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Covering Washington

In response to:

In Washington from the May 29, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

I freely admit that I am vain about my skills as an interrogator. With back-to-back questions in 1960, I somehow got President Eisenhower to say that perhaps he could furnish an example of Richard Nixon’s influence on Administration policy if I would give Ike a week to think about it. I once managed to wring two whole declarative sentences out of the late Ethiopian emperor; and Robert Shaplen of The New Yorker said of a 1963 interview that “Mohr has managed to establish conclusively that Madame Nhu never had an orgasm.” During the 1964 Presidential election campaign Theodore White told me, “you have peeled Goldwater like an onion, layer by layer, until now there is nothing left.”

I was, therefore, annoyed to be described (anonymously) by Alfred Kazin in the May 29 New York Review as a “nervous young reporter” who got, but did not know what to do with, an interview with Lyndon Johnson and asked a “chicken-shit” question. Although I admire Mr. Kazin and enjoyed his piece on Washington, he is in anecdotal error, a problem that often arises when a writer uses oft-told, but unchecked, oral history. He is not the first to get it wrong. In the hope he will be the last, I would like to offer the true version of my now apparently legendary encounter with “the only President you’ve got.” The story cannot be told briefly, so I will not try.

In the early autumn of 1964, during the Presidential election campaign, Mr. Johnson attempted to deflect one of Barry Goldwater’s political themes by professing a penurious regard for the taxpayer’s money. At one point he claimed that he was turning off light bulbs in the White House, and at another point he signed a bill raising cabinet and executive salaries, but said the fourteen Assistants to the President would not receive their raises until “they earned them.” This was such obvious Johnson showboating that no one paid it much mind at the time.

In December, after Johnson had been safely reelected, the Press Secretary, George Reedy, announced at a daily briefing that the President had finally approved the White House salary increases. A commendably suspicious reporter (not me) asked if he had approved the full increases. Reedy appeared to be in distress, and refused to answer the question. This was because, in his neurotic way, Johnson had given only Larry O’Brien the full $30,000 authorized by law and had laddered the other raises down by a few hundred dollars here and there to suit his own plantation mentality. This was all reported, including on the front page of my own New York Times.

However, in January one White House staff official told me at lunch that “you guys missed the real story.” He explained that when the raises came through they were made retroactive to the date of the bill signing and, thus, “no money was saved.”

The Times had then and has now a rule that reporters may be given only one byline a day. It may annoy the editors to see in print a confession that reporters, for that reason, sometimes hoard stories for a day on which they might be bylined, although I think the editors have long suspected it. In any case, January is an especially busy month for White House correspondents, and I hoarded my little exclusive.

Soon after the annual State of the Union message, the President invited me to go walking with him alone on the south drive of the White House grounds. He was, in those days, quite accessible to reporters from the major news organizations. The walk, taken without overcoats in chilly weather, lasted nearly an hour. It was not, in the true sense, an “interview.” Instead, like most such encounters it was on Johnson’s insistence “for background.” In any case, I asked him all the cosmic, intergalactic questions of the day. Because I had already done one stint of Vietnam war reporting, Johnson never liked to discuss Vietnam with me, but I made an effort on that subject, too. Finally, he began to berate me for some supposed error in the Times and said, “I want you to check these stories with me—I am the only source.” He had made similar remarks previously to James Reston and Tom Wicker. Like them, I protested that we could not very well check stories with the President.

Oh, yes we could, he proclaimed. “Well, can I check something now?” I asked. Shoot, said Lyndon. I said I heard that his September statement about the staff earning their raises and saving money was somewhat meaningless because the raises were paid to the date of the legislation.

From mid-stride, the President came to a halt, glowered at me (since I am six feet, two inches, the height difference was of less importance than Mr. Kazin seems to think) and said:

Here you are, alone with the President of the United States and the Leader of the Free World, and you ask a chicken-shit question like that.” He then added, “Yes, yes, that’s right. You want to run that, you go ahead.” Which I did.

Like Goldie, the Klondike bar girl, it is difficult to insult White House reporters, even of the emeritus brand. In my own defense, however, I would protest to Mr. Kazin that I knew exactly what to do with a professional conversation with the President, but no one could make him give straightforward or truthful answers to questions, whether ably or maladroitly worded. I was certainly young, but I was not nervous. I always had the feeling that Johnson was more afraid of me than I was of him, which was not afraid at all.

Less than two months later, he called me into his office and said, “Abe Fortas has something he wants to tell you.” I said I did not personally know this member of the kitchen cabinet and was unsure Mr. Fortas would see me. “Oh, he’ll see YOU,” the President said.

Fortas that afternoon passed on to me what amounted to a libel of a prominent international figure and swore me to vague rules of attribution that must not include any reference to the White House or friends of the President. Seduced by “exclusivity,” I wrote and filed the story. However, Theodore Bernstein, one of the Times‘s great editors, would not print it unless the White House agreed to more honest, straightforward sourcing. Wicker, my bureau chief, protested loudly but lost, and then apologized to me, saying there seemed to be nothing that could be done. “We could call him up,” I said, reminding Tom of the repeated exhortations to “check with me.”

I then dialed Bill Moyers of the White House staff, explained the problem and the repeated invitations to “check with me.” Moyers laughed and told me to hold on. After several minutes that unmistakable, distinctive Johnson voice bellowed through the telephone:

God Dammit, Charley, I told you you could visit me; not move in with me. I can’t spend all my time answering your phone calls.”

The President then went on to refuse to budge on the attribution for the story and to threaten that “I better give my exclusives to the Herald-Tribune from now on.” The Times did not print the story, for which by the next morning I was very grateful to the calm, judicious Mr. Bernstein. I was also present on Air Force One the day Johnson introduced four journalists to the then Secretary General of NATO and said, “Now here is a big expert on peace. You boys interview the hell out of him, and I am going to go take a leak.” But that is another story.

Charles Mohr

Washington, D.C.

Alfred Kazin replies:

I am certainly grateful to Charles Mohr for getting to the heart of the matter. I didn’t know the Times Washington Bureau could be so entertaining.

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