Appendix A.2 The President and the Press1
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PRESIDENT LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
EDWARD P. MORGAN: In the State Department auditorium in Washington DC, the President of the United States confronts the press. Here, or around the White House garden, in his office, or on his Texas ranch, he faces reporters. He learns from their questions, the mood of Americans. The press, which is not obliged to be friendly, comes to ask the questions only the President can answer.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Now I’m ready to answer any questions you may have.
PRESS 1: I wonder if you could tell us what your interpretation of the viewpoint of the American people is on the Cuban problem and what should be done about it?
PRESS 2: Do you and the Defense Department foresee a possible withdrawal of our military wives and children from Saigon or other Southeast Asia command posts in the foreseeable future?
PRESS 3: Can you give us some elaboration of what you meant by extremist elements?
PRESS 4: Have you received any such evidence that would back up such indication?
PRESS 5: And if they are differences, what are they, please?
PRESS 6: And could you give us your philosophy of civilian-military relationships in this particular area of nuclear weapons?
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: I believe that the final responsibility for all decisions on nuclear weapons must rest with the civilian head of this government, the President of the United States. The man who is President can never get away from that responsibility and can never forget it. I believe that’s the way the American people want it.
MR. MORGAN: It is to the people that the President is finally answerable.
MAN: Thank you, Mr. President.
MR. MORGAN: By newspapers, radio, and television, the press will report the President’s answers to the people. The reporters’ questions reflect the thoughts, and wants, and worries of the people. In a democratic society, a President cannot govern if he does not understand the people. He must have their support. The Presidency, Lyndon Johnson has said, is an office not of power, but of persuasion.
A President can help people toward their highest desires, but he cannot take them where they do not want to go. Obviously, the President cannot speak or listen personally to everybody in a nation of more than 190 million people. The press provides a vital communications link. No one in the world is photographed, followed, observed, and questioned by as large a permanent press corps as the man who occupies the White House.
The U.S. President is also the nation’s principal celebrity. He must fulfill many roles. As a diplomat, he must propose and try to establish policies which contribute to the peace, security, and well-being of not only his nation, but of the world. As chief executive, he must administer a gigantic governmental organization. And it is he who must finally answer the toughest questions.
Yet even as he does all these things, he must be a practical politician. His party expects him to lead it to success in the next election. And, in a country which has no monarch, it is the President who must perform the multitude of ceremonial duties, which protocol demands.
Every public act of the President is reported by the White House press corps. Numbering over 1,200, they represent radio and TV networks, newspapers, and magazines. They write for small town weeklies, big city dailies. They come from many countries, from the great news-gathering services of England, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Some of these reporters have covered as many as eight or nine presidents.
Their job is to monitor a steady stream of information that originates in the White House—press releases to be read, checked, and culled over. Information comes personally from the President’s Press Secretary at regular morning and afternoon briefings or whenever questions arise.
PRESS 7: Well, what I’m getting at is—
PRESS SECRETARY GEORGE REEDY: I’ll be available.
MR. MORGAN: But the White House reporters’ most important source of news is the President himself. At any moment of any day, the most significant news story may break here. Television crews, news film cameramen, and reporters make preparations, and wait, and wait. The moment often comes without warning. Lyndon Baines Johnson enjoys the spontaneous, such as this impromptu conversation with reporters on the White House grounds.
But in this informal talk, as in the formal press conference, the questions touch on urgent matters. When the President faces the press, he risks criticism and opposition. But this is a risk he must take. Only a free press will ask the difficult, the frank question. And only the frank questions will tell the President what the anxieties and hopes of the people really are.
In the age of the jet, the White House beat is all America. The President is expected to be everywhere and the press to be there with him.
[APPLAUSE AND CHEERING]
3,000 miles New York to San Francisco, 5,000 miles Miami, Florida, to Point Barrow, Alaska, by charter plane or presidential jet. Wherever the President’s plane alights, a temporary White House press room is set up, on an open field, in a school room, or a hotel lobby. Several times a day, stories are reported back by telephone or wire, radio or TV, live or on film.
Wherever the President goes, whatever the President does, the press reports and interprets. The President searches the faces for support. The press tries to measure that support and detect any discontent. What is the cheering for? Are they merely applauding the personal warmth? The Texas smile? Or do the cheers echo real support for the President’s stand on crucial issues?
In the spring of 1964, the paramount issue was the need for the American Negro to obtain full civil rights. The question for Lyndon Johnson was how to translate his commitment to civil rights into action. Where could he expect support? How strong was the opposition? How could he narrow the debate? There are many visitors. Not all come to discuss civil rights, but all leave knowing his concern.
The President and congressional leaders of both parties, Democratic and Republican, are committed to legislative programs, though there may be differences. Now, every man is made to feel that he is working on the same problem. The search for support goes on. Representative government is just that—it represents. There are conflicts. Both sides must be heard.
The conflicts must be resolved and compromises reached. The President follows the press, radio, and TV reports. His aides search out information from many sources. There are many high level conferences. Yet somehow, time is found to think, to add it all up. Then, out of the conferences, out of the conflict of ideas, out of the long nights, a further commitment.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Not from charity, not from condescension, not from coercion, but from a deep commitment to justice must we open wide the door of equality and invite all Americans to walk through that door. The civil rights bill now before Congress is a far-reaching step in the direction of equality. It may, I pray it won’t, but it may take all summer. It may take sessions around the clock, but I promise you, here and now, that we are going to pass a civil rights bill.
MR. MORGAN: From May to July, Americans followed the progress of the important legislation. The President increased his effort, using all the power and prestige of his office, to secure final approval for the civil rights bill in Congress.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: This is the centennial year of Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves of their chains. But he did not free America of her bigotry, or he did not free the Negro of his color. And until education is unaware of race, until employment is blind to color, emancipation may be a proclamation, but it is not a fact.
MR. MORGAN: In the White House, the President had made his commitment known. Now, in Congress, the representatives of the people would make the final decision. On July 2, 1964, the bill was passed. The same evening, President Johnson would sign the bill in the presence of the men of both parties who had supported it, men who had accommodated differences and coaxed vision into law. The President would speak to the people about the new law.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I want to take this occasion to talk to you about what that law means to every American. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty, yet millions are being deprived of those blessings, not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.
The reasons are deeply embedded in history, and tradition, and the nature of man. We can understand, without rancor or hatred, how this all happened, but it cannot continue. Our Constitution, foundation of our republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.
Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this nation by the just and wise God who is the Father of us all. Thank you and goodnight.
MR. MORGAN: Tomorrow’s papers would report the details, the souvenirs of the occasion. But again, the press would reach beyond these and explore the underlying importance of the moment. How does this event bespeak the character of this nation, her President, her people? Some editorials will be critical, call it the wrong approach, too strong or too mild.
But most will call it an important forward thrust in the constant struggle of a nation to improve herself. Tomorrow’s news will report other problems, foreign and domestic. The President and the people will grapple with them together, their main conduit of communication being the nation’s press and its flow of fact and opinion.
- Source: Johnson Library, RG 306, Film Production Materials Related to the Vice Presidency and Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, 1961–1975, The President and the Press, 1964, MP#151. Produced by Quest Productions. Narrated by Edward P. Morgan.↩