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The Tangled Web of White House – Press Contacts

Pierre Salinger meets with reporters in his office

Pierre Salinger meets with reporters in his office in February 1963
Photo by Abbie Rowe

A good portion of The Fourteenth Day focuses on the Kennedy administration’s efforts to crack down on leaks. It had started back in the summer of 1962, with JFK authorizing the CIA to spy on American journalists in a program that become known as Project Mockingbird.

In the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, the efforts to stop leaks continued but in a different form, one that eventually evolved into the “news management” controversy that dragged on into the spring of 1963.

During the October 30 ExComm meeting, Kennedy had addressed the topic of leaks at length and directed that only a few designated officials be allowed to talk to the press about the recent Cuba crisis.

Immediately after that ExComm meeting, White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger wrote up a memorandum describing a new requirement for White House staff to report, in writing, on their conversations with reporters. Those reports would then be sent to Chris Camp, Salinger’s secretary, and she would keep them on file.

Typically, such a memorandum would have been duplicated and circulated to those it affected. But the handling of this one was unusual. There was only one copy. Treating it more like a contract than a directive, Salinger or one of his staffers went around to each member of the senior White House staff and got them to personally sign it as “read and understood.”

 

The new policy was designed both to provide accounting for press contacts and also have a chilling effect on leaks. But as a byproduct, Chris Camp’s file provides historians with an unusually detailed look at White House-Press interactions during the period.

It also provides some insights into the personalities and dynamics of the people in the White House. Arthur Schlesinger provided a concise version of a phone call with Henry Taylor: “I called him an ‘idiot’ and hung up on him.” And Mike Forestall on the White House’s national security staff provided this description of a meeting with Henry Brandon of the London Observer:

Mr. Brandon asked me to lunch and skillfully got me to pay for it. As a result, I did not think it necessary to provide him with any interesting information. Indeed, it would have been difficult to do so, since I did not know the answers to most of his questions myself. After he had discovered how little I knew about the decision taking in the Cuban episode, we traded considerable information about subjects in which neither of us have any hard knowledge, i.e. who was doing what to whom in the Kremlin and in Havana, the state of British public opinion, etc. Mr. Brandon concluded the lunch by giving me some salacious bits of social gossip on the New Frontier, which will only turn over in exchange for an expensive lunch on the Press Office.

By contrast, the president’s military aide, Chester “Ted” Clifton, took the reports more seriously and provided much more detailed information.

 

Who Were Charlie Bartlett’s Sources?

Chris Camp’s file opens some intriguing possibilities for an historian. Reporters are famously protective of their sources, of course, and press contacts at the time were free-flowing and often informal. So trying to trace the provenance of a particular story can be maddeningly difficult.

Digging into Charlie Bartlett’s sources for a famous Cuban missile crisis postmortem provides a good case study illustrating why tracing reporters’ sources can often be complicated. And it also shows why it was so hard to stop leaks.

In the wake of the crisis, Charlie Bartlett and Stewart Alsop wrote an influential post-mortem article for the Saturday Evening Post that came out in the December 8 issue.

The article garnered notoriety for its attack on Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson, the article suggested, had advocated policies that amounted to appeasement by arguing in favor of trading the Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Kennedy had secretly agreed to do just that, but the issue was politically sensitive. Richard Nixon, for example, had publicly said that such a deal would amount to a “horse for a rabbit” trade that would be a severe blow to U.S. interests. “If we were to make this kind of trade it would mean that Turkey would lose all faith in us, the anchor of NATO would be destroyed as America’s allies would get the impression that when the chips are down they might go on the bargaining table.” After Kennedy had said that he had made no such deal, he couldn’t very well now come out and say he’d lied.{{1}}

The article was co-authored, but it was Bartlett’s name on the byline that immediately elevated the piece to must-read. Bartlett was known to be a close personal friend of the president’s. It had been Bartlett who introduced Jackie to Jack. Their friendship seemed to imply the article had the White House’s imprimatur. And the attack on Stevenson was therefore widely interpreted as coming from the president himself.

The instigation of the article did indeed have presidential blessing and White House cooperation. Bartlett had floated the idea directly with the President himself on October 29 (a copy of the letter is below{{2}}). And Bartlett and Alsop agreed to let the White House review the article for accuracy before publication. Kennedy himself read the draft and approved it before publication. According to Barlett, his only change being to reduce the presence of Ted Sorensen.{{3}} So there were very clear White House fingerprints on it. But the sourcing of the article isn’t as clear cut as it initially appears.

 

In a 1994 interview with historian Timothy Naftali, Bartlett said that it was Michael Forrestal, one of the members of McGeorge Bundy’s national security staff, who dropped over lunch the information on background about Stevenson advocating a trade of the Turkish Jupiters.{{4}}

There’s no evidence in Chris Camp’s file that contradicts that–aside from Forrestal’s self-deprecating admission that he didn’t know anything about decision-making during the crisis–but the file widens the circle of known sources for the article considerably. In the process, it shines an interesting light on the kind of access some reporters had in the Kennedy White House.

The file shows that Bartlett, more so than Alsop, spoke to a number of sources during the period on the topic of Cuba and other topics (although it’s impossible to know how comprehensively the report descriptions summarize the actual discussions). The president’s military aide, Chester “Ted” Clifton emerges as a major source.

It must be noted that those reports amount to only a partial list. The file only includes contacts that were actually reported, and it does not include any reports from Salinger, Michael Forrestal, Robert McNamara, Dean Acheson, Llewellyn Thompson, McGeorge Bundy, John McCone, Ray Cline, or the president himself–and we know from other sources that Bartlett or Alsop spoke to all of them as well in the course of preparing the article. He may have spoken with General Earle Wheeler, although Clifton’s notes make it appear that he acted as a conduit. There may have been other contacts we don’t know about.

Here’s a list of the reported contacts with Bartlett and/or Stewart Alsop along with the descriptions provided by the staffers.

October 29

Walt Rostow w/Bartlett [Rostow’s appointment book lists a 5PM meeting with Charles Bartlett but provides no information about the substance of the discussion. It almost certainly focused on the Cuban crisis.]1

November 1

Ted Clifton w/Bartlett & Alsop “I also spent two hours with Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett helping them get started on their SATURDAY EVENING POST piece. They talked about everything in connection with Cuba that anyone could imagine, but when it came to any of the military choices or Presidential decisions, I begged off and told them to please get that from the President. I also cautioned them that they were trying to write a definitive story in the midst of a fluid situation, and that they certainly should make some arrangement with you to clear their piece so that we here in the White House who are supposed to help them with it could feel that there would be no breaches of security. I also recommended they set up other appointments they need through you.”{{5}}
Ralph Dungan w/Bartlett “To give me some information.”{{6}}
Lee White w/Bartlett “General inquiry about anything in the domestic field that might have been overlooked or overshadowed by Cuba.{{7}}

November 2

Ted Clifton w/Bartlett “He reported to me that he and Stewart Alsop had talked to Pierre Salinger in regard to continuing their process for their SATURDAY EVENING POST article, and had made an agreement that everything they would write would be submitted for accuracy and clearance.”{{8}}
Ralph Dungan w/Bartlett “To set up interview Bartlett and S. Alsop.”{{9}}
Ralph Dungan w/Bartlett & Alsop “To discuss Cuba.”
Ted Sorensen w/Bartlett & Alsop “A review of the Cuban chronology.”{{10}}

November 5

Ken O’Donnell w/Bartlett No description provided.{{11}}

November 6-9

Ted Clifton w/Bartlett “I talked to Charlie Bartlett last week and he warned me that an editor down South had received word that troops were embarking in Savannah for an invasion of Cuba; he stated that this editor would not print the story himself, but was afraid others would. Charlie urged me to tell someone in Defense or Army about it. I knew, however, that this contingency had been examined beforehand. I thanked Charlie for the information, but did not feel I needed to relay it to anyone in the Army or Defense.”{{12}}

November 14

Ted Clifton w/Bartlett “I talked to Charles Bartlett who said that the President had told him to get some information from General Wheeler for their SATURDAY EVENING POST article. Being familiar with the material, I have General Wheeler preparing it, and it will be processed by the President before it is given to them for the article.”{{13}}

November 15

Ted Clifton w/Bartlett “Charles Bartlett called to ask about the Dave Bell story in the EVENING STAR. I told him I knew nothing about it. He expressed his private feelings on the matter. He also told me something else in connection with the SATURDAY EVENING POST article research, which I relayed verbally to Mr. Salinger.”{{14}}

November 20-21

Ted Sorensen w/Bartlett “Discussion of the fiscal outlook for 1963.”{{15}}

November 20

Myer Feldman w/Bartlett “Discussed the attitude of the Administration toward the budget. I suggested that Dave Bell could give him more information about how we are trying to keep it under control.”{{16}}

November 21

Myer Feldman w/Bartlett> “Interested in discussing the instances in which expenditures had been restricted and I arranged an appointment for him to see the Budget Director.”{{17}}

[[1]]Carl Greenberg, “Nixon Asks Full Public Support for Kennedy,” 28 October 1962, Los Angeles Times, p.F1; and “Nixon Endorses Kennedy Actions,” 28 October 1962, New York Times, 28 October 1962, p.24.[[1]]
[[2]]Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, & Kennedy, 1958-1964 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), p.321.[[2]]
[[3]]Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, & Kennedy, 1958-1964 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), p.321.[[3]]
[[4]]Box 28, President’s Office Files, John F. Kennedy Library.[[4]]
[[5]]Chester Clifton to Pierre Salinger, 1 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[5]]
[[6]]Ralph Dungan to Chris Camp, 1 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[6]]
[[7]]Lee White to Chris Camp, 1 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[7]]
[[8]]Chester Clifton to Pierre Salinger, 2 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[8]]
[[9]]Ralph Dungan to Chris Camp, 2 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[9]]
[[10]]Theodore Sorensen, “Report on Conversations with Members of the Press Held by Theodore C. Sorensen,” undated, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[10]]
[[11]]Ken O’Donnell to Pierre Salinger, 9 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[11]]
[[12]]Chester Clifton to Pierre Salinger, 13 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[12]]
[[13]]Chester Clifton to Pierre Salinger, 14 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[13]]
[[14]]Chester Clifton to Pierre Salinger, 15 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[14]]
[[15]]Theodore Sorensen, “Report on Conversation with Members of the Press Held by Theodore C. Sorensen,” 21 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[15]]
[[16]]Myer Feldman to Pierre Salinger, 20 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[16]]
[[17]]Myer Feldman to Pierre Salinger, 21 November 1962, Pierre Salinger Papers, Box 142, “Press Contacts by White House Staff” folder, John F. Kennedy Library.[[17]]

Notes:

1. Walt Rostow Appointment Diary, 29 October 1962, Rostow Papers, LBJ Library.