The First Amendment; Clark Molenhoff - The President Who Failed
The First Amendment and a free people a weekly examination of civil liberties and the media in the United States and around the world. The program has produced cooperatively by WGBH Boston and the Institute for democratic communication at Boston University the host of the program is the institute's director Dr. Bernard Rubin.
My guest today is really the dean in my view of the investigative reporters of the United States. Clark Armand Hoff who for many years was the Washington bureau chief for The Des Moines Register and Tribune. He also is currently professor of journalism a lot Washington and Lee University Clark Amahl and has written more than 10 well-known books is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist lawyer as well won his Pulitzer Prize for his labor rackets investigative reporting. If I may I remember Clarke Armaan getting up at an Eisenhower press conference looking the president square in the eye I think was like looking Jack Benny square in the eye because he has about his return look and saying in those days Mr. President what about this Dixon Yates contract in this electrical power line being built on the wrong side of the river in the TVA area. And Eisenhower came back and it led to a major investigation and a change of administration policy. Do you have an instinct for that kind of reporting that that makes it more interesting for you than other reporting.
Well basically most of these problems of government operation are relatively simple. If you get the facts that cannot change there are contracts that are let for a specific figure. There let on a certain day there let by specific people and if you get that all rounded up and then simply apply the law and logic you almost inevitably will run into areas that have not been explored too often the press as a whole grab something that seems to be colorful but that may be clear off to the side of the basic issue of good government. And of course I should criticize that but the fact the matter is it makes it's made my life much more simple because when the wire services would go on some superficial aspect of a labor racket inquiry for example. All it was necessary for me was to go back in and go through the documented record and add one and two and three and get my score and lay down a story that was rather complete and on the central issue.
Let me ask you about your new book which is entitled The president who failed by Macmillan just been Macmillan Publishing Company just been published. You are very critical in this book of President Jimmy Carter. And you base it upon a number of stories that you have investigated. Let me just preceded that a little bit. You were at one time mentioned as the man who was invited to become President Ford's press secretary. And I believe turned it down is that correct.
No I was not there was a there was a feeler but I was President Nixon's special counsel for a year and after serving in that capacity for a year I would not have been his press secretary because I do not want to flack for anyone. What my job was was a special counsel and for the administration My job was rounding up the facts and the law and keeping the president straight on these things. This was Nixon. This was Nixon. And in the period of time I was there I did this and many times on many major issues. By the time I was there a few months I saw that regardless of whether Nixon might see the wisdom of the political wisdom of running a good government somehow Erlichman and Haldeman did not see it. And I just decided to get out because I saw that they were going to get in some kind of trouble and I didn't want to be around.
Well then you've answered my first question you have good instincts now.
Now to get to this this wonderful enterprise of yours of taking these key stories in the president to fail and bringing him to our attention it's easy to go after Jimmy Carter today. And I'm trying to get the thread whether we're talking about the present attorney general when he was assistant attorney general been civil liberty whether we're talking about Mr. Fitzgerald the whistleblower on the C-5 a being pursued and the fact that a lot of people didn't want to listen to his complaints about over cost overruns and inefficiency. Well whether it's about human rights. Am I correct Clark in that you sense. Ineptitude not necessarily deliberate malfeasance but the book seems to give me a feeling that these people are not able to handle the problems.
One of the basic threads that goes through the book and the handling of all these matters is an analysis of what the president knew and when he knew it. That's a question that came up during the Watergate hearings and it's always very important to zero in on that. And the one thing that I found to be central to all of these problems was that they didn't know how to analyze their problem. They did not understand and this is Carter personally and the people immediately around him did not understand the gravity of the illegalities and improprieties of Bert Lance.
And in this case they had before them a report from the control of the currency control of the currency who had been appointed by Carter who did not want to offend Carter and who probably did him a disservice. In the not writing this report in the sharp sharp critical way it could have been written what he did was he laid out all the facts and he mentioned the law violations it was spelled out there in detail. But Carter went before the public in a press conference in mid August of 977 and told the American people that he had read that report they lost a great and and that they were losing a great man and that that this there was nothing in that report indicating Bert Lance was involved in illegalities or improprieties which was in fact false. And saying that if anything this report had solidified his confidence in Burt Lance and that Bert Lance was going to be continued as a budget director. Now if he had properly analyzed his problem with that stage he he might have modified his own views on Bert Lance but he would have made certain that Bert Lance got out of there very fast because there were there were facts in that report that made it inevitable that Government Affairs Committee would bring Burke Lance up there. They had to bring him up there and they had to unclothed him and lash him for improprieties and illegalities before that committee which they did and even till the end Carter did not understand what was taking place. And even as Bert Lance left he continued to assert that Bert Lance had done nothing illegal or improper and that he was getting rid of Bert only because it was best for Bert that bird had decided he wanted to go down to Calhoun being tangled up with some guy who has as little ability to analyze problems as Carter was the worst thing that could happen to Bert Lance. Bert Lance probably would not have been indicted if Jimmy Carter hadn't tried to defend him.
Let's take another illustration to get back to incivility there was a David Marston who was an aggressive investigator for the federal government tourney. Federal Attorney in the Philadelphia area there were two congressmen Ile Bergen flood he went after them both. They got rid of Marston. Both were later convicted for improprieties. And yet when when civil leddy with the backing of the administration goes before committees to see whether he should be nominated for high office in the Justice Department. Again is this a mis reading when the Carter administration backs him up to that extent.
Well it's a misreading of the problem.
Initially Jimmy Carter was personally involved in that Marston matter. Congressman Alberg who was under investigation by Marston called Jimmy Carter personally on the telephone and asked Jimmy Carter to have Marston removed. Now Alberg didn't volunteer that he was being investigated personally he said. In fact though that Marston was investigating a lot of Democrats up there in Philadelphia. Well obviously there are a lot of Democrats up there that deserve to be investigated. Carter did not ask Alberg according to his version. He didn't ask Alberg Why are you interested in this. Why are you interested because you're personally involved or are you interested because some of your political cronies up there involved either would have drawn. It's a question an answer that would have created a an impossible situation for Carter. However Carter called Griffin Bell. Now just take this. Albert calls Carter Carter doesn't raise one question. He immediately calls his attorney general and says he wants them to expedite the firing of Marston. Here he is serving as president United States but in fact he's serving as an errand boy a political errand boy for ile Berg who is under investigation. He may not know that but he had the ability to either by questioning I'll Bergh or if he had wanted to question Alberg for some political purpose he could have called Griff bell and said Grif this is what's come to my attention here. And do you know of any reason why al Berger and his cronies up there but he accepts Berg's characterization of Marston as investigating Democrats. The fact the matter is Marston was a Republican but he was investigating Democrats and Republicans and the record showed at that stage that he'd knocked off one of the biggest Republicans up there so it would He was not being overtly partisan in the way he was doing things.
You know in chapter after chapter as the blurb says accompanying the book people can say this is great muckraking reporting in the great tradition. People can say it's an attack slanted attack that the beauty of the book is that use you tell it the way you see it. When when you looked at these questions and looking back now at the Nixon period is there a thread that runs Nixon Ford Carter or are these three distinct personalities who are doing similar things but.
Well mentally there are threads that are the same. Each of them has realized or recognized what others before them and recognized that the Justice Department is the most important department there is from a standpoint determining the tone of the administration because they have wide discretion on who they will prosecute and what cases they will not follow through on their go they look for cronies to make any journeys to make attorney general so they will get they will protect their friends and prosecute their enemies. And this situation was true in the next administration. True to a degree in the Ford administration probably not to the same extent only because Ford was under tighter scrutiny in the wake of Nixon. Carter comes along and snows the American people by appointing his crony Griff bell after in the campaign saying that he would not make appointments on political grounds. And yet I can find little difference between the appointment of Griffin Bell and the appointment of John Mitchell.
Both were political cronies of the Prez you point out in your research there was a certain amount of the maze meant when people said that Mr Brown was going to head the Defense Department because he was the last one on the list of people that would have been associated with the new Carter administration.
That's correct that's correct.
Then then what. What is the cause here is it the fact that the job has become too big for any man.
Is it something that causes these people I use the word instinctively before to instinctively seek rather than the best to use the card or phrase to seek someone they can trust and then they are betrayed or well any confidence misplaced or some phrase you know it's a combination of these things and I have no doubt that that all of these people and this would include Nixon when they became president. They made the selections Yes they selected some of their friends but they named them mainly because they had confidence maybe a misplaced confidence in their friends and they wanted to be a good president. Because anyone who's grown up in this country with the aura that there is has been around the presidency when he assumes that job wants to be a good president. Problem with them is most of them don't know how. They assume you have to do all kinds of sneaky business and I don't think that you do. I think that I still think that running a good White House and a good administration would be the most satisfying thing politically and might even get you re-elected. But nobody's ever tried it to any extent. They they they all fall down with these compromises and they say sometimes they make a misjudgment. I'm sure that when Carter appointed Lance initially he did not know the details of what Lance had been involved in that he indeed genuinely believed that Bert Lance would make a good director of the Office of Management Budget and Burt has a lot of very fine qualities.
When you investigate something you are not satisfied easily. The toughest one to satisfy is yourself. So that when we say an investigative reporter reports the background to a story that's not enough it takes something special something a little more what is it. What is that magic ingredient does it take knowledge of government. If you're a lawyer does it take some special information plus instinct.
It takes a knowledge of government. It takes some knowledge of law. It takes a good deal of understanding of how cases are fixed.
And human nature all you have to do is take yourself and try to put yourself in the position of a Jimmy Carter. And I always try to do this all of a Bert Lance and and say what would I do with faced with this situation. Sometimes I would probably react the way Carter did in fact with regard to trying to protect Lance to some degree. Lance had helped him politically. If I had someone who could help me politically I would feel like a kind of a compulsion to not be too hard on them.
Initially Lance was a major force subscribing or getting the background to the campaign funding writing he was running for president and he had and I don't blame them for that.
But when they screw it up by failing to analyze it properly and then get themselves into a position where they say black is white when he says there's nothing in that record that demonstrates illegality or impropriety you see they are illegal acts. That's stated in the controller's report. They are improper acts that stated in the report whether he's criminally culpable in a trial whether he is guilty of frauds is yet to be decided. And even then I say I will have to go back and look the whole record over for myself because I'm well aware of our history of fixed cases particularly where it involves high level officials Cabinet officers the racketeers and the like. Anybody who followed the trials of Jimmy Hoffa couldn't help but be aware of all of the ways that judges can be influenced. The juries can be bought that they even try to buy off the prosecutors and harass the prosecutors. One has to be aware of all of those things and assume that unless you're watching these things closely that they can go wrong. And this distresses me at the present time. You have this trial going on down in Georgia. It's the trial of Lance is one of the most important trials and probably the last 10 years since certainly since Watergate.
And it would be on a par with those. And it's necessary. The pressure to be scrutinizing every action by the judge every argument by the defense lawyers and by the prosecutors everything that's taking place in the court within the hearing and observation of that jury.
You know if you're right in that the press is not doing the job that it could be doing what is what has happened to the press. Has it been intimidated over the long run by Nixon and by Ford and Carter. Does it take its place on occasion when it should be finding its own spot.
Well I think that in this case it's a matter of general super officiality. I've talked to some of the people who were covering the crowd and and for example there are television reporters who are down there and they feel they should be there all the time.
But their network does not want them to be there all the time unless there's something this that's worth getting on the new. And yet they won't go for something on the news unless it fits a certain preconceived notions or nine tenths of the things that a Fred Graham would have for a television network would be discarded would be so it's not news. That's right and this is this is unfortunate.
The top editors of your networks are thinking in terms of an entertainment media rather than a media that analyzes in detail.
What about the newspapers that's a choice that's been leveled against them that they're evolving into in Twellman cheats.
As you well know they are evolving because television because their editors are influenced by television their editors are the present time down in Washington. I'm sure consulting with each other as to what to do about circulation. And in the process they're making all of their. She gets into pure fluff the tendency except with regard to a dozen or two major newspapers in the country are turning more to fluff every day. They've got a new Big Food section but they haven't got enough personnel around to cover the daily to the police station. They have got enough personnel to go around keeping pace with what's taking place in the courts and that's important to everybody in that community to know what's taking place in that police station and that court because unless you have a man there all the time there will be little scandals that will go unnoticed and of little scandals go unnoticed. The next time you'll have a bigger scandal and you won't have anybody that has any idea has taken place until it's too late.
Who are doing some of the better job reporters that you would pick out as being distinguished not because the Pulitzer Prize is awarded to them but because they're doing a good job of work well in Washington you know in Washington.
More mince with a pulse is one of the best reporters and one of the main reasons he's that good is that he follows through. He cares about injustice. He cares about mismanagement in government. He thinks corruption is important. The eradication of corruption is important. Ron Kessler also with the Post the Times has their president you're achieved down there is a fellow with considerable experience and is sometimes they don't follow through in a diligent fashion.
But then the Washington Star does some of it. But too many of them are are moved by the fluff that's also appearing in their papers. For example The Washington Post has literally dozens of reporters that it has out chase and political rhetoric and they have only a handful of people that they will put on actual government operations and they'll have just reams of paper copy in the paper on what the candidates are charging each other with without any facts at all. But they disregard what's actually taking place in government on one issue.
The amount of space that's been devoted to Chappaquiddick in this is no defense of Mr. Kennedy. Yes they should have devoted some space to it. They should ask the questions and see what the responses are. But while they're asking the questions of Kennedy relative to something that is not necessarily directly related to his governmental responsibilities they should sure as the dickens be asking President Carter and the people in his administration the important issues relative to the Marston case relative to the lance case relative to the whole Andy Young affair relative to the operation of the Energy Department and his screw up of the whole energy problem and the wide range of the Fitzgerald case and yet they're not asking those questions in the last couple of programs we've had yourself and Haynes Johnson Haynes Johnson and John Hart of Harvard Law School the last three people that I thought on on the program.
Ealy did a very scholarly legal thing saying a lot of distrust in government because of worry about the courts and so on and so forth. Haynes Johnson practically recapitulate some of the points that you make in regard to the energy crisis in regards of the Social Security system being found out in regard to your stories and their stories. Does it add up to something that is a great crisis for our government that we have got to get away from this particular nix syndrome as carried out by other people.
Well I think that it's a crisis situation and it has to do with whether it has to do with whether represented democracy can survive because representative democracy is contingent upon good operation of government public understanding of what the issues are and what the real issues are. And the press instead of emphasizing those gets drawn off fluff and superficiality.
If we would.
Take it upon ourselves the responsibility of dealing with the serious things in government and not going off on a lot of fluff.
Here we have editorial pages criticizing the candidates for being superficial not dealing with the issues. And yet if they start to deal with the issues don't pay attention to them go off and chase some clown which is easier to do.
It's easier to do doesn't take the word clock. If it's just been a delight because your book the president who failed is what I would call a good read. Do you sit down and you read it from cover to cover with enjoyment. It has that that scintillation that you put into your columns in other words you. You are writing the way Dickens wrote. You're writing your pieces and they have a connection. The story will be untold perhaps in a book but the piece is billed in the newspapers and I thank you very much and I wish you much good luck and thanks again for this edition Bernard Reuben.
The First Amendment and a free people a weekly examination of civil liberties and the media in the United States and around the world.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
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