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Encounters with eight presidents

January 23, 2018

3:15 PM

23 January 2018

3:15 PM

I feel a bit of a fraud writing about the ‘presidents I knew’, since journalists do not really get to know the great figures they interview or shake hands with. Indeed the relationship between journalist and great personage is about as false as any relationship can be, since each is trying to make use of the other. So in all likelihood my dreamed relationship with President Herbert Hoover — which began and ended in 1933 when I was aged 11 and only lasted for about a minute — came nearer to being a genuine human relationship than all the other journalistic ones later — which included Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, Richard Nixon, LBJ, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Quite a mouthful.

My Hoover story — to the best of my childish memory — happened like this. Having just been humiliatingly defeated by Franklin Roosevelt, on account of his disastrous handling of the Depression, Hoover was in London to visit the great interwar governor of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman — himself a hate figure because of this hardline capitalism — who happened to be my stepfather. His home telegraphic address at this time was ‘The Red House, London’. Normally my brother and I were kept out of the way when great personages — like Hitler’s Dr Schacht — visited our home. But on this occasion, by some accident, I literally ran into the great personage in the hall. This much-hated figure, however, could not have been more sympathetic. Putting an avuncular arm around my shoulder, he said, ‘You, my boy, are lucky enough still to live in the Red House, London, while I have just been kicked out of the White House, Washington.’ Expecting chastisement, this sympathetic reaction won my heart, and as a result I could never again entirely believe in his malign reputation. I had seen him as nobody else had and knew better. He had become my personal trophy.

Arguments about the Great Depression, of course, were all the rage throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But armed with my personal evidence, I got into the habit at school and university of weighing in on the conservative side in general and Hoover’s in particular — a wildly unfashionable and unpopular habit that served me very ill indeed when in 1951 I was posted to Democratic-dominated and Republican-loathing Washington as a Times correspondent.

Believe it or not, I was one of the first professional journalists — albeit a very junior one — they had sent there. The previous Times men had simply been well-connected expatriates with private incomes. Nor was American history a must, which was just as well since none was taught in those days either at Oxford or Cambridge; French, German, Russian or Italian history — but no American history. Of course in reality, as a consequence of the second world war, the US had already replaced Britain as the world’s dominant power, but neither Fleet Street priorities nor Washington protocol had quite caught up. For one of the anarchistic customs that still prevailed was that a new Times man — in Washington it was still The Times, not yet, as it is now, the London Times — was personally received by the President at a little ceremony in the White House, like a mini-ambassador, and it is this that proved my undoing.

It started well enough. Visiting the President was not then the big deal that it is today. Nor was Harry Truman in the least impressive personally — a small man in a double-breasted suit with a big smile on his face.

So when he began by asking whom I had been seeing in Washington, I took the liberty of replying, truthfully but with inexcusable tactlessness, that I had been having interesting talks first with Robert Taft, junior, then head of the Republican party, which was bad enough, but also with Senator Joe McCarthy, the Republican demigod who was busy smearing Truman for being soft on communism — about as bad a gaffe as an American correspondent visiting Downing Street in 1940 and telling Churchill that he had spent a rewarding day chatting with Sir Oswald Mosley. The whole room and all its occupants froze, and I was ushered out of the White House, never to see Truman again. How could I possibly have been so rude and foolhardy?

I think it was the Hoover experience all over again. I had actually talked to Senator McCarthy — which is more than most of my Washington colleagues had done — and I wanted everyone to know that he had made much more sense than his detractors recognised. As a matter of fact I still think so. Once the Cold War against communism had begun in earnest, as it just had, it really was a bit of a scandal that the Truman establishment, in charge of prosecuting that war, continued to employ so many former communist sympathisers, just as it would have been a scandal in 1940, once America had come into the war against Germany, if the Washington establishment had gone on employing erstwhile Nazi sympathisers. In other words, Joe McCarthy had a trenchant point. Unfortunately for me, however, the point was not only unacceptable in the Oval Office; it was utterly unacceptable to the editor of the Times, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal called Sir William Haley who had formerly been director-general of the BBC, and who wrote to say that my job in Washington was not to find excuses for Senator McCarthy but to condemn him.

It was a bad presidential beginning, which could only get better, and it did, since my next presidential encounter was on the campaign train of Truman’s successor, the non-political war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. This was the last of the old whistle-stop campaigns by train which called at towns and villages across the continent with a candidate to address small crowds from the rear carriage. One morning I was sitting in the dining car having breakfast when Eisenhower came strolling through and stopped to have a chat with the famous CBS correspondent, Eric Sevareid, whom I was by chance sitting next to. Out of politeness Sevareid introduced me. ‘This is Peregrine Worsthorne, General, the new Times man.’ Clearly finding my name a bit of a mouthful, the general asked me to spell it out, which I did, jumping up to add something I had learnt a very few days previously: that the first baby from Mayflower to be born on American soil, and therefore the first American citizen to be born, was also christened Peregrine. Another long pause. Then came the reply: ‘Well, sonny, that name sure didn’t catch on.’ This exchange got into the gossip columns and later, during President Eisenhower’s press conferences, he would occasionally pick me out for further teasing sallies. On the whole I found that having such an usual combination of names for my newspaper byline has been more of a help than a hindrance, since at least it’s not easy to forget. At boarding schools, however, it had been a disaster: my mother had given me the nickname of ‘Sweet Pea’ and one of her letters once fell into enemy hands. You can imagine the consequences of that.

In any case, for one reason or another, halfway through the Eisenhower administration I was called back to London for a meeting with the editor. He took me to a teetotal lunch at the Athenaeum — an unwelcome honour which was a sure sign of bad news to come — and said that he wanted to promote me from Washington to Ottawa, pretending, quite implausibly, that Canada was going to be the great power of the future. I got the message: he wanted me out. In any case, I turned down the Ottawa job, which proved a sensible thing to have done because half a century later, on a visit to Ottawa, I found the poor man who had taken the job instead of me still there in the Times office — very old, very miserable and very, very drunk. As for me, I had much better luck, since the Daily Telegraph took me on and sent me back to Washington.

Fast forward to President Kennedy, the first president remotely of my generation, several of whose closest aids and advisers — Arthur Schlesinger, Ken Galbraith, Joseph Alsop and Walter Lippmann — were also contacts of mine. So I ran into the President socially from time to time, and into his friends and advisers very often. Lots of other journalists did too, of course. In this respect Washington was quite unlike the London of those days, where journalists — apart from the editor of the Times — did not inhabit the same social universe as senior politicians. We knew our place. In Washington it was much more open, informal and, above all, equal. For example, at dinner with Ken Galbraith, who advised Kennedy on economics, I had occasion to say that some current international crisis in Washington reminded me of London during the phoney war when everyone was busy filling sandbags. A few days later, to my utter amazement, the President used this self-same analogy in a speech. I have never felt nearer to power. Galbraith later dropped me a note to say that he had passed my reminiscences on to the President, which made me feel very plugged in.

Interviewing the President shortly after the disastrous American-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, I asked him why he had authorised such a doomed Suez-style invasion. Kennedy’s defence was that military planning for the adventure, originated by his predecessor Eisenhower, had acquired such a momentum that it could not be put into reverse without ‘a screaming of gears’ (his phrase) which would have got his presidency off to an alarming start. In theory, presidents were all-powerful, he said, but in practice a great ship of state was as difficult to turn around quickly as the proverbial oil tanker.

As it happened, the next time I was to see President Kennedy was two years later at the time of his triumphant handling of the Cuban missile crisis. By then he really was in charge. It had been a terrible week. The possibility, even likelihood, of thermonuclear war was very real. During the entire week he and his aides had been incarcerated in the White House and when, the morning after the Russian tankers had turned back, he emerged to tell us the dramatic news, the whole emergency press conference roared its admiration. I remember writing in my dispatch that it was like watching Prince Hal suddenly turn into Henry V. Kennedy had been transformed. Cynical journalists are not meant to lose their heads, not meant to go wild with enthusiasm, but this we did, fighting, almost literally, to shake his hand or touch his garments. Back in London the subeditors were also infected, heading my piece with the over-the-top words ‘New Emperor of the West’. Such hyperboles were bound to turn the gods against him, as indeed, all too soon, they did.

My next president was Lyndon Baines Johnson at the height of the Vietnam war, which I was one of the few British journalists to support — and it was because of this support that I received, out of the blue, an invitation to come to Manila, where he was stopped over on his way to visit American troops. As it happened, the Hollywood mogul Jack Valenti — one of LBJ’s closest chums — was in London, and he offered to fly me to Manila.

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