I was a young man just a few months shy of my 30th birthday, the father of a 3-year-old girl, husband in a marriage struggling to stay intact, when a Staff Assistant to the President of the United States asked me if I would like to work at the White House preparing the President’s Daily News Summary, a document that by then had become an institution in its own right. To say the least, I was honored to be considered, indeed humbled to be hired.
That happened in January 1972. And that was the year that our 37th president, Richard M. Nixon, choreographed a historical paradigm shift in global power relationships that put unique levers of influence in the hands of the U.S. at the hub of the global steering wheel with his trips to the Peoples Republic of China and the USSR.
The Staff Assistant who hired me was Lyndon K. Allin, known in the White House with affection and respect as “Mort”. Allin was a a former Wisconsin high school teacher who had directed the 1968 election campaign’s youth operations and was hired to be editor of the News Summary by Pat Buchanan.
Like Allin I also went to the White House from Wisconsin, but well versed only in the struggle of a state Republican party trying to get traction in the left and far-left politics peculiar to Milwaukee and Dane counties, especially in the capital city of Madison. But well versed in Wisconsin isn’t a strong argument for national savvy. All politics may be local, but what I learned in Wisconsin was meager preparation for Washington. The capital was another universe with its own cast of characters, its own history. The learning curve would be steep.
My first assignment was to get through as many newspapers each day as I could to find articles and editorials that would add value to the President’s news summary. Allin, a consummate teacher, drove home the gold standard to satisfy: Does the President of the United States need to known this? Does it add value? The challenge of becoming familiar with the byline columnists and editorial history of so many newspapers (most not seen in my quaint Wisconsin universe) was formidable. We had at least 75 dailies to get through, papers that covered an extraordinary editorial spectrum (Manchester Union Leader -vs- The San Francisco Chronicle), as well as geographical. There was strong Latin, leisure industry and senior citizen reporting from the Miami Herald, cultural conservatism from The Arizona Republic, midwest liberalism in the Minneapolis Tribune or Chicago Sun Times; and urban sentiments from major cities like Baltimore, Detroit; and the influences of our traditional Old South from Atlanta and New Orleans or Richmond. And we incorporated agricultural reporting from Des Moines and Lincoln, Nebraska. Oil and cattle were covered by our Houston and Dallas papers. Of course Los Angeles and Seattle were included, and others one might not expect, papers from St. Paul and Indianapolis. With a smile on his face, Mort once scolded me not to waste time reading our home town newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, “except in your spare time.” There was no spare time, needless to say.
For those who value finer points in history, the news summary staff took up three offices in the Old Executive Building, rooms 125, 127 and 129. Directly across the hall were some of the luminaries of the time, Bill Safire, Pat Buchanan, Dave Gergen – even one-time ABC reporter John Scali – and countless others.
And there was an extraordinary pool of talent down every hallway. It was the only place I ever worked where there were Ph.D’s around every corner and secretaries with masters degrees. It was all a part of the mix to the background noise as the AP and UPI wire service printers clattered six feet from my desk. Staffers walked in and out, people like Ben Stein, Noel Koch, Ken Khachigian, to see if stories they had worked on had yet rolled on the wire services.
Seeing the differences between what the President said or did to what the press printed and broadcast was an education in its own right.
The mechanical process of putting a news summary together was both art and science, engineered by its editor, Mort Allin. With his remarkable memory to remember dates and page numbers where articles had appeared, above the fold or below, Mort Allin was arguably the most ideal person for that job. He could recall if NBC’s Tom Brokaw had used the same language as Bob Pierpoint on CBS and could recall most of what was said by the late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt in his infamous Playboy magazine interview [Yes, we had every issue because, again, we could not let the President be caught off guard - even by the Navy’s top admiral.]
Soon after my contributions to the news summaries began, the usual format and routine underwent an abrupt change for the historic trip to China.