Reporters at Work: When Is It Off the Record?

By Norman Sherman

In 1968 Chicago was in chaos. We had hoped to move the Democratic convention to Miami. Fritz Mondale, who had replace Vice President Humphrey in the Senate, called Mayor Richard Daley to ask for the move and Daley snidely said of the demonstrators, “I’ll give them every courtesy.”

Early in the convention there was a lot of noise from the police riot in the streets. I stood with Humphrey while he raised his hotel room window and we looked out on the incredible scene below—cops beating on the protestors, arms swinging, people falling. The smell of tear gas drifted up and Humphrey shook his head in disbelief. I think he felt that any chance for winning was disappearing.

Inside the Conrad Hilton crowds of delegates and some protestors mingled in the lobbies, hallways, and elevators. Pushing and shoving took the place of discourse. My job as the Vice President’s press secretary was to inform and to show a calm demeanor, and it was in that spirit that I began the day’s press briefing. Here is how I remember it:

It was the afternoon of the day in August 1968 when Humphrey was going to be nominated for President. As his press secretary, I was standing on a low coffee table on our 15th floor of the Hilton where a large number of press was jammed together in every available foot of space.

My press briefing took place there because I couldn’t get through the crowd, pickets, and delegates to a press room downstairs in a timely fashion, nor could the press. At best, the hotel was a chaotic environment; at its worst, a threatening one.

I briefly explained what we were doing that day and took questions. As I finished, a voice came from the back asking, “If Hubert gets the nomination tonight will he take Lyndon as his Vice President?” There was laughter and I said, “Lyndon who—and that’s off the record.”

When that laughter died down, the press crowded on elevators, racing away to file their stories.  Harry Kelly of the AP came up to me and said there was one guy who was filing my response because I said it was off the record after I said what I said.

I asked him if it was the Toledo Blade, figuring it had to be a small paper that hadn’t been out on the campaign trail with us.  “No,” said Harry, “it’s Carl Leubsdorf.” Carl was another AP reporter.

About two minutes later a Secret Service agent came up and said there was a call for me in their control room from the Texas White House. Because the phone company union was on strike, regular phone service was out. When I picked up the phone. both George Christian, and Loyd Hackler, Johnson’s press secretary and his assistant, greeted me. Then George said, “Norman who?”

We laughed, said goodbye, and I went down the hall to the suite where Vice President Humphrey was. I opened the door and he was hanging up a jacket in a closet. He wheeled and with his face contorted asked, “Did some son-of-a bitch say “Who’s Lyndon?”

I said, “You’ve got the right son-of-a bitch but the wrong line.”

He blew up. When he calmed down, he said that he’d  gotten a call from the Texas White House and Arthur Krim, our main fundraiser and a friend of the President, said that he would raise no money for HHH if he had my kind of person on his staff. Humphrey said he could hear Johnson breathing in the background or maybe on another phone.

I never spoke to Carl about what I considered an unprofessional moment, taking what was clearly meant as a joke and making a national story out of it.  I decided, with all that was going on in Chicago, that nothing useful was served by a confrontation. I had made the mistake of impertinence and had to live with it.

Norman Sherman was a volunteer for Humphrey in 1954 and worked for Eugene McCarthy in 1956. He then worked for Humphrey in 1959-60 when HHH ran against John Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination. He moved from Minnesota to Washington after the 1962 election to work for House member Don Fraser and rejoined the Humphrey staff in February 1963, working for Humphrey through the Vice Presidential years, the last three years as press secretary. He then edited Humphrey’s autobiography.


  1. I am a big fan of Norman Sherman. I love his recall about his life stories.. and I also love birding with the Shermans..

  2. Jack Limpert says

    If Vice President Humphrey had beaten Richard Nixon in 1968, Norman would have been the most quotable White House press secretary in our lifetime.

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