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Ambassador Erect

Annenberg: A Biography of Power

by Gaeton Fonzi
Weybright and Talley, 246 pp., $7.95

Shortly after Richard Nixon was chosen to bring us together, he announced that he would write each of the many thousands of Americans listed in Who’s Who a letter requesting guidance. Although everyone would get the same letter, Nixon did want to make one thing very clear: he himself would add a personal postscript complimenting the recipient for his particular contribution to the American imperium. On tender hooks, as the late Alfalfa Bill Murray would say, I waited for my letter. What word of praise would Nixon have for the author of The Best Man? The suspense was exquisite. At last the letter arrived. Office of the President-Elect (a nostalgic moment as I recalled 1960’s joke: the President-Erect) Richard M. Nixon, Washington D. C. was the heading. Under this my name and address; then nothing until the bold signature Richard Nixon. Thus did the wittiest administration in American history begin.

Now, a year later, it is plain to almost everyone that Nixon’s sense of fun is the most remarkable thing about him, even more appealing than his ability to hear what the silent say (a typical Nixon joke, incidentally, quite lost on ponderous liberals). If he has not yet made America (love it or leave it) one great Laugh-in, the fault’s not his but ours as Max Lerner might put it. He has done his best. From the unveiling on television’s prime time of Spiro Agnew (our very own Greek Colonel) to the running commentaries of Martha and John Mitchell (the Allen and Burns of the Nixon Network), he has proved a master entrepreneur as well as source of a thousand jokes, many too subtle for the solemn race history requires him to preside over.

For instance, hardly anyone suspected that something funny was up when Nixon appointed Walter Annenberg as ambassador to England. Yet any student of Nixon mischief ought to have known that he would somehow manage to apple-pie the bed of Harold Wilson’s Socialist government which had sent as ambassador to Washington (in anticipation of a Humphrey administration), one John Freeman, former New Statesman editor who had written unkindly of Nixon in 1960. That’s just the sort of thing Dick remembers as he surveys those crises which make up his past with an eye to fixing any wagon that ever ran over him: but with sly rather than vindictive wit; with the boffo laugh, not the mean curse.

Before Annenberg was appointed, treasurers of Nixon wit were making up lists of possible ambassadors. Dean Acheson? His bland dismissals of postwar England were a high qualification. Claire Boothe Luce? Always good for a wisecrack. H. L. Hunt? This was my choice. A distinguished anti-Commie, he carries his lunch about with him in a used brown paper bag. But then came the news: Walter Annenberg had been inked.

Nothing was known of Annenberg except that he published a couple of bad newspapers in Philadelphia (no great laughing matter) and his father Mo had gone to the clink in the Thirties for tax evasion (an event which forced my right-wing Washington family to overcome their anti-Semitism long enough to acknowledge that, Jew or not, Mo was busted because he had the guts to stand up to the anti-Christ FDR). But one prison sentence does not a Nixon joke make. There had to be more to Annenberg than his father’s ill luck. Yet a first look at him revealed nothing remarkable (that is to say risible). Very rich. Powerful in Pennsylvania politics. Gave a lot of money to Nixon’s campaign (how much is a mystery). Was a friend to Dick in the dark days. All in all, a perfectly unqualified appointee on the order of the late Joe Kennedy. Could it be that Funny Dick had let us down?

Two months later when Annenberg presented his credentials to the Queen of England the world realized that Nixon had done it again: he had, very simply, launched the most brilliant clown since the late Bert Lahr. But as every impresario knows, it is not enough to book a clown into a palace; infinite care must be taken to show the comic at his best. Although Nixon is not known to have initiated the BBC’s coverage of Annenberg’s meeting with the Queen, I am sure that the CIA had a hand in it. The performances were much too outrageous for the BBC; the comedy too carefully polished.

Annenberg appears at palace and forgets to remove a funny hat; footmen force him to (early Chaplin this); then he is briefed on how to begin the long march to the throne. “We start,” he is told sternly, “with our left foot.” Starting with the right foot, he approaches the Queen. With that graciousness for which she is insufficiently paid, Britannic Majesty asks if he is living at the embassy. Little does she know she is playing straight to a Nixon joke. Like many Americans who inherit money and evade school, Annenberg has not an easy way with the President’s much less the Queen’s English (Nixon must have auditioned Annenberg a dozen times before he signed him up). At first startled by the difficulty of the question, Annenberg gives a great Bert Lahr Uhhh. Then, laboriously, he constructs the following answer (like all great acts, this one improves with each airing): “We’re in the embassy residence, subject, of course, to some of the discomfiture as a result of a need for, uh, elements of refurbishing and rehabilitation.” Then a perfectly timed reaction shot of the Queen looking as if a cigar has just exploded in her face. Back in Washington Dick must have been on the floor as he watched her try to maneuver her way out of that one.

Untoppable as the premier seg was, Annenberg followed up almost immediately with a speech to the Pilgrims (a group of Americanophile English). In Eddie Mayhoff fashion, he attacked American students as revolutionaries while praising his friend Ronald Reagan for magisterial restraint. The British were overwhelmed. Nixon had more than paid Wilson back for the appointment of Freeman to Washington, paid him in full with funny money.

But enough of what everyone knows. What is the real Walter Annenberg like? The face behind the successful clown’s mask? Like Chaplin, Lahr, Keaton, there must be heartache, a suppurating wound to go with that comic bow. Just as curiosity seemed never to be satisfied, Mr. Gaeton Fonzi offers us Annenberg: A Biography of Power, a book which Morris Ernst believes “should be read by everyone interested in the First Amendment. Very few authors have the temerity to comment on the giants of the mass media.” Senior editor of Philadelphia Magazine, Mr. Fonzi spent two years raking Philadelphia’s muck in order to set in proper context what I take to be the late William Claude Dukinfield’s spiritual heir, a true Allegheny carbon in the rough. The result is a devastating account of the misuse of media for private and vindictive ends, as well as a fascinating exposé of the relationship between big money and big politics, a familiar corruption no less disturbing for being, once again, documented.

Mr. Fonzi’s study is in two parts. The first is devoted to Mo, founder of the publishing dynasty; the second to Walter’s expansion of the business in order to achieve that high respectability his father too had dreamed of but lost when the Feds caught up with him.

Shortly after his release from prison in 1942, Mo died, leaving Walter controlling interest in Triangle Publications Inc. which owned Philadelphia’s Inquirer and Daily News. Ownership of these two newspapers made Walter, automatically, a power in the land; in fact, they proved to be the making of the Ambassador. Once made, he no longer needed them and so they were sold for $55 million, winning Mr. Fonzi’s praise: “I believe Walter Annenberg’s finest contribution to American journalism was revealed on October 28, 1969. That was the day it was announced he was selling the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News to the John S. Knight Chain.”

However, Annenberg still owns TV Guide (largest weekly circulation of any periodical in the world), Seventeen, a dozen radio and television stations, seven Cable Television companies, and the basis of old Mo’s fortune, the New York Morning Telegraph. On his own, Walter is the largest stockholder in Penn Central Transportation Co., and an important stockholder in both the Girard Trust Bank and Campbell’s Soup Co. Until his translation to what the State Department persists in calling the Court of St. James, he was an active director in these enterprises.

The section on Mo is no doubt of some interest in trying to understand Walter, a task which intrigues Mr. Fonzi as much as it bores me. The Walter Annenbergs are clear as a sheet of cellophane and we need beard no minotaurs in pursuit of hidden rosebuds. He is what he seems. So was Mo, who started the Morning Telegraph (a racing sheet), which naturally brought him into close contact with the underworld of gambling or, as Harold Ickes nicely said, “Mo comes from the world and from the lawless tradition commonly associated with Al Capone.”

This blast was the result of Mo’s attacks on Harold Ickes’s master, Christendom’s right arm. Originally, as publisher of the Miami Daily News, Mo had been a dedicated New Dealer but with the sale of the News and the acquisition of the Inquirer, he promptly became a dedicated Republican. It was quite simple: wherever he was he wanted to get in with the gentry. Since the Philadelphia gentry were Republican, Mo became more Republican than the Pews. But in spite of gangster connections, tax evasion on a grand scale, and opportunistic politics, Mo seems to have been, even to Mr. Fonzi, an agreeable monster who—important point in a demos-praising time—mingled genially with his employees. Not so the heir.

Walter dropped out of school as soon as he could; a shy youth who stammered, he “was extremely sensitive about his withered right ear, through which he cannot hear.” Nice sentence. Try another preposition: it still sounds funny. Mr. Fonzi’s prose style…no, not a word about style. Sufficient to say, demos is well served by Mr. Fonzi.

Not taken seriously by his father, Walter idolized him (was it ever otherwise in popular biography?), felt the shame of his imprisonment more than anyone, blamed everything on Roosevelt and the liberal establishment and, not unnaturally, wanted to compensate, to rise to a high place in the national hierarchy. Mr. Fonzi’s crude character analysis makes one almost sympathize with Walter. After all, he is a classic American type. At one remove from the European ghetto, the hero makes up his mind to be accepted by the Wasp establishment, which not only looks down on him, his profession, his religion, his manners, but locked up his father. So he gives money to charities (that is the way you get to meet socially important people if you have nothing to recommend you but money). Collects pictures (same motive). And gives money to politicians. Through inspired ignorance, Walter put his money on that onyx-hued horse Richard Nixon; as a result he got a diplomatic appointment much to his liking (it has been said but not proved that Walter raised several million dollars for Nixon’s campaign with the understanding that he be made ambassador to England).

Mr. Fonzi’s attempts at psychology are of no great interest. What fascinates, however, is his description of Walter Annenberg’s use of the press and television to dominate Philadelphia. It is a remarkably ugly story.

To everyone’s surprise, Walter proved a better businessman than his father. In founding TV Guide, he outdid all his father’s works. But business in itself was always a means to an end: acceptance by the Main Line and a place among the magnates of that empire he so deeply loves and so passionately defends. To achieve this, he drove his associates hard. Wide-eyed, Mr. Fonzi tells us of heart attacks, breakdowns, betrayals, as though we ought to be outraged at the way Walter used men, drove them beyond their endurance. But this is simplistic: no one is ever driven unless he wants to be. Just as each masochist finds his sadist, so the proto-ulcer is sure to find its emotional trigger.

From a commercial point of view Walter was an excellent publisher. The Inquirer‘s Sunday edition carried more comic strips than any paper in the country; therefore it sold well. Walter must take credit for the paper’s healthy circulation as well as for the eccentricity of its editorial policy and the unreliability of its reporting. Very early on, he began to use his papers and television stations as a means to punish those he disliked and praise those who could advance him socially. Most publishers do this in subtle ways; but Walter was not subtle and that is the theme to Mr. Fonzi’s study…the blatant misuse of the power of the press for personal ends.

To begin with, there was a shit list. Certain people could not be mentioned. Usually the politicians on the list were local liberals, and Walter’s motives were understandable if dishonorable. But there were all sorts of other people whose names could not be mentioned. From the world of show business, Imogene Coca, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Dinah Shore all managed somehow to offend Walter. At the height of Dinah Shore’s popularity, her program was listed in TV Guide without her name. Then, often as not, the ban would be lifted as inscrutably as it had been imposed. Recently the Ambassador told an English lady that he was faced with a great problem in public relations. He wanted to invite a dear friend to come and stay at the embassy but because of the unfair way the press had treated her, he didn’t dare. The English woman wondered who it could be: Mary McCarthy? Margaret Mead? Madalyn O’Hair? No, said the Ambassador, Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Mr. Fonzi makes considerable hay out of the indictment of the Inquirer‘s top reporter as a blackmailer who belonged to an extortion ring which shook down local businessmen. No doubt a bad business and proof that Walter did not run a tight ship but he can hardly be blamed for the corruption of an employee in a city where corruption is a way of life. Far worse is the way Walter used the power of his newspapers and television stations to harm others. In 1964 Holiday published a piece on Philadelphia, amiably remarking upon Walter’s social rise. Overreacting as usual, Walter immediately ordered a story on the imminent collapse of Holiday‘s publisher, Curtis. Not satisfied with the first story, he had it rewritten, made tougher, and himself wrote the lead. Disliking Ralph Nader, he saw to it that a speech in Philadelphia by the national ombudsman was not mentioned in the Inquirer. Thinking that he had been snubbed at a party given by Nubar Gulbenkian, Walter ordered a reporter to write a story “exposing” that jolly oil man. These are examples of capriciousness, idle malice, and relentless triviality. Now for conflict of interest.

Out of the blue, Walter ordered a story which would “knock the hell out of” one Matthew Fox. The reporter charged with the assignment was puzzled. Why? What was Walter’s motive? Fox was a wheeler-dealer, with no Philadelphia interests. But—and the picture came into focus—Fox was deeply involved in California’s pay television experiment. Walter opposed pay television not only because it was un-American (as did the networks) but, more specifically, because if Fox’s people issued their own listings it would harm TV Guide. To the reporter’s credit, he wrote a piece so deliberately scurrilous that the Inquirer‘s lawyers killed it.

Walter’s most notorious intervention in politics came in 1966 when Milton Shapp ran for governor of Pennsylvania. Aside from being a Democrat, Shapp had a number of other serious demerits in Walter’s eyes. He owned an interest in a cable television firm in direct conflict with Triangle; worse, he had managed to stop Walter from slipping through the city council a motion to grant Triangle exclusive CATV rights for the city. Finally (and the reason Walter gave for the virulence of his opposition), Shapp “made his objection to the merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads one of the principal campaign issues.” This was too much for good Philadelphian Walter. “I had a sympathetic view toward Mr. Shapp long before the campaign,” he said, “but then he used the Pennsylvania Railroad as his schtick…one of the great American corporations…chairman of the board…personal friend of mine….”

It was too much. Consequently the Inquirer outdid itself in what a political observer at the time termed “character assassination.” Every trick in the book was used including what is sometimes referred to as “The Best Man caper”: hint that the candidate is not right in the head. An Inquirer reporter asked Shapp if it was true that he’d sue should the paper print that he’d ever been in a mental home. Having never been in a loony bin, Shapp quite naturally said, yes, he would sue. Next day’s headline: SHAPP DENIES EVER HAVING BEEN IN A MENTAL HOME. After the campaign the general public learned that the largest individual stockholder in the Pennsylvania Railroad was Walter Annenberg.

Mr. Fonzi records with zest a dozen other peculiar uses Walter made of his newspapers and television stations. For instance, he would not allow WFIL-TV to show the ABC documentary The Political Demise of Richard Nixon (Walter wasn’t so dumb, come to think of it) because a minute or two was devoted to Alger Hiss’s view of his nemesis. Then Walter suppressed in his newspapers the national uproar over Hiss having been allowed to appear on television since Hiss was, in Walter’s phrase, “a convicted treasonable spy.” Fortunately for Walter, perjurer Hiss did not sue. When Martin Luther King came to town, a reporter was instructed to ask him, “Is is true the ultimate aim of your campaign is interracial marriage?” When a local politician named Musmanno died, Walter (who liked him) wanted to include in the obituary that his death had been hastened by a row with Senator Joseph Clark (whom Walter loathed). And so on and on.

But though it is good to show the corruption of the press under an ambitious, ignorant, and malicious owner, one cannot help wondering what Mr. Fonzi finds so startling. The media in America exist only to serve the financial interests of their owners. That is the way things are and have always been. For sheer breathtaking character assassination the pious Henry Luce did more harm than a dozen crude Walters mucking about in a sad city where, from time to time, nearly everyone is for sale or at least rent (it is sad to note that one of Philadelphia’s few admirable politicians, Richardson Dilworth, belonged to a law firm retained by Walter and so he never….).

But the pure of heart can take some consolation in the fact that newspapers in America are less and less read. A recent Gallup Poll caused much clucking in the press: apparently 45 percent thought the press biased. How could the good people be so suspicious of the American press which (because it is American) has to be the world’s best, serving the Bill of Rights with lonely fervor? Yet the real surprise was that 37 percent are so stupid as to think that the press is objective. They are the real suckers and we know what sort of break an earlier Philadelphia clown would have given them.

The case of Walter Annenberg has its touching side. Had he not been born with money he might have found a happy niche for himself as a sales manager in some small firm where his crudeness and lack of civilization would have been a virtue. As it was, an heir to power with a drive for respectability, he had the accidental luck to befriend a future President and so found himself one day facing a mildly contemptuous Senate Committee which knew perfectly well (if he did not) that he had no business being an ambassador to anywhere.

Senator Fulbright handled the occasion with many mumbled asides (not all repeated by Mr. Fonzi) to the effect that it really made no difference what the Senate thought of a President’s diplomatic appointments since they were almost always consented to. He did wonder if Walter had given any money to Nixon’s campaign. A firm “no” from the Ambassador-designate. Later Walter admitted that, well, his wife had. Asked whether or not he had tried to link Musmanno’s death with Senator Clark’s “persecution,” he lied and said “no.” He was confirmed.

It is usual for this sort of book to end upon the hortatory note: if only we join together and force the newspapers to be objective, all will again be well. It is to Mr. Fonzi’s credit that he tells his sad story simply for its own sake. There is nothing to be done about Walter except defeat the jokester who appointed him and boycott all Triangle publications. Hopefully, the first is possible; the second…so what? In any case, as one who loves wit and the appositeness of things, I cannot help but feel Mr. Fonzi is too melodramatic and, finally, unjust. It is altogether right that Walter Annenberg should represent not only the present administration but the nation which elected it. Birds of a feather, as they say; and what birds! Eagles, no less, and like the American eagle, though predatory, near to extinction as a result of our poisoned environment.

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