How the Press Covers Politics: Here’s When It Began to Get More Interesting

51ZG44yZrbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In 1968 Norman Sherman was Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey’s press secretary, and this excerpt from his new book, From Nowhere to Somewhere: My Political Journey, describes a press briefing at the Chicago Hilton Hotel, where the Humphrey for President staff was headquartered during the 1968 Democratic convention. The briefing takes place on the day that Humphrey was nominated for President.
I couldn’t deal with the press in a normal fashion. I couldn’t get from our part of the 15th floor of the Hilton, protected by the Secret Service, to a room fit to hold a press briefing. A place and certain time for a calm presentation, beyond interruption or distraction, were just not possible. I had no choice but to use the space in front of the elevators that opened on three sides, leaving a fairly large area for the press to gather. It was a mob scene of a hundred reporters, maybe more, pushing and shoving one another to get closer. I stood on a low table, part of the elevator-well furniture, with the noise of elevator doors opening and shutting, people coming and going. Questions had to be shouted. It was beyond difficult, a bellowing conversation in the worst of circumstances.

On the day when the convention would vote, I had said my prepared piece and answered serious questions when a final joking question from someone I couldn’t see was shouted out. “If Hubert gets the nomination tonight, will he ask Lyndon to be his vice president?” There was laughter and I responded, “Lyndon Who? And that’s off the record.” There was more and louder laughter.

Then one reporter, a good friend, came out of the crowd and spoke, close to me and quieter. It was the chief Associated Press reporter, Harry Kelley, and he said, “One reporter says he’s going to file the ‘Lyndon who’ answer because you said ‘It’s off the record’ after, not before, you spoke the line.” I said, “Screw it. Who cares? I suppose it was the Toledo Blade guy.” My thinking was why worry about a tiny audience in an insignificant town somewhere in the boonies.

Harry said, “No, it’s my AP colleague, Carl Leubsdorf.” Carl, I learned latter, had been told that nothing was off the record if many reporters heard it. I shrugged and was momentarily troubled that it was going everywhere in the country, but I gave it little thought while I continued chatting with other reporters, answering their questions, anticipating the nomination which was only hours off. Suddenly there was a Secret Service agent at my side. He whispered that there was a call for me in their command post.

With the phone situation as it was, I was not totally surprised that a call should come to them. I was surprised when he said it was “from the Ranch.” I couldn’t remember when I last had a call from the White House and certainly never from Texas.

The Secret Service room was filled with a switchboard and agents, unsmiling and under pressure. I was handed the phone and was delighted to hear a greeting from George Christian, the president’s press secretary, and Lloyd Hackler, his assistant, with whom I had a pleasant if distant relationship. They said they had just read the AP wire and that it had a spelling error—I was identified as the “pees secretary.”

George said, in his Texas drawl, “Nohman, what’s a piss secretary?” For a few minutes, we talked about nothing important. As soon as I hung up, I headed for Humphrey’s suite. When I opened the door, Humphrey was hanging up his jacket in the closet. He wheeled and barked, “Did some son-of-a-bitch just say ‘Who’s Lyndon?’” I brilliantly responded, “You’ve got the right son-of-a-bitch, but the line is ‘Lyndon who?’” I grinned; he did not.

He, too, had just gotten off the phone. Arthur Krim, the head of a major Hollywood studio, a New York moneybag, probably our most effective and important fundraiser and a close friend of Lyndon Johnson, had called. He and the President were together at the Ranch and, like Christian and Hackler, had just seen the wire story. Krim’s message was clear and unambiguous: “If you have people on your staff who are disloyal to the President, I am through raising money for the campaign.” It left Humphrey shaken, Later, when he calmed down, Humphrey said he could hear the President breathing and listening silently on an extension. It was a stumble we didn’t need on the way to the nomination. I probably should have been fired.
Some background from Jack: In 1968 I took a one-year break from journalism and was a Congressional Fellow in Vice President Humphrey’s office. When President Johnson announced in March 1968 that he would not run for re-election, Humphrey became a presidential candidate and I joined Norman Sherman on the campaign trail. He stayed with the Vice President, I stayed with the writing press. (The campaign had three airplanes: one carried the Vice President and some of his staff, a second carried the writing press, and a third, called the “zoo plane,” carried radio and television people.)

Relations between candidates and the press were different in 1968. Campaign reporters stuck pretty close to news as it then was defined, and while there was a lot of kidding around and gossip on the plane and over dinner, almost none of that was reported. Campaign reporting was almost all who, what, where, and when, with not a lot of why or how. Most of what happened and what was said behind the scenes seemed either off the record or was not thought of as journalism.

That attitude probably shaped Norman Sherman’s thinking that he could joke about President Johnson at a 1968 press briefing and it would stay off the record. The reporting by the AP of the “Lyndon Who?” line was an early indication that relations between politicians and the press were changing. After the 1968 presidential election, won by Republican Richard Nixon, Joe McGinniss wrote a best-selling book, The Selling of the President, about life inside the Nixon campaign. That was followed four years later by Timothy Crouse’s book, The Boys on the Bus, about how journalists worked and behaved on the 1972 campaign trail.

And then came the lure of appearing on television and giving speeches. The ink-stained journalists of 1968, people like Jack Germond, Charlie McDowell, Jack Nelson, and Johnny Apple, soon were making a lot more money appearing on television and giving speeches than they did in their newspaper reporting jobs. And increasingly very little was off the record.
For more on how television and money changed journalism, see this post about Henry Fairlie’s 1983 Washingtonian story, “How Journalists Get Rich.”

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