2004-10-21 / From The Mayor...

Pierre Salinger: Being Chewed Out By An Elite Good Guy

I must admit I’ve been chewed out (brought to task, bawled out, verbally thrashed, etc.) by a lot of people, but one in particular came to mind when we recently heard of the passing of Pierre Salinger, who was President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary and the first person of that “high command” caliber I’d ever been in contact with, journalistically, anyway.

Now, don’t give me that “here he goes again” business because I’m bringing up a name somewhat obliquely familiar to many of us. I happened to have been around when that person was in the public eye more than most, and, yes, I have my story to tell (it’s right about here that you can smirk and go to the next page; I’m gonna tell my story anyway!).

I was a “cub,” so to speak at NBC News when I first saw and worked with Salinger, one of the key men in the JFK “brain trust” entourage. He was affable enough, I suppose; looked more like he was frazzled, I thought at the time. I was, frankly, somewhat intimidated, however, because, well, I was a naive new guy and here was the press secretary to the president. Anyway, in this instance, I was assigned to help set things up at a Manhattan hotel before the arrival of President Kennedy, who was to speak that evening at a dinner. I had to check out where we would place our camera crews, where our electricians would plug their lights, where we would place microphones, etc.

It was an interesting, fun, educational and awesome job, especially when I knew I’d then be privy to a front seat at a possibly momentous occasion. Decidedly presidential, anyway!

Mind you, things certainly weren’t so tight at that time, from a security standpoint, as they are today. Hell, the Bay of Pigs incident hadn’t happened yet and, well, life just didn’t seem so dangerous. There was a cold war, and war-like rumblings were fo-menting in Southeast Asia, but there, in the middle of it all, was the smile of JFK and Camelot and, well, you just felt upbeat. Nowadays, I don’t think network news outfits would be allowed to have anyone work at a proposed speech site without a Secret Service agent at his side.

While I was setting up things for my crew, my editor at the newsdesk got word that Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were having lunch downstairs in the hotel where I was working. He asked me to “get hold of one of them and see if we can have him meet our crew and our correspondent can do an interview with him.”

Well, what did I know? As far as I was concerned, the editor is God and you do what he says, right?

Right!

I went down to the dining room and spied the two men across the room at a table where they were eating. I’m sure there were Secret Service people all around the room, but, although I had press credentials, they seemed to ignore me as I sidled up to the table with two of the most powerful men in the world and said, “I hope I’m not disturbing your meal, but...”

“You already have disturbed it, young man,” said Dean Rusk, Secretary of State.

“What the...,” said Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense. “How the hell did you get here?”

I apologetically told them I just walked over and felt I’d take my chances in trying to talk to them (I remember mentioning I was new at the job and had a ferocious editor!).

They called over a Secret Service guy who gently escorted me out the door, where he told me to “stay put for a minute” and then went back inside.

That was indeed a long minute, during which I pictured myself behind bars at Fort Leavenworth Prison. Presently, the door opened and Dean Rusk appeared, saying, “Now, where is this correspondent? Let’s get this interview over with.”

After I’d coordinated the interview, Pierre Salinger called me aside and lambasted me with some four letter words the likes of which usually aren’t be heard this side of, uh, Fort Leavenworth. He also called my editor and told him he didn’t like the kind of tactics that “coerced” Rusk into doing the interview because he “felt sorry” for me. I was told later that he and the editor, who noted that Salinger was a “good guy” who really hated being the heavy in these instances, had a good laugh about it.

The sidebar, of course, is that when we got back to the newsroom and wrapped up for the night, my editor said to me, “Good going, kid!”

View From The Middle By Charles Rogers

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