The ‘Best’ Part of a News Summary
Newspaper readers have their favorite sections. Everyone sees the headlines, but readers scatter after that: some to the comics, others to sports and still others straight to the obituaries and the weather.
RN’s news summaries, however, offered a section unlike any other publication. It was the stand-alone page at the back that listed each story broadcast by the television networks and the amount of time allocated — to the minute and second. That time log served both as an “index” of stories as well as a measure of the importance the networks attached to each story. It was important for the White House to know what the networks thought was important because that was a key to public perception. The time log also compensated for a difference between print journalism and broadcast. Newspaper readers immediately see the importance assigned to a story by placement, headlines, and column inches. By contrast, the currency for broadcasters is time and story order. Time allocated to stories was also an indirect indicator of potential bias, though hardly conclusive by itself. Future researchers might find a number of uses for those time sheets. At a minimum they are quick reference to the stories of each day.
A complaint sometimes heard from journalists about news summaries was how the truncated style made them difficult to read, i.e., extensive use of abbreviations and a conscious decision to never tell the president what he already knew (e.g., “RN gave a speech on the economy today … “) or to repeat each newspaper or broadcaster’s introduction to each story. What was included was whatever was unique to each broadcast or print publication, i.e., how each characterized RN’s speech, from both anchors and reporters. Reactions from major political stakeholders were always included. The format and writing style would treat a hypothetical RN speech on the economy like this:
RN speech on the economy led
nets and front pages of most dailies.
ABC anchor Smith led into Jarriel’s
report from the WH by calling it
“a bold move.” NBC’s Chancellor called it
“a plan sure to invite criticism from Democrats”
as he went to Brokaw at the WH. At CBS,
Cronkite said it could be “an exercise in
futility,” an opinion promptly shared by Rather
in a standup from the North Lawn.
A primary goal was to make sure we got the quotes and attributions right.
Another characteristic new readers noticed was how senior administration officials were identified only by initials. The President was always RN, of course, Haldeman was HRH, Ehrlichman was JDE, Buchanan was PJB and Henry Kissinger was HAK. The most prominent person in the White House who was never initialized was the First Lady. Other significant White House personnel were usually referred by last name.
Building a House
News summaries were constructed like a new house, from the ground up. The foundation and “framing” were made up of AP and UPI wire copy put on an oversized work table, sorted by topic. In the late afternoon, editor Mort Allin took the stacks and sorted them into a sequence that he expected the television networks would follow (he was usually right). He stapled AP and UPI wire copy to sheets of yellow legal size paper, while striking out repetitive lines and words. Arrows indicated where the network summaries would be inserted. To confirm accuracy, the White House Communications Agency replayed requested reports over one of two closed-circuit television channels. As writers finished network summaries, Allin’s black pen (sometimes helped by scissors) integrated all the copy. The end result was a scary stack of marked up wire copy and TV summaries, patched together with staples, scotch tape and lots of marker pen arrows to lead the typists to the right place. From an artistic perspective, it was ugly. When someone once told Allin that artist Jackson Pollock would be right at home, Allin continued to work as he said, “I hear he’s a revered artist.”
A squad of typists worked late into the night and miraculously converted all of it into sensible typewritten copy. A game score might be added at the last minute to serve RN’s strong interest in sports. Once corrections were made, RN’s copy was placed in a blue binder sometime after midnight and delivered to a security guard in the West Wing.
The 1972 Reelection – then Watergate
Around sunset on election night Marine One landed on the South Lawn. RN had arrived a few hours before polls would close in the East. I was part of a group of staffers who formed a greeting line at the entrance to the Diplomatic Reception Room. To say we were excited would be an understatement. We were about to witness a landslide reelection. As RN came under the canopy I said, “We’ve got it, sir.” With a measured smile he said, “We’ll see.” I’m sure there was a trace of doubt in his voice.
But it was a landslide. RN captured more than 47 million votes to George McGovern’s 29.1 million, a difference of nearly 18 million. Morale soared and all hands were ready to pursue second term goals.
That was 38 years ago. Then Watergate became more prominent, sometimes dominant in the news; it seemed to have no end. When researchers read news summaries from that time they will find that we faithfully recorded all the Watergate news and harsh editorial criticisms aimed at RN, including special reviews of headlines and editorials from newspapers across the U.S. As I watched and listened to colleagues, staff morale seemed to erode in slow motion. The purpose and energy I found at the White House in January 1972 was dissipating against a backdrop of investigations, firings and resignations.
One morning in 1973 I learned that Pat Buchanan didn’t get along well with machinery. He came into the office carrying a sheet of paper, turned upside down. He quietly handed it to me and asked if I would copy it for him. “Don’t read it, just bring it back to me,” he added. I have wondered from time to time if I would not have read it if he’d never told me not to read it. But the truth is I couldn’t determine if the copy was readable if I didn’t look at it. So I looked. It was a memo to Ehrlichman that was so short that I grasped the 3 or 4 lines in one glance. Buchanan wrote that he wouldn’t join a group to plan a Watergate strategy. “I believe this would be a waste of my time,” he wrote. I was amazed. “Wow,” I said aloud. It was “wow” because not many people could get away with a blunt “no” to Ehrlichman – and keep their job. Buchanan kept his job, but doesn’t recall it as a memo to Ehrlichman, but Haldeman.
Presumably the memo is in Buchanan’s papers scheduled to arrived in Yorba Linda this year.
Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned in April 1973. Archibald Cox was appointed a special prosecutor in May. And the Senate created a select committee on May 17 to investigate Watergate, the committee chaired by the colorful (and late) Sen. Sam Ervin (D.NC.). I made very few diary entries in those days, but that day was also my 30th birthday. My only entry was, “How long will this go on?”
Summers in Washington are hot and humid. The intensity of the Watergate stories grew during the summers of ’73 and ’74, often making those summers as miserable indoors as out. The mounting tension and emergence of Watergate as the dominant news week after week took a toll. One morning in May our secretary and I were alone when she suddenly slumped down into her chair and quietly wept. I put the AP wire down and sat next to her.
“Why are they doing this to him?” she asked. “When will this ever stop?”
I had no good answer. She pulled herself together and struggled through the day. A few minutes later I walked into Buchanan’s office with pretty much the same question.
“Is there no end to this, Pat?” He was as frustrated as anyone else. “What would you have me do?” he asked rhetorically. No one had answers.
The Last Days
The Senate Watergate Committee issued its final report in June 1974. The House Judiciary Committee voted three Articles of Impeachment in July and RN announced his resignation in a television broadcast on the night of August 8, 1974. Mort Allin, arguably one of the most dedicated and loyal members of RN’s staff, strode out of our offices and into the West Wing where he tracked down a gaggle of reporters (Peter Lisagor among them) clustered in a rear area of the press briefing room. Allin flipped a #2 pencil end-over-end at them, yelling, “Okay you bastards you finally got what you wanted. I hope you’re happy.” Allin returned to the office, grabbed a few things, then drove through the night to his family home in Wisconsin. He never returned to work at the White House, but had a great career at USIA including diplomatic posts in Lagos, Nigeria and Moscow.
With Allin gone, there would be no news summary the next morning, so I made the 20 minute walk to my Q St. apartment, fell into bed exhausted and numb from the trauma of witnessing the fall of a president. But there would be little sleep. At 2:00 a.m. the phone rang with the unmistakable voice of Diane Sawyer [now ABC News anchor], then an assistant to Press Secretary Ron Ziegler. Could I return to the office and prepare “just one more news summary for the President to take on the flight to San Clemente?” she asked. Of course I could. It’s amazing where energy comes from when asked to do something for the president. It was like magic, but I was definitely puzzled that RN would even want a news summary, given all that he had been endured. Perhaps it was just Sawyer who wanted to have a touch of normalcy for RN. I reminded her that the news summary was now a one-man office, but I would do as much as I could. The task was complicated because the networks dropped normal broadcast schedules for live news coverage virtually all day. There would be no obvious starting point. I’ve long forgotten what went into that last summary. I believe my review was limited to ABC and NBC (no CBS). I had to stop by 7:00 a.m. to allow time for the typists to prepare it and get it to the West Wing.
Later that morning, I sat in a chair in the East Room where the staff assembled to hear RN’s farewell. The emotional distress was palpable. I think I saw a tear or two on RN’s face; we all cried inside. It’s a memory I cannot forget. I was too exhausted to go the South Lawn to see RN and family board Marine 1 for the last time. I should have made myself do it.
A unexpected touch of irony came that morning from The Washington Post, one of two papers RN always read for himself. The irony was that the paper’s main account of the resignation was not written by Woodward or Bernstein, but by Carroll Kilpatrick with this lead:
“After two years of bitter public debate over the Watergate scandals, President Nixon bowed to pressures from the public and leaders of his party to become the first President in American history to resign.” Caroll Kilpatrick in the Washington Post, Aug. 9, 1974