- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

I have always felt close to presidents. I was born in the front bedroom at 404 B Street N.E., Aug. 2, 1923, which was the day President Warren Harding died.

The East Front of the Capitol, where presidents were then sworn in, was five blocks away. I was there when Calvin Coolidge took his second oath in 1925 and when Herbert Hoover, the Great Engineer, took his first and only one in 1928, I was perched on my father’s shoulder, watching in the rain. Poor Hoover, plump and solemn, with a high stiff collar and a beautiful wife, was popular then but not for very long.

I was standing on my own two feet and paying full attention when Franklin Delano Roosevelt told us in 1932 that we had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Roosevelt fireside-chatted with the nation over the radio, his audience as big as Amos and Andy’s. But we were special. Washington was a small Southern city, surrounded by market farmers and squirrels, and we on Capitol Hill felt FDR was our neighbor. On summer afternoons he would ride past our house on the way to his camp, Shangri-La in Maryland, in an open car, escorted by two cops on motorcycles, waving to anyone who happened to be on the sidewalk.

He was a neighbor who didn’t even pull his shades down.

Once when my folks and I rode north on Executive Avenue, the street that then ran past the west side of the White House, I saw him through the window talking to someone I couldn’t see.

I was 16 in 1939, when he was winding up his second term and I was a copy boy at The Post, making $14 a week with a street-car pass, running copy inside the sports department and outside, advertising copy from Whelan’s corset shop and from Lewis and Thomas Saltz’s haberdashery on F Street.

I joined the Navy in 1942, and went to sea for a couple of years and then to college. I graduated in 1947 and I ran an ad in Editor and Publisher announcing my availability and got an offer, my only one, from the Baton Rouge State Times. In a couple of years I graduated to the New Orleans Item, married Marguerite, an ex-copy girl who had become a teenage gossip columnist, and moved to Washington and got a job at the Washington Daily News, covering the White House, a beat slow-paced and relaxed. Merriman Smith, of United Press, the senior newsman, who ended the presidential press conferences by saying ‘Thank you, Mr. President’ would, on his daily arrival, belly flop across the big Philippine mahogany table.

President Eisenhower’s conferences were all business, and when trivial questions were asked he looked he annoyed.

Chalmers Roberts, of The Washington Post, asked involved questions that began, “Would you agree?” and Eisenhower nodded and Roberts went back to The Post and wrote involved stories that began, “President Eisenhower believes… .”

Half a dozen New York Times’ reporters arrived for the weekly conferences wearing three-piece suits, and left two by two, following Scotty Reston, the bureau chief, across Lafayette Square.

President Kennedy and TV arrived simultaneously, and everything changed. The press conference was crowded and all the reporters became performers and some became prima donnas but Kennedy was the charming, witty unchallenged star. When I was instructed by Dick Hollander, the News’ managing editor, to ask a trivial question, if he would endorse the News’ editorial suggestion that schoolchildren have a holiday when the first astronaut came to town, he grinned and said, “I always try to follow the News’ suggestions.”

Pierre Salinger, the press secretary, an ex-reporter, simple but not pure, rationed the news. In the future he would peddle his Kennedy connections but with limited success. He ran for the Senate and lost, pretended to be a reporter in France and became a front man for a make-believe patriotic foundation that extracted $40 each from dutiful daughters of World War II vets, promising to engrave their fathers’ names on a monument in Normandy. The monument was never built.

But Kennedy was our darling and our reports took a favorable slant that would grow to the unabashed slanted reporting in the decades to come.

I would become disillusioned with the media but I continue to be fascinated by the presidents, particularly Harry Truman, one of the very best, and Richard Nixon, who would acquire many enemies but remained his own worst enemy.

When Truman came to town he stayed at the Mayflower and I would accompany him on his morning walks up and down Connecticut Avenue, and listen to him tell tales about public figures he admired, Gen. George Marshall and Dean Atcheson, and ones he didn’t admire, Eisenhower and Sen. Joe McCarthy.

I was standing in front McCarthy’s house on Third and A N.E., one spring night, waiting for the senator to die, which he did shortly before midnight.

I remembered that Truman was due and walked over to the Union Station to tell him the news. He got off the train, carrying his own suitcase, and as we were walking through the all but empty building we meet a young man and his wife and their infant child and the parents stopped short, amazed to see an ex-president, carrying his own suitcase. Truman asked about their boy and their lives. He was in no hurry and listened to their hopes and plans until they then went on to catch their train. It was Truman at his most revealing best. He was interested in the lives of ordinary people, being one himself.

We walked to the cab stand and I said good night. It occurred to me that I should have offered to carry the suitcase but not to write a story about the incident. Back then we didn’t write about the off-stage behavior of presidents. Truman hadn’t wanted to be a president, which was rare and wise. Those who aspire to the job, some from childhood, lose their independence and sometimes their integrity. Truman never played a role. He was loyal, candid and truthful. When he left office he declined to take the perks offered, such as handsomely paid seats on corporation boards. He was smart, scholarly and well read though he had never been to college.

My other obsession, Richard Nixon, was more misfit than villain, smart, good to his mother and enormously ambitious. He wanted to charm as Kennedy charmed but he was not charming. He was politically tone deaf. He believed the press had it in for him and he was right about that. He noted in one farewell that the press would no longer have him to kick around and he was wrong about that.

Tom Kelly wrote for a number of newspapers in a career spanning 60 years.


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