Prologue Magazine

Standing In for the President, Part 2

Summer 1999, Vol. 31, No. 2

By W. Dale Nelson

©1999 W. Dale Nelson

Larry Speakes with Reagan
Larry Speakes, seen here with President Reagan, called the press secretary "the second most visible person in the country." (NARA, Ronald Reagan Library)

At the November 1985 U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Geneva, White House spokesman Larry Speakes believed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was getting the better of President Ronald Reagan in his give-and-take with reporters. Speakes then had an aide draft some quotes, polished them up, and told reporters that they were things the President had said. One was, "The world breathes easier because we are talking together." Another was, "Our differences are serious, but so is our commitment to improving understanding." Both quotes were used extensively in the news media and attributed to the President. He did not say either one of them.

It might be argued that it doesn't matter. Who cares? The statements were hardly earth-shaking. Speakes dismissed them as "taking a bit of liberty with my P.R. man's license" in order to "spruce up the President's image."18 The trouble with this argument is that nobody had given Larry Speakes a publicity man's license. He had been given an obligation to deal honestly with the press and public.

By no means do all of the words that pour forth under the President's name originate with the President. Skilled writers craft his speeches, bureaucrats draft his veto messages, and diplomats painstakingly construct his statements during visits of foreign leaders. These, however, are adopted by the President and become his utterances. Speakes did not even consult Reagan. Reporters believed what they were told and reported that Reagan had said things he could not even have known about. If Speakes had not written about the incident in his memoirs, the quotations could have made their way from newspaper files into history books. Conceivably, they could still. The conflict was not between the press secretary's obligation to the press and his obligation to the national interest and the saving of lives. It was between his obligation to the press and, and as Speakes put it, sprucing up the President's image. Image-making won.19

Presidential press secretaries do not, of course, tell stories designed to put the President in a bad light. During the Yalta conference near the end of World War II, Acting Press Secretary Jonathan Daniels went through the pictures taken by Army Signal Corps photographers and released those that showed President Roosevelt looking relatively healthy. When he later was criticized, he conceded that to some extent he misled the American people as to the President's health but added, "I wasn't going to make him look like he was dying."20

This sounds reasonable. No censorship of the press was involved, because the pictures were not taken by news photographers but by government employees. There is, however, still a question of truthfulness. The President was dying. The conference ended on February 11, 1945, and Roosevelt died almost exactly two months later of heart disease from which he had long suffered. It is a close question whether Daniels was, in effect, lying to the press. But it should be noted that there was no faking of pictures, only a selection. Most of us, if we have a chance to select among photographs taken of us, will select the ones that make us look best. There were, of course, larger issues involved here. It might have been better had all the pictures been made public, but it seems a bit too much to expect.

It is not too much to expect that the presidential press secretary to tell the truth, if not the whole truth. Hoover's Theodore Joslin once lamented, "I sometimes wonder whether I ever will be able to tell the whole truth after serving through this position."21

It is an odd position. Larry Speakes said its occupant is "the second most visible person in the country, which can be not only an honor but a headache."22 President Johnson's George Reedy said, "The only reason for the press secretary's job is that the President cannot deal with the press 24 hours a day. You have to have somebody that acts as a stand-in for him."23 Jody Powell, after discussing his experiences in the position, said, "I have been speaking of the press secretary's job as though there were general agreement on what it is. That is not the case."24

What, then, are the qualifications for this peculiar assignment?

Charles Ross Charlie Ross was a high school friend of Harry Truman's. When Ross spoke to the press, they knew he was speaking for the President. (NARA, Harry S. Truman Library)

In 1931 Charles G. Ross of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote, "My advice to all Presidents is not to put up a newspaper man to meet the press. Choose a politician. . . . Newspaper men expect a former colleague to deal with them on their own terms. When he doesn't--and often he can't--they are resentful. On the contrary, they expect only the average amount of assistance from a presidential secretary who has not had newspaper training."25

Fourteen years later, President Truman called upon Ross to be his press secretary. Charlie Ross was about to prove himself wrong.

Ross has been criticized as a press secretary on many counts. He lacked much administrative experience, and the press office he ran was by no means a tight ship. He was not always aware of everything that was going on.26 His career in journalism had been spent as an editorial page editor and a writer of long, thoughtful essays, and he seemed not to understand the highly competitive spot news reporting that is the staple of the White House beat.27 He failed to coordinate news releases with the government departments and agencies.28 He did not do much to burnish Truman's image and, as Truman biographer Alonzo Hamby has pointed out, it probably never occurred to him that this was part of his job.29 On top of all this, he was hard to hear.30

But Ross had two advantages that are important in a presidential press secretary. He was very close to President Truman. They had been high school friends in Independence, Missouri, and had renewed their friendship after Truman came to Washington as a senator. When Ross spoke to reporters--either for the record on background--they could know that he was speaking for the President. And perhaps more important, few if any reporters ever complained that Charlie Ross misled them.

As Theodore Joslin observed, a President's press secretary cannot always be expected to tell the whole truth. But he or she should be expected to tell nothing but the truth.

Standing in for the President, Part 1


This essay is based on talks given by Mr. Nelson at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., on September 10, 1998, and at the Carter Center in Atlanta on February 23, 1997, on his book, Who Speaks for the President? The White House Press Secretary from Cleveland to Clinton (Syracuse University Press, 1998). The National Archives and Records Administration schedules author lectures throughout the year.

1. George Cortelyou, memorandum to Rudolph Forster, Jan. 26, 1903, George Bruce Cortelyou Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

2. Margaret Leach, In the Days of McKinley (1959), p. 231.

3. Ida Tarbell, "President McKinley in War Time," McClure's Magazine (July 1898): 213-214.

4. Lewis L. Gould, The Presidency of William McKinley (1980), p. 136.

5. Joseph P. Tumulty, "In the White House Looking Glass," New York Times, Dec. 31, 1921.

6. Theodore Joslin, diary, Joslin Papers, Herbert Hoover Library, West Branch, IA.

7. C. Buel, "Our Fellow Citizen of the White House: The Official Cares of a President of the United States," The Century Magazine (March 1897): 647-648.

8. Marlin Fitzwater, Call the Briefing! Bush and Reagan, Sam and Helen: A Decade with the Presidents and the Press (1996), p. 339.

9. Betty Houchin Winfield, FDR and the News Media (1990), p. 79.

10. Jody Powell, The Other Side of the Story (1964), pp. 225-232.

11. Powell, interview by the author, Feb. 29, 1996.

12. Jack Nelson, telephone interview by the author, May 28, 1946.

13. Sound Recording OH1, exit interview of Jody Powell by David Alsobrook, Dec. 2, 1980, p. 5, Jimmy Carter Library, Atlanta, GA.

14. Pierre Salinger, With Kennedy (1966), 145-47; Salinger, P.S.: A Memoir (1995), p. 109; Salinger, interview by the author; "Plucky," Time, May 1, 1961, p. 63.

15. Salinger, With Kennedy, pp. 249-255; Salinger, oral history interview, Los Angeles, Aug. 10, 1965, pp. 141-142, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA.

16. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965), p. 207.

17. New York Times, Feb. 28, 1977.

18. Larry Speakes, with Robert Pack, Speaking Out: The Reagan Presidency from Inside the White House (1989), pp. 169-170.

19. Ibid., p. 170.

20. Jonathan Daniels, Columbia University Oral History, pp. 139-140, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY.

21. Theodore Joslin, diary, June 27, 1932, Joslin Papers, Hoover Library.

22. Speakes, Speaking Out, p. 1.

23. R. Gordon Hoxie, ed., The White House: Organization and Operations (1971), p. 56.

24. Powell, The Other Side, p. 303.

25. Charles G. Ross, typescript, July 10, 1931, Ross Papers, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO.

26. Robert J. Donovan, Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945-1948 (1977), p. 23.

27. James E. Pollard, "President Truman and the Press," Journalism Quarterly (Fall 1951): 467.

28. Carleton Kent, oral history interview, Dec. 21 and 29, 1970, pp. 33-34; Eben Ayers, oral history interview, Jan. 12, 1967-June 30, 1970, p. 21, both in Truman Library.

29. Alonzo L. Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (1955), p. 301.

30. Robert S. Allen and William V. Shannon, The Truman Merry-Go-Round (1950), p. 56.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.