A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
You could say there was “nowhere to go but up” with my first job title: “newspaper copy boy.”
But I was still just a teenager, starting the day after my high school graduation in 1944, and I was working at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, which claimed to have the largest total circulation of all afternoon newspapers in the country. It had advertisements bragging that “nearly everyone” in Philadelphia reads the Bulletin.
By the time I left, I had numerous experiences and memories. I’ll never forget one in particular in 1945 –- on April 12, to be exact.
I was finishing my chores in the newsroom and it was relatively calm there because the final edition, called the 4-star, already had "gone to bed” and the presses downstairs were rolling. Then, at 5:47 p.m., things began changing in fast and dramatic ways.
First, I heard a rare “clanging” sound coming from a teletype machine printing stories delivered by the International News Service, known as INS. It was like a bell ringing 10 times. I knew that was an alert to stand by for "a flash" -- the most urgent information in the news business, and always extremely brief.
Moments later, stunning words about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
FLASH WASHN--FDR DEAD
INS WASHN 4/12/547PPH36
I instantly tore that piece of paper off the printer and ran to show it to the late-shift telegraph editor, Lou Manning, who looked at the flash, scowled and slammed it face-down on a spike on his desk. That was the place reserved for “dead” or unused reports.
While I watched, aghast, he said, "I used to work for that outfit and somebody there is playing with the wire."
Manning probably also was skeptical because the paper subscribed to the Associated Press, and relied exclusively on the AP for reporting. It used INS only as "a tip service" for breaking news.
But two minutes later, the AP teletype also rang 10 bells, and then printed this:
"FLASH--WASHINGTON--PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT DIED SUDDENLY THIS AFTERNOON AT WARM SPRINGS, GA."
I raced over to Manning again with the AP's report, and this time his face blanched. He darted around chairs and desks to show the managing editor at a corner of the newsroom, and that worthy individual grabbed a phone with a direct line to the press room.
He knew The Bulletin had heavy circulation on its final edition, distributed in street sales to commuters on the way home from work. What to do?
"STOP THE PRESSES!" he shouted.
It was the first and only time I ever heard that, except in a movie.
When FDR died, he was only 63 years old, but had been in office since winning the 1932 election and the next three presidential contests, serving longer than anybody else. I was a child when he first became the nation's 32nd chief executive.
News of his death generated widespread sadness, as expected, but many people were aware that FDR was ill and getting treatment in Warm Springs, where he had established "The Little White House."
Little was known immediately that final day. Only later was it revealed that FDR had been posing for a watercolor portrait when he suddenly described “a terrific pain” in his head, suffered a stroke, collapsed in his chair and died.
At the Bulletin, the managing editor's order to stop the presses kept them idle for 20 or 30 minutes and workers scrambled. They hurriedly replated the front page, and headline type large enough to fit the occasion was dug out of compositors' bins. Then, the presses were restarted with a respectable amount of news agency reports, photos, and a bit of obituary boiler plate.
Workers were fast -- but not fast enough to spare the managing editor a severe reprimand from the publisher for stopping the presses and losing perhaps 30,000 or 40,000 street sales when the regular edition didn't arrive at newsstands on time.
So, it seems that editorial excellence is fine, but "the Bottom Line” predominated even then.
Sixteen years later, in 1961, my job and life were quite different. I was a professional journalist and I had the good fortune to become a White House correspondent – working for United Press International, a company that was formed by the merger of INS and United Press.
So, I was covering President John F. Kennedy virtually every day, including his news conferences, speeches, appearances and travels with a couple of other UPI reporters, The most notable was Merriman Smith, who was known as “Smitty” and had been on the White House beat all the way back to the FDR era. In fact, he was one of the first to report FDR’s death.
Members of the press corps always welcomed the chance to question JFK at news conferences, and the exchanges with him were taken seriously by all involved.
So, I was surprised to get a phone call from one of the president’s aides shortly before a news conference on April 12, 1961. It was from Deputy Press Secretary Andy Hatcher, who told me, "If you ask the President about Cuba, you'll get an answer."
That was all Andy said, but I realized he was “planting” a question for JFK – perhaps because of recent speculation in the news media about political unrest in Cuba and exiles wanting to invade and get their country back from Fidel Castro.
For the only time in my life, I took the bait, discarding the question I'd planned to ask JFK and, according to the official White House transcript, the following ensued:
QUESTION: "Mr. President, has a decision been reached on how far this country would be willing to go in helping an anti-Castro uprising or invasion in Cuba? And what could you say with respect to recent developments as far as the anti-Castro movements in Cuba are concerned?"
THE PRESIDENT: "Well, first I want to say that there will not be, under any conditions, an intervention in Cuba by United States armed forces, and this government will do everything it possibly can, and I think it can meet its responsibilities, to make sure that there are no Americans involved in any actions inside Cuba."
JFK went on to suggest strongly that his administration would not support any plans for “an invasion of Cuba” by anti-Castro forces and then said: “The basic issue in Cuba is not one between the United States and Cuba; it is between the Cubans themselves. And I intend to see that we adhere to that principle. And as I understand it, this Administration's attitude is so understood and shared by the anti-Castro exiles from Cuba in this country."
Five days later, on April 17, came the doomed Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba with secret CIA support.
(One sidelight. Not long ago, I watched a film called "The Good Shepherd," a fictionalized account of the CIA's early history. At one point, an agent played by actor Matt Damon is listening to a radio broadcast of a JFK press conference. The first thing audible was a reporter asking a question. It sounded familiar -- and I realized I was hearing myself asking the question cited above. I never received royalties for commercial use of my voice.)
During the next two-plus years, I and other White House reporters spent many extra hours on the job, trying to keep up with important people and newsworthy events during the Kennedy administration. I knew UPI wanted me to take some time off instead of paying me for overtime, so I got permission to take a 7-week vacation and went to Europe for all of it.
As luck would have it, I was on the way home on a commercial airliner Nov. 22 when JFK left Washington for the campaign swing in Texas that ended in tragedy.
When we landed in the capital, I grabbed my bags and went directly from the airport to my apartment. I had absolutely no idea that Kennedy had been shot to death in Dallas and that my partner, Merriman Smith, had been the first journalist to report that JFK was hurt while traveling in the presidential motorcade.
Once again, it was a “flash” that brought awful news:
At 12:39 p.m. local time, “KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET”
And a second flash 56 minutes later: “PRESIDENT DEAD”
I still knew nothing when I got to my apartment. But soon afterward, my boss in Washington called, told me what happened, and ordered me to go to Dallas immediately on a special charter jet being arranged for the press.
Not long afterward, I got new instructions: hurry out to the Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland for the arrival of Air Force One –- carrying JFK's body, the newly sworn in president, Lyndon B. Johnson, and a few reporters including "Smitty."
When the big blue and white jet landed at 5:59 p.m. EST in darkness, I was there. The casket was carried out.
As soon as Smitty came off, he handed me a report that he had written during the flight. I called our Washington bureau right away and dictated his story from the air base as he followed LBJ into nearby helicopters bound for the White House south lawn.
Smitty won a Pulitzer Prize for his work that terrible day. I never knew if he won it for the material which I dictated, or for a long story he wrote later in the office downtown. What I do know for sure is that I missed covering the biggest story of my life.
Al Spivak was a White House correspondent, then an executive of the Democratic party and at the General Dynamics Corp.
"STOP THE PRESSES!" he yelled. It was the first and only time I heard that, except in a movie.