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Midwest Today, Spring 1997

P E R S O N  T O  P E R S O N



We'd like to begin by having you tell us a little bit about your early childhood in the Midwest. Your biography says you grew up in Saint Joseph, Missouri.
Well, I didn't really grow up in St. Jo. We moved from St. Jo when I was barely one, or a little less than that. I spent quite a bit of time in St. Jo; my grandparents lived there, and uncles and aunts and cousins, so I was up there a lot. But I grew up in Kansas City primarily, for ten years and then we moved to Texas, and then I found myself continually returning to Kansas City for one business reason or another. It just seemed to have a magnet affect for me.

I thought it was a great time to grow up; I guess everybody does in their young years. We lived in a middle class neighborhood. My father was a young, struggling dentist at the time, and I was an only child. We lived on a hillside in the southern part of Kansas City. There were a lot of vacant lots in that area, which gave us plenty of playing room, places to dig caves in the hillside, build tree houses and that sort of thing.

And I guess I showed certain signs of being a workaholic in early years; I had a magazine route very early on - I must have been about seven or eight years old or something like that - when I was carrying Liberty magazine, trying to win green and brown coupons; I eventually [won] a pony. I was fairly successful at it, but I never got the pony; my mother was greatly relieved by that, I'm sure. And then we moved to an apartment my last year or two in Kansas City. From there I used to sell [the] Sunday Kansas City Star at the end of the street car line. I can't imagine my mother letting me do it; she was very protective, but somehow or another I guess she thought this showed admirable self-reliance or something. I'd ride the street car down to the Kansas City Star on Saturday night, stand with all the rest of the young people, and get as many Sunday papers as I could carry, and get back on the street car, go out to the end of the line - which wasn't too far from our house - and then sell papers until I'd made myself ten or 15 cents.

President Harding died during that time, didn't he?
Ya, he did. Harding died while we were still at that house. That was 1922, so I was six years old, but I remember being really impressed that boys came through and they were shouting "Extra!" and my mother immediately spent two cents on a paper. I sat on her front porch and looked at this paper and was so impressed that I took it and ran down the street, sure that my good friend Albert Darling hadn't seen it yet. I remember this moment when I was first showing my journalistic and pontifical sense (laughs); I showed him the picture of President Harding on the front page and I said, "Albert, take a look at that picture. It's the last picture you'll ever see of President Harding!" I don't know where I got that crazy idea...

When you had moved to Texas, then you were on your school newspaper?
Ya. I was lucky enough to have one of the first high school classes in the country. A former editor of one of the papers, Fred Birney, volunteered his services; he thought it ought to be taught in school. He circulated around to the five high schools in Houston and taught us journalism. He was a very inspiring teacher, and I really never really turned back from wanting to be a journalist from those days.

You were then a campus correspondent for the Houston Post, and a sports announcer at one point?
I did news and sports for a small struggling new station in Kansas City, and then I did play-by-play "telegraph report" football in KCMO in Kansas City. That was fairly successful apparently. I left that and went to United Press and a year or so later, WKY in Oklahoma City, a powerful NBC affiliate, owned by the Oklahoman Times. They got the first rights to broadcast University of Oklahoma football live, and they hired me to do that. So I did that for a season, too.

But very soon thereafter, you really found yourself in the crucible of big events, didn't you, working for United Press, and being over on the invasion of Normandy, and all those events of World War II?
I sort of think in a way that many of us young reporters who had the opportunity to go overseas for our organizations were kind of, in a sense, war profiteers. We were enhancing our careers while covering that terrible conflict.

But you were in personal danger at the time...
Oh certainly. I made the invasion of North Africa and before that I'd come into battle in the North Atlantic, deliberately going out on convoys and hoping something would happen, and hoping on the other hand that something wouldn't happen.

You were never wounded.
No, the only serious wound I got was from a wire wrapping a bunch of very heavy tulips that were thrown at me in the liberation of Amsterdam. (Laughing)

You had parachuted into Holland, hadn't you?
I went by glider. I was supposed to go by parachute; I'd seen what happened with the gliders in Normandy and I had no intention of ever getting into one of those in my life. I came very close to turning down the assignment just before our departure. I really thought of just saying no (chuckling), but I couldn't have faced my colleagues back in London if I'd done that, so I went by glider and it was just about as bad as they said it'd be.

In what way?
Well, the glider is deliberately crashed on landing if possible to try to slow it down from ground fire. The whole experience was shaky. I had, of course, in my mind the image of all the crashed gliders in Normandy, and that was a terrible disaster really. The Germans had planted anti-glider spikes all over the possible landing areas. They crashed and turned over, crashed into each other, and it was not a pretty sight. I felt that I was getting into that.

Now Edward R. Murrow was on the scene at the time, and Eric Sevareid? What are your perceptions of each man?
They were both superb radio journalists. Sevareid was a superb writer as well and essayist, of course. And Murrow wasn't bad at that. He was very good and he really elevated radio reporting to a very high art in his reporting from London, despite the fact that he had no journalistic training at all.

He was a procurer of speakers for CBS radio before that.

You also covered the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46. What was that like?
It was horrible at first when we heard the reading of documents and saw the film of the horrors the Nazi regime had perpetrated in Europe. It was awe-inspiring and rather sickening to sit there and watch those 21 guys in the box, the architects of that horror in Europe...

And you're convinced about the accuracy of reports about Hitler's demise?
Oh I think so. I think it's pretty well established. Nobody's come up with any other [credible] theories.

Back in this country, what prompted you to make the transition from radio to TV, and was that hard for you?
No, not at all. In fact, it was remarkably easy. I joined CBS basically to go to Korea in 1950 when the Korean War broke out. I was doing reports for a group of Midwestern radio stations, nine of them, that Arthur Church, who was a farsighted head of KCMO in Kansas City, put together...

WMT in Cedar Rapids, [one of our advertisers] was one.
Absolutely. Jim Borman was the news director there. He was the one that made the best use of the Washington bureau of anybody. He really understood news gathering and how to use the Washing-ton bureau. The disappointment was that many of the other news directors didn't.

Anyway, when the war broke out I got permission to go in and take a job with CBS which I wanted to do and get out to Korea with my old war correspondent buddies. I didn't get there, because they sent me out to [where] CBS acquired a television station in Washington, and they didn't really have anybody to do news. All the rest of the guys were busy with their radio programs, sponsored shows. I didn't have any of those yet, so they sent me out (laughs) and said "Do the news." That's about as much instruction as I had. It turned out to be such a commercial success, within a couple of weeks we'd hired on two major sponsors, extended the broadcast; and I never got to Korea, and instead was stuck in television, if you can call it that.

And of course in the early days, you were one of the first to hear the bulletins about President John Kennedy's shooting in Texas. Hadn't you just expanded the nightly news shortly before that?
Yes, we expanded it to a half hour, from 15 minutes, in September, and on our opening broadcast, I'd done a long interview with Kennedy up at Hyannis Port. So there we were, just a little more than two months later that the shooting took place.

That video has been shown over and over again.
At this point I'm getting very tired of it.

What do you remember about that day on a personal level?
Oh heavens, memories of that day would fill a book in themselves. From the first [news] flash right through four days later when the funeral took place, it was one of the most intensive periods of coverage. The flood of emotions was almost impossible to handle.

We'd like to talk briefly about the Presidents you've known. We'd be fascinated by your observations. Starting with Truman.
Well, I knew the Presidents all the way back to Hoover. I met Hoover actually after his Presidency. He lived some time in the Waldorf Towers here in New York and I saw him on a couple of occasions and spent some time with him.

A former Iowan...
Ya, that's right. Exactly. And quite a man. His Presidency, of course, was damned by the Depression and never succeeded in getting off the ground after that. The economic situation was just impossible. He really didn't bring a great deal of economic imagination and know what to do about it. It took Roosevelt and the New Deal to try to handle it, and it's not too clear that it would have been successful had it not been for the wartime retooling and the economics of that.

Did you know Roosevelt then too?
Several times I attended his impromptu news conferences in the Oval Office. I didn't know him personally, I never did a personal interview with him. But I was acquainted with his style, and was very much impressed like most people were. He had great charisma, a great sense of power in that crippled body of his, that was most impressive.

What about President Truman?
Of course I'd known of Harry Truman quite well living in Kansas City. My family knew him, my father was in the same battalion with him in the war, and my uncle knew him quite well from his haberdashery right across from my uncle's office.

I must say that while everybody I knew liked him as a person, I thought of him as a member of the Pendergast machine and just another kind of county seat politician. When he became President, I was in Belgium at the time and I really felt great alarm for the state of the country, knowing the war was still on, of course, in the Pacific; he was going to have to conduct that. And assuming we won that one, the postwar negotiations with all these major powers in Europe, I just really wondered how we were going to fare. I was quite concerned.

I'm very proud of what Harry Truman turned out to be in office and the record he made. Certainly I think he'll go down in history as one of the greats, because of his conscience, his determination to stick with what he knew was right.

You also had kind words for Dwight Eisenhower in a tribute honoring him.
I kind of addressed Eisenhower's ascendency to the Presidency a little bit like Truman's in a way. I admired what he'd done in Europe as the General of all the Allied Forces. But it didn't seem to me, from what I'd seen, that this was necessarily Presidential material. I thought him more of what he was, a career military officer, and I wasn't at all sure that that's what the country needed.

In the early days of his Presidency, his problem with non sequiturs in public extemporaneous speaking as he had to do at news conferences put a lot of us off. We had a feeling that he didn't really have a handle, perhaps, on the situation. And the common wisdom among the press corps in Washington was that he operated the White House on a staff basis and probably wasn't very familiar with a lot of the things his underlings were doing.

The old image of him playing golf in the Oval Office was the image that a lot of us had until I started traveling and spending some time with him. This was after his Presidency when we made the D-day trip; we spent a week together, resisting the principal sites of the Normandy invasion. And then, after that, for a week we did a total of 13-1/2 hours on tape about his Presidency, and I was amazed, overwhelmed, by his intimate knowledge of what had gone on. I sat there with a lap full of notes, he had none, and there wasn't a single question that I brought up that he wasn't entirely conversant with and quite [at ease] about discussing. So I decided that our flash judgments in Washington were wrong.

Yes. At the time of John Kennedy's death, there was this book by Victor Lasky that you may recall, that was on the bestseller list, called "JFK, the Man and the Myth." And of course there have been some personal revelations and so forth since his JFK's death. What's your perception now, given the perspective of history, about President Kennedy?
Well first we start with his charisma. There's no question he was an exceedingly personable figure. Handsome and quite a handsome user of the language as well. He was a very appealing figure. I think that he had some very substantial ideas - innovative and imaginative ideas -- about the future of the country. He unfortunately displayed to his colleagues a certain arrogance and with his youthful run for the office he dismayed, I think, a lot of the people to whom he needed to appeal for support. And that's the Congress. So he lost control of Congress; he didn't have time in his short time in the Presidency to ever bring them around to the point where he's got much of a legislative record to survive him. His handling of the Cuban missile crisis, that was a major crisis -- and we've learned since that the military was all for going to war -- God knows what would have happened to us if that had happened. He stood up against them and it worked out. At least we were saved from that.

Let me digress for just a moment. You'd done that interview with him in which you had discussed Vietnam. A lot of people have speculated that had he lived, Kennedy would not have escalated, that he was on the verge of withdrawal. What was your personal observation?
I think that's right. I think right. I think he was very disgusted with the situation by that point - the failure of the Vietnamese governments to show any inclinations toward creating a democracy. It was not a democracy. We did not go out there to defend democracy. We went out there to try to hold a little bit of ground where a democracy might possibly take root against the encroaching communism. There was no indication after we'd already gotten involved and began to lose people that the Administration in Saigon had any intention of creating a democracy.

Let's go back to Lyndon Johnson. You interviewed him, as well, post-Presidency. Weren't there aides, off-camera, handing him notes?
Absolutely. He had McGeorge Bundy sitting right beside him with a great file of notes underneath him, passing him papers once in awhile. I'm not sure Lyndon Johnson needed them. Bundy passed them to him, but he'd ignore them most of the time. If I had gone into specific detail, [Johnson] might have referred to them, but we were getting just his general philosophy.

He was certainly a larger-than-life figure, wasn't he?
No doubt about it. That cliché's been used many times about him, but it's used because it's so true. That's why cliches live; they are true (laughing). Or it certainly was in his case.

And you covered Richard Nixon, his trips to China, the Middle East, Watergate. Quite a mixed bag there.
Ya it was a mixed bag. Nixon was obviously an oddball, a strange figure. He undoubtedly had, I think, some psychological problems.

Oh I feel so. I'm not saying psychiatric, but psychological. But he did not leave a bad record. Some of the things he stood for in domestic policies were quite outstanding as, for instance, welfare reform. He didn't really stick with it and get anything done, but he projected the problems and discussed the possible solutions. And of course his opening up of China, and his overtures toward Russia, were things that the hard conservatives of his party - which were the base of his support - hated. So he had courage as well in those particular instances.

He fell, as he should have fallen, over the attempt to steal an election, to thwart the will of the people. That's what Watergate was really about. A lot of our friends and allies overseas still don't understand that, a lot of people at home have lost sight of that, but that's the sin of Watergate.

What did you think of Gerald Ford?
...He was unable to win re-election on his own. The highest office to which he was ever elected was Congressman from Michigan. Although the circumstances are slightly clouded in his Vice Presidency -- and the fact that he pardoned Nixon is still a moot question -- I, like everybody else, like him; he's a very nice, straight-forward guy. He didn't have a chance to really initiate any programs, he didn't have a mandate to do so.

With regard to Jimmy Carter, you once said that he was one of the smartest Presidents.
I think he may be, for sheer brain power, the smartest President that I knew. He had -- and has, I suppose -- a capability of studying the most difficult problem and documents and seemingly recording and filing all of it away in his head, in such a way that he can recall it instantly when needed, and do it with syntax that is absolutely perfect. His extemporaneous news conferences, and many other extemporaneous appearances, read like he was reading from a script.

How about Ronald Reagan? He manipulated the media quite skillfully, didn't he?
He did indeed, and of course he was a charismatic figure as well. He had a lot of personality, and he was a lot of fun to be with, the kind of guy you'd really like to have as a friend, to associate with. In his Presidency, he did what he said he was going to do. The same people who got him elected he appointed to high office as counsel, and did what they suggested to do, and he did dismantle as much as one man can do in eight years of the New Deal.

I don't recall that he did any post-Presidential interviews, did he?
I don't think he did. I think he was probably wise not to do it (chuckles).

George Bush. A one-termer. And toward the end of the '92 campaign he grew more and more negative, did he not?
Well I liked George Bush a lot. I thought he was a very interesting comer. I sort of feel that his heart was with moderation, even something of a liberal Republican, an old-fashioned Eastern Establishment Republican. And I think he sold out in his political ambitions. He had of course attacked Reagan severely -- more than he was attacked by his Democratic opponents later in the primaries -- to try to win the nomination.

How do you assess Bill Clinton?
I have not had opportunity to know Clinton as well as I've known the others; with the others, I was still a little bit more active than I've been in the last four years. But I have done [a] one-on-one interview with him, and I've watched him in action as the general public has. I'm impressed very much with the man's general intelligence and his, I think, rather well-formed ideas of where this country ought to go. I think that he's having his problems accommodating his vision of America with that of practical politics, and obviously has been making some rather wide-swinging adjustments. But I have a feeling that his heart's in the right place, and that we do know that he's damned effective in jawboning others. We've had that experience of his calling these conferences with top industrialists and financiers, and they've gone away singing his praises. So obviously he's got something on the ball.

The most important thing about him that I think he's better at than any of the Presidents I've seen is listening; he's a very good listener.

A recent public opinion survey showed that a surprising percentage of Americans so distrust the press, they think journalists ought to be licensed. Can you believe that?
No, I can't. And I think that's one of the tragedies indeed in America today. This shows again the fundamental problem with nearly everything that's going on. Nearly all of our problems could be solved by improved education. I'm not picking up the President's line just because he enunciated it again a couple of nights ago. But this has been my feeling all along.

Thomas Jefferson was dead on target when he said that a nation that expects to be ignorant and free, expects what never can and never will be. We are seeing a lot of evidence of the weakening of our democracy today by the fact that our educational system has fallen down on the job. And this is particularly true, of course, in the areas of what ought to be of greatest concern, and that's in our lower-income populations, particularly in the city ghettos and in the rural poor.

But people that would think that journalists should be licensed indicates a real basic ignorance of the necessity of a free press and free speech. They really haven't thought it out that licensing is the worst kind of suppression of free speech.

Is there a liberal media bias?
You know, I don't think it should be called a liberal media bias. I think that a majority of the news people that I come in contact with, and that's mostly East coast and the beltway, I believe are basically liberal. But I maintain that...the fact that journalism is a profession is so because we do have an ethic, and I don't think we violate our ethic any more than lawyers and doctors violate theirs -- (laughing) although that's not painting us with very much praise.

The ethic of the journalist is to recognize one's prejudices, biases, and avoid getting them into print, and I think our press does a pretty good job of that. The complaint of liberal bias I don't think holds up when you really examine the press carefully. It may appear that way because there is a great deal of criticism of the press organized by those whose ox is being gored by the press. That's industry and big business and right now a majority in the [Congress], and one of the political parties that's out of power.

I don't think that people who say that Clinton is getting a free ride from the press would find much agreement by those in the White House.

There's been a concentration of ownership of the media in a few hands. Do you worry that this will impinge on fair reporting?
Yes, I worry about that. I worry not so much that they will actually exercise overt censorship as the fact that they will exert that pressure by subtle means and by the budget. I worry about the budget mostly. These people are not the same kind of pioneers that founded CBS and NBC and ABC -- Paley, Sarnoff, and so forth. They have these megafirms that require producing profits up there in the stratosphere somewhere. Every quarter they've got to improve the profit margin, and that isn't conducive to liberal spending in the news department.

The news is not a huge moneymaker; it's a very expensive thing to do. Obviously, every organization -- and this is the news departments in the networks -- should return a reasonable profit. But a reasonable profit should be understood to be a moderate profit where the responsibility of the press and its duty to the public is concerned. Owning a news operation, whether it's a newspaper or the news department of a megafirm, should be considered an honored public responsibility, and it should be possible to accept a reasonable return on investment and not the kind of mega-returns that these megafirms expect. And how you achieve that, I'll be damned if I know.

The pendulum has swung so far in the other direction, how do you ever get it back?
I don't think we can, unless we can hope for some sudden revelation on the part of network management of their responsibility in the news department. If it should come to one of these bosses or these boards, or whatever the dominant principals are in their management, that they could be more responsible by assuring adequate expenditures, to have adequate coverage, then maybe we'll find a major turnaround. Because my concern is that they're not spending enough now. Without the foreign bureaus, we are ex-posed in our national information flow to the terrible dangers of ignorance of what's going on in the rest of the world.

What do you think of the space program now?
It's a little bit beyond me now; I'm not sure what they're up to. I have a strong feeling that we certainly should not desert space, that it is obviously one of the two last great frontiers, the oceans being the other. And I don't think we can turn our backs on continuing [research]. However, [we need to be] very discerning and careful about what programs we are going to invest these vast amounts of money in. We've got to be cognizant of the terrible demands on the budget at home, I mean on earth. But I'm saying there's got to be a compromise between the terrestrial demands and keeping a program going in space.

You like to sail...
I love to sail.

And here you are a native Midwesterner; how did you learn to sail so well?
Well Larry, as you may know, our greatest Navy heroes all come from Kansas and Iowa and Nebraska and Missouri. I think the reason is, that until you get out on the ocean, you don't know how horrible it can be. They all get themselves involved in getting to Annapolis before they find out what it's like.

My grandfather was a sailor in St. Jo, on the little elbow lakes of the Missouri River. And my father sailed with him. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to sail with my father very much, but I guess there's something in the genes.

I'm a romanticist in many ways. I never get behind the wheel of my boat and dropping the anchor without saying to myself, secretly giving my orders to the crew "All right, lift the anchor, we're on our way to South Hampton. We're gonna beat them there with this load of tea!" (laughing). Or "Let's get out of here before the Revenuers get here!" (laughing).

(Laughing) You don't wear any particular costume when you're doing this, do you Walter?
No, I can't say that it goes that far (laughing).

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