Few news summaries fell below 10 pages. In normal times, a short news summary ran perhaps 15, always single-spaced, and up to as many as 30 to 35 pages – in spite of constant efforts to keep them shorter. Even though some went long, we were reminded that the President actually read them and would use them as a day-to-day management tool, well beyond just keeping himself informed. Pages that carried notations by the President were copied and dispatched to the relevant Cabinet secretaries or agencies by the White House Staff Secretary with a request for a response. Occasionally a note was meant for our office, usually a compliment. Such notes reminded us that we had to get it right every day. Mort Allin explained the work ethic in place when I arrived.
“If you make a mistake because of something I say, I’ll apologize and we’ll move on. If the President makes a mistake because of something we put in his news summary, what will we do?” His eyes made clear there was no good answer to that question. We weren’t going to make a mistake.
Getting all the broadcast network reporters’ stories right was made possible because of the elaborate video taping and two closed circuit channels run by the Army’s White House Signal Corps office. We made heavy use of their instant replay ability for the nightly newscasts from ABC, NBC, CBS networks as well as the weekly shows, including PBS.
But China was different. It was a full day and 13 hours ahead of Washington. When we began to see our network news broadcasts at 5:30 p.m., it was the next day at 4:30 a.m. in Beijing and, presumably, the President was within an hour or so of rising from a night’s sleep.
The more critical element, however, was the sheer technical capacity of communications equipment to handle a steady stream of information from the U.S. to Air Force One to make sure the Old Man had the information he needed. We shared an electronic pipeline with others, so we pared the news summaries down into 3 or 4 page documents to avoid choking the system. We focused on the stories coming out of China or originating here about the trip. The process of dispatching short summaries continued day and night until the presidential party departed China.
Nixon’s grasp of U.S. news broadcasts while standing on Chinese soil didn’t go unnoticed. While in Beijing the President attended a performance of Chinese gymnasts. We watched in Washington, of course, and duly reported in the next mini-news summary that NBC commentator Joe Garagiola had described the performance as “truly outstanding,” along with a few other words of high praise. Nixon mentioned that to a Chinese escort the next day while touring the Great Wall. Standing nearby, paying close attention, was our venerable Barbara Walters, then an NBC regular.
“Mr. President,” Walters implored, ”how do you know what Joe Garagiola said last night – he’s in New York!?”
Nixon didn’t answer. But the temptation I felt to bargain later for a free lunch from Walters in exchange for the answer was enormous.