself.
The next part in this series will be the last. It will be about Watergate, its impact on morale, and what happened to the news summary in the early days of the Ford Administration.