Politics & Policy

An Ex-Flack Looks At Reagan and The Adversary Press

A proposed strategy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the April 2, 1982, issue of National Review.

It was your standard trendy Washington reception, the festive opening of the American Broadcasting Company’s new headquarters in the nation’s capital, and, much to the delight of the network brass, Ronald Reagan found time to drop by for a presidential blessing. He had made his little speech, shaken hands, and was headed toward the door, when the inevitable occurred:

”Mr. President!”

Strident, insistent…who else but Sam Donaldson, ABC’s chief White House correspondent? Remember those first moments of the Reagan revolution? As the newly sworn President walked down the ramp following his Inaugural Address, there was Sam, bellowing that question about the release of the hostages in Iran. Vintage Donaldson, letting the new man know that, revolution or now revolution, some things weren’t going to change. But that was history, and on this particular festive occasion what same wanted, instanter, was the inside word on David Stockman’s future in the Reagan Administration.

To be sure, Sam’s imperative tone notwithstanding, the President had an option. He could have kept on walking and been none the worse for it in terms of his image. But, being Ronald Reagan, he stopped in his tracks, half turned, smiled, and proceeded to frame a reply: Well, he said–as quiche and crepes hit the floor, notebooks popped out, and recorders were activated–well, he had met with Dave a little while ago and there would be a definite announcement later that afternoon. Another reporter was halfway through a second question before the President’s hosts, much to the relief of his staff, hustled him toward the exit.

Sorry about that, said one ABC executive, fuming over his man Donaldson’s having turned a courtesy call into a mini news conference. Oh, that’s all right, replied the President: “Sam,” grinned Ronald Reagan, “is just irrepressible.”

I don’t care what they say. I like Sam Donaldson. Honestly. We go back a long way, Sam and I, to the Goldwater campaign of 1964, when I was a young flack hustling press buses for my first national candidate, and Sam, then working for CBS’s Washington television affiliate, was covering his first presidential race.

Do I remember what Sam Donaldson was really like, before he became transmogrified into an evening news superstar? Of course. How could I forget? When we first met, opening day of the campaign at Prescott, Arizona, there were only two unabashed Goldwater supporters in our traveling press party. Lyn Nofziger, then covering for Copley, was one; Sam was the other.

He was offbeat, you see, right from the start: a rambunctious news hawk not about to be intimidated by any rule-makers, least of all the doyens of the national media who set the tone and rhythm for coverage of our presidential campaigns. Offbeat, rambunctious, and yet, having said all that, I would never have guessed–not in a million news cycles–that my friend Sam would one day emerge from the pack as master of a new school of political reportage: the ultimate Ego Journalist.

Remarks of the President on the occasion of Mother Teresa’s departure from the White House, June 4, 1981:

Helen Thomas (UPI): How was your visit, Mr. President?

The President: Just wonderful. You can’t be in the presence of someone like that without feeling better about the world.

Sam Donaldson (ABC): What do you think about the tax plan?

In the New Beginning, January 1981, there was much furrowed-browed thought given the need to develop fresh formats for the President’s sessions with the White House press corps. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs even issued a “Report on Presidential Press Conferences,” replete with observations, recommendations, and helpful hints, e.g.:

The manner in which presidential press conferences are presently conducted on live television–with reporters jumping up, waving their hands and shouting, “Mr. President,” in an effort to gain the President’s eye and the opportunity to ask a question–is what many viewers (and participants) find appalling. The easiest remedy for this requires little more than an exercise in presidential leadership. The President could enforce order by refusing to acknowledge or answer any reporter who shouts. He answers only those who raise their hands, and allows follow-up questions.

Little more than an exercise in presidential leadership? The easiest remedy? How ingenuous these academics. It is one thing, understand, for Ronald Reagan, like no Chief Executive in decades, to assert his mastery over Congress. But “Tip” O’Neill and his colleagues are as mere sheep to be led to a fleecing compared to Sam Donaldson’s branch of government. Thus, though the Miller Center did persuade the President to insist on a degree of decorum during his formal news conferences, it failed utterly to deal with those techniques of jumping, waving, and shouting reportage developed by the White House press corps during the Ford-Carter years, i.e., the news conference al fresco, held on the South Lawn two to four times weekly, and its kindred forum, the movable media feast, held any time or place that members of the corps come within twenty feet–make that fifty–of ever-affable, ever-available Ronald Reagan.

“If you get the question within earshot,” one of Sam’s print colleagues counseled a newcomer to the Reagan press entourage during the 1980 campaign, “he’ll answer it, because he’s a decent guy.”

Indeed, he would as a candidate, though it sometimes hurt his cause; indeed, he will as President, though it often results in news segments better suited to the media’s than the country’s needs.

“If we just let him go his own way, we’ll have a perpetual press conference,” Lyn Nofziger explained, after being faulted during the campaign for what many (including some critics within the Reagan camp) perceived as heavy-handed dealings with reporters trying to catch his candidate in an unguarded moment.

But, alas–or, if you happen to be a member of Sam Donaldson’s school, rejoice–Lyn’s heavy hand has long since been lifted, his critics having won the day. After all, we wouldn’t want to go back to the Nixon Stonewall Age, would we? Of course not. Decency, in the end, prevailed.

Next question.

Remarks of the President while ambulating toward his helicopter in riding jodhpurs, July 22, 1981:

Reporter No. 1: Any good news from the Middle East?

The President (walking and smiling): Huh?

Reporter No. 1 (bellowing): Any good news from the Middle East?

The President (bellowing back): Oh, you guys know by now that I’m the most patient fellow in the world.

Reporter No. 2 (in duet with helicopter blades): Are there any limits to your patience with Mr. Begin?

My, my, what fun and games. And if the President, not quite hearing the question correctly, had shouted back a “Yes” or a “No,” what a titillating lead that might have made on the evening news. Forget the White House staff clarification that would have followed: sufficient to the deadline is the news thereof. Forget, too, whatever impact the President’s errant reply might have had on the Habib mission and U.S. peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East. That, Buster, is neither the job nor the responsibility of the working press, and to argue otherwise is to suggest–with chilling effect–that there might have been some higher calling for the White House press corps than servicing their home bureaus, every hour on the hour.

Are there any limits to your patience with Mr. Begin? Or how about this one, put up for grabs not long after: Do you agree with General Schweitzer’s assessment of a drift toward war with the Soviet Union?

In both these cases, fortunately, Ronald Reagan, while taking the bait, avoided the hook. Yet, against the day when he, and we, might not be so lucky, let’s step back a few paces to examine, in the manner of the Miller Center, exactly what goes on here.

For the record, these come-as-you-are presidential television appearances–informal sportswear when he takes his South Lawn walks to and from the chopper; business suit when being queried, to the great confusion of foreign guests about domestic affairs–are in fact scheduled as mere photo opportunities. Now, the ground rule for presidential photo opportunities has long been understood, and in former years accepted, by the White House press corps: TV cameramen and still photographers are given access to ceremonial events, e.g., bill signings, meetings with dignitaries, as well as the President’s entering/leaving the White House or other site. A reporter pool can observe the proceedings, but only for note-taking purposes.

That, at least, was the rule until the coming of genial Jerry Ford, whose congenital incapacity to look a reporter in the eye and say, “No comment,” led to such outlandish spectacles as the leader of the Free World gallumphing down a California tarmac during the final hours of the Vietnam War, in order to avoid questions from a press corps in hilarious pursuit. Then came Jimmy Carter, whose personal dislike of the White House press corps was accompanied, with typical Cartersian consistency, by an unwillingness to enforce any rule that might incur its displeasure.

Two pliant, image-obsessed Presidents in a row: small wonder that during this period, 1974-1980, Ego Journalism came into its own, and the presidential news conference took on the Animal House ambiance deplored by the Miller Center.

Clearly, Ronald Reagan’s decency aside, any President who took office January 1981 was going to have his hands full exercising leadership in the White House press domain. Not only would there be the standard complaints that go with the territory–charges of news management, outcries about credibility gaps–but any attempt to curb the excesses of the Ford-Carter years, when the West Wing leaked like a sieve, would be trotted out as evidence that the new Administration, Watergate-like, was bent on obstructing the people’s right to know. To know what? Why, whatever members of the corps deemed important to the national (not to mention their career) agenda.

Thus, by press corps lights, it is now an implied right under the First Amendment that a President and his staff not only be forthcoming on demand, but that the White House also be sensitive to the show-business requirements of modern journalism. For this reason, the Miller Center’s recommendation that questioners at formal presidential news conferences be chosen by lot was put into effect on ly once, then abandoned, following protests by network correspondents. Their complaint? Not that there was anything wrong with the questions submitted under the lottery system, but that Sam, Lesley, Judy did not ask them, and consequently not on camera reinforcing–for the benefit of employers, sponsors, and fan clubs–their certified status as six-figure-per-annum media superstars.

Tom Brokaw, on the happy coincidence of Britain’s summer riots and network coverage of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana: “I think it’s going to make a far better assignment for all of us. I don’t wish ill to the British people, and I certainly don’t want them to burn down towns for our sake. But there has been a lot of ferment there for some time and it just happens to be breaking out now.”

Judy Woodruff, on the existential meaning of “adversary press”: “The White House staff wants order, predictability, no surprises. That makes it easier to make a President look good. But the press yearns for a little confusion, disorder, surprise–even a healthy shock once in a while. The unexpected is news, the expected is not.”

Are you listening, RR? Keep in mind, they don’t wish ill to the American people, and they certainly don’t want us to burn down towns for their sake; but a little confusion, disorder, surprise, a healthy shock once in a while–is that so much to ask on behalf of a free, yearning press?

True, your constitutional duty, among other things, is to “ensure domestic tranquility.” But let’s be fair. My friend Sam, along with his colleagues at ABC, NBC, CBS, the Post, the Times, The Atlantic, aren’t going to rack up any Nielsen numbers or draw down any Pulitzers phoning in, “All’s tranquil on the West Wing front.”

No, if there isn’t any “ferment…breaking out,” well, then, the enterprising Ego Journalist knows a few chemical shortcuts through “informed White House sources” and “high-level government officials.” Understand, it’s nothing personal, RR–nor even, as many of us once believed, ideological. Trendy leftism may well be the prevailing wind that blows through your White House press room, but as no less a media favorite than Ted Kennedy discovered in 1980, Ego Journalism cuts all ways. It is amoral, cynical, nihilistic–up to a point. Take the word of an ex-political flack who jockeyed press buses when Sam Donaldson was an embryo seeker after confusion, disorder, surprise; or better still, those of a prescient observer who years ago foresaw the problems your Administration would have coping with an irrepressible press:

Complete publicity makes it absolutely impossible to govern. No one has understood that better than the daily press; for no power has watched more carefully over the secret of its whole organization, who its contributors are, and its real aims, etc., as the daily press, which then continually cries out that the government should be quite public. Quite right; the intention of the press was to do away with government–and then itself govern….

All right, three guesses: was that a) Spiro Agnew at Des Moines, b) the Miller Center, c) Lyn Nofziger? Wrong, wrong, wrong. It was–they’ll have to unleash Morley Safer on this bird for the full 60 Minutes treatment–none other than that old fascist, Soren Kierkegaard.

Funny. I don’t recall that he was even middle echelon during the Nixon Dark Age.

To the point, RR–much as I hate to sound like one of those patronizing Times editorialists, or Bill Moyers in full cry–I’m afraid you don’t quite grasp the extent of the modern media’s challenge to all governing establishments save its own. In your eternally optimistic way, you still hope to plug the leakage of Administration affairs that plagued your predecessors Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter, to put the horse of orderly governance before the media cart of “complete publicity.” But to do that, it’s necessary that, one way or another, you persuade those who make up your Administration that the boys and girls on the White House press bus are precisely what they claim to be–adversaries. Not friendly folk for sharing inner-office gossip with over the phone or, in the case of your indiscreet OM Director, over bacon, eggs, coffee, and a live tape recorder.

Yet consider, if you will, the real question to be asked about the Stockman episode, apart from the one that interested my friend Sam. Was it simply a matter of Ego Journalist meeting Ego Politician–further proof, if any were needed, that the passion for anonymity once prized in White House aides has given way to a passion for celebrity? Perhaps. But beyond that, might it not be argued that David Stockman–along with other indiscreet Administration spokesmen in the first year of the Reagan revolution–was merely responding to the signal given by a President who casually chats up affairs of state with his “friends” in the press, anytime they can “get the question within earshot”?

Just a thought, RR, from an ex-flack. Mull it over, next time you approach the portal to the South Lawn. And believe me, it’s not that I’m anti-decency or a chronic First Amendment-chiller. As I say, I like Sam Donaldson. For that matter, Brokaw, Woodruff, Stahl, Greider aren’t really bad sorts. It’s simply that, where our country’s foreign and domestic tranquility are concerned, I can’t say I much like their penchant for healthy shocks.


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