Bill Moyers speaks with news correspondent Richard Strout, who covered Washington and the White House from 1925 until his retirement in 1984. Strout’s reports, filed for the Christian Science Monitor and The New Republic, are studied here as chronicles of American history but as milestones in the evolution of our nation’s capital— from a “small town” to the nerve center of the free world.
BILL MOYERS: Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan — twelve Presidents, and this man has covered them all. Tonight, Richard Strout, known to many as TRB, looks back on 60 years of Presidents and Politics. I’m Bill Moyers.
This is Washington, DC, in the 1920s, and Richard Strout was 25 years old when he first arrived in the nation’s capital and began his long career in journalism.
RICHARD STROUT: In 1923, I drove down from Boston to Washington in a touring seven foot Model T, and it took three days. That was the car where you measured your gasoline by getting out, lifting the front seat, and then sounding the trunk tank with a yardstick. I could park my Model T all day long in the ellipse behind the White House. There was plenty of room, and no parking tickets. It’s hard to reconstruct 1923 today. There wasn’t any Pentagon. The State, War, and Navy Building beside the White House still held all the State Department and parts of the two other agencies. Harry Truman hadn’t put the porch on the back of the White House, and there were sculpture groups in front of the Capitol that you will note in old prints.
Columbus discovering America, and a pioneer or some other figures staying the Tomahawk of a ravishing Indian from a settler maiden, which Mark Twain called the delirium tremens style of sculpture. Harding was President, and he had his affairs going on. He was married to the Duchess he called her. She was five or six years older than he was.
RICHARD STROUT: He, also, was having a little affair with his girlfriend, Nan Britton. I’ve often thought someday the true story of the White House should be taken the way they do at Versailles. They turn the lights on Versailles, and they point them at this window, and they say, this happened there. And they’d point at this particular coat closet, because Nan Britton said in her biography that there in the coat closet, five by six, I and the President exchanged embraces.
BILL MOYERS: No one puts the heartbeat into history like a good witness. And Richard Strout has been a witness to the transformation of Washington, DC, from an unhurried, uncongested, southern-flavored little town into a world capital. It was only in my own childhood that the two revolutions occurred which brought that transformation about.
The first was the New Deal. It made Washington the headquarters of a vast federal bureaucracy concerned with promoting the general welfare in every hamlet in the land. And the second was World War II. The United States came out of that with strategic commitment from Tehran to Tokyo, and they had to be managed from Washington. By the time I got there in the 1950s, a summer intern up from college in Texas, the town was a town no more. It was a metropolis at the crossroads of the globe.
This growth is one of our century’s is big stories, and there’s another one buried inside it. It’s centered around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the street address for the White House. The job of its occupants has also grown like Alice in Wonderland after she nibbled the magic mushroom. I’m fascinated at how historians will get at this transformation and reduce it to order. How they’ll winnow astronomical piles of films, recordings, and those documents that the copying machines multiply like locusts. How they’ll travel the official road to preserving the past.
But as a journalist, I’m also especially intrigued by other avenues to the remembrance of yesterdays. The good talk, for example, of keen-eyed people who’ve been there and seen it firsthand. From their anecdotes come the footnotes to history, which illuminate the main passages. Richard Strout’s recollections are like that. As correspondent and commentator in Washington for the Christian Science Monitor and the New Republic, altogether for three-fourths of this century so far, he’s seen the lions of that city prowl, and fight, and preen. Most interesting to me, he has recorded the other side of the public image, the human side, both base and noble, which is like the backlight of a formal portrait and often reveals more than the face itself. A walk through the 20th century with Richard Strout is quite a stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue.
RICHARD STROUT: Well, this was the capital of my country, and I had been in the Army. And I had all the normal, naive, patriotic, childish thoughts, I suppose of a young man of 23. And then I was taken to my first Presidential Press Conferences, and there was the White House, which is a symbol of government, and taken into the Oval Office. And there were 60 or 70 men standing around the desk, and there behind the desk was a handsomest man who was ever President since George Washington.
He was Warren G. Harding, the medial Harding, and he was wearing plus-fours. And plus-fours means knickers. And all my colleagues, I realized that these people must be colleagues. I was a newspaperman, too, and yet my heart bled four Harding, and they were asking him sharp, mean, and pertinent questions. And I said how can they treat the President of the United States in this abrupt manner? And he, in his bland, rather noble way said, gentlemen, gentlemen, be kind to me. I want to out and play some golf this afternoon. And so after a while, we let him go and he went away.
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember the little green house on K Street?
RICHARD STROUT: Well, there were these hideaway houses, several of them, the K Street house and other houses. And Harding would go in and they’d play poker there, and he was a well good fellow. And he would have a plug of tobacco, and then he’d take a chaw. And then he’d glibly pass it around among his friends if they wanted to use it, and they played for high stakes. The National Press Club in those days was not in this building. It was in what is now the Albee building. And at one time, a frightened waiter came one evening and wrapped on the door. They were playing poker, and said, sorry sir, I hate to intrude, but the President of the United States is outside, and he wants to come in and see if he can play cards with you boys.
BILL MOYERS: Did he?
RICHARD STROUT: They all got up. Yeah, they welcomed him in. They’d been out traveling with him after the campaign, and they welcomed him. He was lonely. He knew he was inadequate for the job. It was a pathetic thing. It was a tragic thing. It was what we do to our Presidents. He was there in the White House, and he knew he was inadequate for the job. And they asked him to make decisions, he didn’t know what to do. He broke down and wept on some of his visitors’ shoulders. And ultimately, he died suddenly.
BILL MOYERS: What about the Teapot Dome Scandal?
RICHARD STROUT: Yes, that was I suppose the first great scandal that I was aware of.
BILL MOYERS: And you covered the hearings.
RICHARD STROUT: I covered the hearings.
BILL MOYERS: In the Teapot Dome scandal?
RICHARD STROUT: And the Teapot Dome, yes.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: Woodrow Wilson while still president, had set aside several parcels of land as Naval oil reserves. One such location was an area of some 9,841 acres in Wyoming, known as the Teapot Dome Oil Leases. During the early years of his administration, Harding had turned over the administrating of that land to his Secretary of the Interior, Albert Bacon Fall.
As early as 1922, the rumor had spread that Fall had secretly leased a government property to oil tycoon, Harry Sinclair, without putting it on the block for competitive bidding. Mailed inquiries by the Senate had gone unanswered. Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana headed the Congressional Subcommittee that unearthed the startling evidence that Fall had, indeed, awarded the lease to Sinclair’s oil company on April 7, 1922. And that later, upon retiring from the Cabinet, the Secretary of the Interior had received an interest-free loan of $25,000 from Sinclair.
At the same time, Fall awarded another set of government oil leases in California to oil magnet, Edward L. Doheny. This time, Albert Fall was the recipient of a personal loan of $100,000. The Federal Government brought charges of conspiracy due to fraud against Fall and Doheny in 1926. Legal technicalities snarled the case hopelessly, and both men were acquitted of the charges. Still, the following year, the Supreme Court declared both oil leases invalid and the land returned to the government.
RICHARD STROUT: Fall came in, at first he came in he was proud and faced down the crowd. And then after about four or five months, he came in, he was a broken man, and he shambled in, and everything had been exposed at that time.
BILL MOYERS: In that same room where you covered the Teapot Dome Scandal, you also covered the hearings on Watergate.
RICHARD STROUT: 50 years later and, of course, the 50 years before Teapot Dome, then the great scandals in the administration of Grant. And if you go back and look through the calendar, at every 50 years, there’s been a great scandal. There was the scandal of Grant. Then there was the Teapot Dome. And then Mr. Nixon.
BILL MOYERS: This led you to calculate, what you call, Strout’s law.
RICHARD STROUT: I promulgated Strout’s law that every 50 years, we have a scandal, and watch out for 2023.
BILL MOYERS: What was the difference between the Teapot Dome scandal, which magnetized the country’s interest, and the Watergate scandal 50 years later?
RICHARD STROUT: Well, the stakes had changed. It was part of the growing of the sophistication of America. When I came to Washington, people were reaching for wealth. In Nixon’s , day, they weren’t reaching for wealth. They may have had wealth on the side, but they were reaching for power.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve been around under 12 Presidents, I believe. Which was the best at handling the press?
RICHARD STROUT: Oh, without a doubt, Franklin Roosevelt was. Oh, it was a delight to cover him. That was spontaneous on both sides. We’d ask questions, and we’d ask follow-up questions. It’s the follow-up questions that really get the answers.
BILL MOYERS: Describe one to me. Do you remember any particular press conference?
RICHARD STROUT: Well, I always think of the one, one particular one, we were around that desk. The desk was covered with mascots, and little toy elephants, and toy donkeys, and so forth. And there was this big smiling benevolent man leaning back in his chair, and with his cigarette, and throwing his head back, and a big chin. Then somebody would come in, and he’d say what’s the news today? And somebody would shout out, I think it would be, Fred Storm would shout we came here to find out what the news is. And Roosevelt would say, I remember on one occasion, Fred, you’re just too big. There are three people behind you trying to see me. Somebody bring a chair up. So we brought a chair up. Fred, you sit there, and from now on you sit in that chair. And Fred Storm sat in that chair, and you could hear the voices behind saying, that’s fine, that’s fine. The United Press is having two big men. They shouldn’t have such large figures.
BILL MOYERS: Did Roosevelt really enjoy the press conference?
RICHARD STROUT: Oh yes. Yes, he enjoyed them. And the greatest scene that I’ve ever seen at a press conference was right after Pearl Harbor. And that ended a chapter in American history. Every reporter in town could always remember for years afterward, just exactly where he was when the news on Pearl Harbor came.
So what does any journalist do in a thing like that? I went straight to the White House. And first we had various press conferences in the White House. And then, late that night I stayed there, and I had a group of 10 or 12 other reporters, went over to the portico of the White House, and the stage settings were all there.
There was not a moon, a moon that looked as though it was a piece of cheese and parts had been bitten out of it, and it climbed up through the elm trees there. And it was cold and crisp, and the crowd gathered behind the iron railing down below. As I say, we were on the portico, and at one point, somebody in the crowd tried to start the Star Spangled Banner. And he couldn’t sing it. Nobody can sing the Star Spangled Banner others, and I wrote at the time, it made me cry.
BILL MOYERS: Listening to crowd?
RICHARD STROUT: Listening to that crowd. It was a very moving experience. A week later, who should appear at the press conference but Winston Churchill. And that was the great moment when you had Franklin Roosevelt sitting there, and Churchill, the other great leader of the English-speaking world there with him. And we must have had about 200 people in the room just back-to-back.
And we shouted out, we can’t see you. I think we may have said– I don’t know what we said. We can’t see you. So he got up on a chair.
BILL MOYERS: Churchill did?
RICHARD STROUT: Churchill did in front of the desk with Roosevelt waving applause, not saying anything but waving to him and encouraging him. And there was this man, not particularly formidable, rather dumpy, but a cherubic face. And I’m sure a lot of others just instantly had that feeling, can this be the man who is leading the world? And then he began to talk, and he used this one word, Nazis, the Na-zees, and he got more vituperation into that one word than I had ever heard. His jaw came out, and it went down onto his chest, and there was Winston Churchill.
WINSTON CHURCHILL: What kind of a people do they think we are? Is it possible they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them, until they have been taught a lesson, which they and the world will never forget? Prodigious hammer strokes have been needed to bring us together today. If you will allow me to use other language, I will say that he must, indeed, have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants. It is not given to us to peer into the mysteries of the future till I avow my hope and faith, sure and inviolate, that in the days to come, the British and American people will, for their own safety and for the good of all, walk together in majesty, and justice, and in peace.
RICHARD STROUT: He stayed at the White House, I think, for about eight days. He and Franklin Roosevelt got on a first name basis. They’d go to the map room together Churchill would push Roosevelt to the map room in his wheelchair, and so forth.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve seen a lot of crowds in your years of covering Washington. There’s a marvelous passage from your book where you say, “The crowd was out there, too, when they brought Jack Kennedy’s body back. That crowd haunts the place. It always appears. It was out there when President Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. It is an actor in the drama. When it materialized silent, steady, patient, watching all night, you know great moments of history are occurring.” What are some of the crowds you recall?
RICHARD STROUT: The most spectacular was when Franklin Roosevelt died. And I remember still the picture of the cortege coming down Pennsylvania Avenue. And somebody had been playing in the band. He was a black, and he dropped his, whatever he was playing, and just wept. And we all had that feeling.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the most significant change in press conferences over the years from the first one you attended under Harding to the most recent under Reagan?
RICHARD STROUT: Well, you people have changed our press conferences.
BILL MOYERS: Wait a minute.
RICHARD STROUT: You’re responsible for it. It’s the coming of television. You had in the old days, let’s see now, Harding, he miscued and he gave some answer he shouldn’t, so he would accept only written questions. Hoover came in. Hoover was Secretary of Commerce, and this television began to come in. I went down with Secretary Hoover, and we put on a demonstration of this new thing, television. It was the size of a playing card. I asked him to sign the program for me.
BILL MOYERS: Herbert Hoover, April 7, 1927.
RICHARD STROUT: 1927 and there’s the New York Times, Far Off Speaker Seen As Well As Heard Here In A Test Of Television. And you’ll notice halfway down the bank, it says “commercial use in doubt.” There it is. Commercial use in doubt.
BILL MOYERS: Did he make any comment about the potential of this new fangled device?
RICHARD STROUT: Yes, he said he hoped it would never be used to commercial use. It would injure the public. He didn’t want it to be commercialized.
BILL MOYERS: President Eisenhower was the first to open the press conference to television, even though it couldn’t be live. Do you remember in 1954 when that happened?
RICHARD STROUT: Yeah, sure, Jim Hagerty would decide which tapes could go out. And he would pick the sort of tapes that showed the President in a favorable light and he put those out. And then later on, of course, it got to be more and more.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER:  I’m very happy that Dick Nixon’s my friend. I’m very happy to have him as an associate in government. I would be happy to be on any political ticket in which I was a candidate with him. Now if those words aren’t plain, than it’s merely because people can’t understand the plain, unvarnished truth. I have nothing further to add to it.
REPORTER: Congressman Alger of Texas today criticized Mr. Salinger as a quote, young and inexperienced White House Publicity man, end quote, and questioned the advisability of having him visit the Soviet Union. I wonder if you have any comment to make?
JOHN F. KENNEDY:  I know there are always some people who feel that the Americans are always young and inexperienced, and foreigners are always able, and tough, and great negotiators. But I don’t think the United States requires the present position of leadership in the free world if that view were correct. Now he also, as I saw in the press, said that Mr. Salinger’s main job was to increase my standing in the Gallup Polls. Having done that, he’s now moving on–
REPORTER: Mr. President, could you tell us anything about the public reaction as reflected in telegrams and letters due to your decision to bomb the Hanoi-Haiphong area?
LYNDON JOHNSON:  Yes, we have first of all, all the communist countries, generally speaking, opposed it rather vehemently. Some of them were rather vicious in their statements. And I think inaccurate. We were bombing of civilian targets and killing civilians. We were very careful to select military targets that were not in the center of the area, and to spare all civilians. And we took every precaution available to us. I cannot understand the thinking of any country, or any people, or any person that say that we should sit by with our hands tied behind us while these men bring their mortars, and their hand grenades, and their bombs into our barracks and kill our Marines, and attack our camps, and murder the village chief, and we should not do anything about it.
REPORTER: Sir, last week in your speech, you referred to those who would exploit Watergate to keep you from doing your job. Could you specifically detail who “those” are?
RICHARD NIXON:  I would suggest that where the shoe fits people should wear it. I would think that some political figures, some members of the press, perhaps, some members of the television perhaps would exploit it. I don’t impute interestingly enough motives, however, that are improper interest, because here’s what is involved. There are great number of people in this country that would prefer that I do resign. They’re great number of people in this country that didn’t accept the mandate of 1972. After all, I know that most of the members of the press corps were not enthusiastic, and I understand that about either my election in ’68 or ’72. That’s not unusual. Frankly, if I had always followed what the press predicted or the polls predicted, I would have never been elected President.
REPORTER: Mr. President, when you say that Senator Kennedy, that his statements have not been accurate, responsible, and that they’ve not helped our country, and he and his aides, say that your own campaign has been misleading, and negative, and taking cheap shots, how can that do anything but further and bitterly divide the Democrats. And aren’t you both helping the Republicans in a general election?
JIMMY CARTER:  Well, I might point out to you that I’m an incumbent Democratic President. I didn’t ask for a challenger, but I have no aversion to a campaign. I want the world to know that I am not going to resume business as usual as a partisan campaigner out on the campaign trail until our hostages are back here free and at home.
SARAH MCLENDON: You have a report before you that was given to you from the Justice Department. It shows the discriminations that, actually, exist on the books in federal agencies and departments against women. Now you’ve committed to take care of legal equity for women. And this report has not been made public. Would you please let us see it, and we can do something about it.
RONALD REAGAN:  It hasn’t reached me, yet.
SARAH MCLENDON: Yessir, it did. It came to you in the Cabinet meeting, and you admitted at your last press conference that you had it. And I have checked this out thoroughly. Yes sir. It came from Assistant Secretary.
RONALD REAGAN: There is a task force that is working on this very question.
SARAH MCLENDON: You’ve got it. You’ve got part of it. You’ve got the first quarter that was given to you at the Cabinet meeting by Brad Reynolds. And it says there’s been a lot of sex harassment of women.
RONALD REAGAN: There has been?
SARAH MCLENDON: I would suggest that you (laughter) look into that. He talked about at the Cabinet meeting. You were there!
RONALD REAGAN: Now, Sarah, just a minute here with the discussion or we’ll be getting an R rating…(laughter…)
RICHARD STROUT: You go to a press conference to get news, yes, but you go also to see how the President is handling himself. You go to see whether he looks, whether he’s pale, whether he looks sick, whether he looks well, whether he’s on to his job. You’re estimating the man. So that you can have a press conference, which doesn’t say an awful lot. In one way, that’s an invidious thing, and it’s funny, but you go to a press conference for other reasons than just to get spot news. I have to say a word about Hoover, too.
I thought Hoover was going to be our greatest President, so you can see that my judgment wasn’t very good. I used to go to his press conferences. He’d sit at the end of a long table, and he was a shy man. He had trouble in meeting your eye. He wouldn’t look directly at you. And we’d ask these questions, and he’d say, another question, and we’d have five or six questions. And then at the end, he raised his head, he would have had all those five or six questions codified, and he’d answer them, and he’d give a superb answer to it. And I thought this is the man who’s going to bring order to American government.
BILL MOYERS: What happened?
RICHARD STROUT: Oh, he was the victim of a Greek tragedy. He was overcome by forces, which he didn’t understand at all. He was a good man. He was slain by the monster of the economic cycle killed him.
BILL MOYERS: I reread some of your columns in 1977 that said 50 years ago, a vacationing President rode down a mountain to a semi-weekly press conference and created a political mystery that has lasted to this day. What mystery?
RICHARD STROUT: Well, that was Calvin Coolidge, and that’s another story that’s fascinating, and it’s never been solved. And never will be solved, because the people are all dead. The speculation on it. I always enjoyed Coolidge. Everybody enjoyed him. There was curious side to him. He had received, as every President does, a hamper with a turkey in it on Thanksgiving Day. And he, actually, did this. He took the White House cat, and he put it into the hamper with the turkey to see what would happen. I don’t know what happened. And then one time, there was an alarm from the White House. And the guards came rushing from all over the White House, the alarm had sounded. And the little willful man had pressed all the alarm buttons, and then got behind a curtain to see what would happen and there he was.
BILL MOYERS: Coolidge, the President?
RICHARD STROUT: Yeah. Coolidge had done this.
BILL MOYERS: Coolidge told reporters that when many people are out of work, unemployment results. Was Calvin Coolidge a dummy?
RICHARD STROUT: No, I don’t think so. He was a sharp Yankee, was unimaginative. He did more sleeping than anybody’s ever been in the White House before. He took a nap every afternoon. And that was just a kind of a President that the country wanted. They wanted a President who slept. The country was rolling along. They started on the great development, the great boom, the Coolidge boom, the Hoover boom. And I thought he was pretty bright. But he had tragedy in the White House. His beloved son got an infection in his foot playing tennis and died. It was before they knew what to do, and died blood poisoning.
BILL MOYERS: Was he ever the same after that? The President?
RICHARD STROUT: No he had gone up to his hideaway up in the mountains out west. And Grace, his wife, who was the nicest woman in the world had got lost. She was guarded by a handsome Secret Service man. And they waited lunch for her, and waited lunch for her, and there was nothing evil in the thing at all, but there was talk about it. And it got into some of the Boston papers.
BILL MOYERS: Her relationship with him?
RICHARD STROUT: Just the mere fact that she had been late, and there was this good looking Secret Service man who was guarding her, and was lost, too. That was all there was to it. The Secret Service man was dismissed. Not dismissed, he was assigned on another assignment. I have a private speculation about it. What happened when I said he went up to the mountain and he wrote out, I think, it was 12 copies of this statement he was going to make. He came down the mountain. He passed them out to the press there.
BILL MOYERS: I do not choose–
RICHARD STROUT: I do not choose to run. He didn’t say anything about it. He didn’t submit himself to any questions, and he went back up the mountain again. And he’d been accompanied by a Senator. The Senator told Grace about it, and she said how like Cal that is. He didn’t mention it. He kept it hugged to his breast.
BILL MOYERS: He didn’t even tell his wife?
RICHARD STROUT: He didn’t tell his wife. He didn’t tell anybody. I’ve always thought it was an act of contrition to his wife.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve watched a lot of Presidents, but you’ve also watched a lot of other notable people in the city, including some towering figures in the Congress. If you had to pick one or two of the supreme congressional leaders of your century, whom would you pick?
RICHARD STROUT: Well, as a speaker eloquence, I’d put Borah first.
BILL MOYERS: Of Idaho.
RICHARD STROUT: Borah of Idaho, goodness you have to say that do you now. Yes, Borah, William E. Borah. William Edgar Borah. And well, I can tell you that in the press gallery and the Senate we all sit outside the folding glass doors and wait for something to happen. And then we may go in and look and see what the boys are doing, the Senators on the floor. But when Borah spoke, the Secretary of the Senate would open the doors, and he’d shout two words, Borah’s up. And the whole crowd, 50 or 100 reporters, would all go for those doors and sit down. Borah’s up.
WILLIAM BORAH: It is often said in recent years that the Constitution of the United States is not a sacred document. But I feel that an instrument of government, purchased by years of sacrifice and bloodshed up in the field, by weeks and months of arduous effort in counsel, which has held together people of all kinds, races, and faiths in ordered liberty. Which gives freedom to all who come within its jurisdiction, which makes the people sovereign and the officials their agents, is sacred by every rule which measures the worth of human progress, ardor, and freedom.
RICHARD STROUT: Borah’s up. And there’s never been a center in my lifetime of whom it could be said, Borah’s up, applied to him, who could really be eloquent.
BILL MOYERS: What about LBJ as a congressional leader?
RICHARD STROUT: Lyndon Johnson was one person who carried his personality with him very effectively. I interviewed him one time when he was in the Senate at that time. He was majority leader in this huge Sistine Chapel sort of an office that they gave him with nymphs overhead, diaphanous nymphs.
BILL MOYERS: Room P-38, room P-38 in the Senate.
RICHARD STROUT: I’d met him before, but I had no reason to be there. I had asked some question, and he invited me in. And he kept a whole string of important people waiting, because he was trying to convince me of something that I didn’t care very much about one way or the other. And he just happened to use the metaphor, I am not a babe in arms, and he sprang out from behind that desk as though he were ejected from a catapult, and he went marching up and down this with a babe in arms.
I heard him deliver that magnificent speech on Civil Rights before joint session of Congress, and I found in my notes when I was up in the press gallery, that I had interrupted myself to say I shall always remember this speech.
LYNDON JOHNSON: What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement, which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negros to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it’s not just Negros, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
RICHARD STROUT: You remember this Washington that I came to was almost a segregated city in 1922. A black couldn’t get served in a restaurant. If he went to a National Theatre, he couldn’t buy a seat under the second balcony. And just in our lifetime, this whole change has occurred.
BILL MOYERS: What about Nixon’s Republican Cloth Coat speech. Do you remember that? That was a very effective speech.
RICHARD STROUT: Well, there are two political speeches in my lifetime. I would put that as one of them, yes. That was the cloth coat. That was the Checkers Speech. They discovered that there was a fund to be used at his discretion for political purposes, and some people called it a slush fund. That was unfair to him. It wasn’t a slush fund, and he made a reply on television, which was corny and meretricious, but it was magnificent. And he told about how simple he was, and he brought his wife in and his children in, and his little dog in. His wife didn’t have a fur coat the way some people did. She had a Republican cloth coat.
RICHARD NIXON: I should say this, that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat, but she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything. One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t, they’ll probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift after the election.
A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip, we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little Cocker Spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl Tricia, the six-year-old named it checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep him.
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember what Eisenhower said to Nixon after that Cloth Coat speech?
RICHARD STROUT: Your my boy.
BILL MOYERS: It kept him on the ticket.
RICHARD STROUT: That’s right. And the other speech that I will never forget. I have almost total recall on was the speech Franklin Roosevelt gave that was the little dog Fala Speech. And he said that we just got back from Alaska, that the dog was along, and I’m used to having things said about myself. I take that for granted, my children, and my wife. But now they’ve attacked my little dog, Fala.
FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks. And my family don’t resent attacks. But Fala does resent them. You know, Fala’s Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers, in Congress and out, had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian Island, and had sent a destroyer back to find him at a cost to the taxpayers of two, or three, or eight or $20 million, his Scot’s soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.
RICHARD STROUT: He just milked that joke, and the audience was receptive, and they were rolling in the aisles. It’s the only time I can really say they were rolling in the aisles.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s talk about some of what you referred to in the past as your happiest recollections. One was traveling with Harry Truman on his famous 1948 Whistle Stop Campaign across America, and you called him gallant Harry. Why was that?
RICHARD STROUT: That was in 1948 when he was, obviously, defeated. He couldn’t win. He was just helpless there. I think there were 50 reporters on that special train, and Newsweek took a poll, and everyone of us, including I, we said he is going to be defeated. We all knew he was going to be defeated. But he didn’t know it. And we’d ask each other has anybody told him he can’t win?
And they do these horrible things, too. But he was so game through it. One time they got him in the– what was the name of that Hall? The Ak Sar-Ben Hall was the name of Arkansas, Kansas, and Nebraska. And there was a legion parade, and the legions were all out parading. And when he got into the Hall, they had only about 1,000 people right down in the front seats.
BILL MOYERS: And this was for the President?
RICHARD STROUT: This was for the President of the United States. They were out parading, and they were on the town. And so there was that awful moment, we went in there, and we gasped. And we said the President was only able to turn out about 2,000, the Hall holds about 10,000. And then came that awful moment when you television people took your machines, and you could see the light. And they moved it slowly around the Hall up and down these empty seats. And there was this game little guy. He had to live through that.
BILL MOYERS: An empty Hall.
RICHARD STROUT: An empty Hall, and he did it. He went out and dedicated a– Charlie Ross got his signals mixed.
BILL MOYERS: His press secretary?
RICHARD STROUT: His press secretary, and he dedicated a landing field. He thought he was going to dedicate it to a war hero, and it was a woman. It wasn’t a war hero.
BILL MOYERS: All kinds of mistakes.
RICHARD STROUT: Yeah, just awful things like that happened to him all the time.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, he never gave up, did he? He never quit.
RICHARD STROUT: He never gave up, and he always insisted that he was going to win.
BILL MOYERS: You said he got wonderfully corny the further West he got.
RICHARD STROUT: He was just professionally corny. Yes, he was beyond belief corny. He said, I’m going down to Berkeley for to get me a degree. And he brought in his grandfather who had been a covered wagon rider, and he kept bringing the grandfather in. And then some little scandal was supposed to have been exposed during his absence, and it didn’t amount to anything. And his reply to that was, they can’t prove nothing. They ain’t got a thing on me. And my dear friend Tom Stokes put those two lines together. And oh, Susanna, I’m going down to Berkeley for to get me a degree. They can’t prove nothing. They ain’t got a thing on me. And they all sang. There was always a song that grows out of any one of these trips, or there used to be in those days.
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember election night 1948?
RICHARD STROUT: Oh yes, surely, you bring it back to me. I remember very poignantly, because I write for the Christian Science Monitor, and I also write for the New Republic. And I had to have my column in the New Republic ahead of time. So I had Dewey all elected in print. And then, by golly, Truman deceived me. And I had these mingled emotions. I was going to be mortified as everybody else, and all these other reporters were. The Alsops and everybody else, we all had what kind of a president will Dewey make? And yet, I had the rejoicing that the game little fellow had won.
DEWEY: I sent the following wire to President Truman. My heartiest congratulations to you on your election, and every good wish for a successful administration. I urge all Americans to unite behind you in support of every effort to keep our nation strong and free, and to establish peace in the world.
HARRY TRUMAN: And Mr. Kaltenborn said, “The president is a million votes ahead in the popular vote, we have yet to hear — we are very sure that when the country vote comes in, Mr. Truman will be defeated by an overwhelming majority.” And I went back to bed and went to sleep.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a wonderful paragraph from one of your columns that no political writer who sat through the astonishing returns last week will ever forget them. There was personal humiliation for us as a prophet, but a glowing and wonderful sense that the American people couldn’t be ticketed by polls, knew its own mind, and had picked a rather unlikely, but courageous, figure of Truman to carry on its banner.
RICHARD STROUT: It’s very true, yes. I have just the same feelings now. It was shown that, despite all the machinery and mechanical part of the election, the American nation is there and breaks through at the appropriate time.
BILL MOYERS: The other happiest recollection I’ve heard you talk about was traveling with Nikita Khrushchev of all people in 1959.
RICHARD STROUT: Well, that was unbelievable. We want right across the United States with this little roly-poly figure was alien in every way in looks and so forth, and was agreeable, and affable, and having a wonderful time. And we got out to San Francisco, and they took us into a supermarket. They wanted to show Nikita Khrushchev what real America was like, so they took us into a supermarket. We wrecked the market. We just wrecked it.
And to understand that, you have to realize that when a celebrity like Nikita Khrushchev or the President travels, about 1,000 to 1,500 people travel with him. We had the photographers of all the French and German newspapers, and these European photographers, they’re a breed by themselves. They stop at nothing. And we got into this great supermarket where there was a crowd of people, and we barged in on their thing flashing away. And there in the center of the worst thicket would always be little Khrushchev who about, I guess he was a little over five feet tall.
RICHARD STROUT: I got up onto the checkout counter. I thought that was the safest place for me. I climbed up on top of it. And right down below me, there was an incumbent figure of a woman on the floor. And there she was, people trampling around, not stepping on her, but there she was on the floor. I asked the photographers later, did you see that woman who fainted was right there on the floor? And they said, fainted? I thought she was dead. And then over on one side, this huge supermarket, a fight had broken out, a fistfight.
And I don’t know, there are things going on all around. And I asked the fellow, we asked them all at the end, what had been going on. I asked what were you fighting with the butcher for? And he said, I don’t know. He attacked me. But you were over there at the meat counter. Why he attack talk to you? I don’t know, I didn’t do anything. I was standing on his meat.
BILL MOYERS: Well, those were some trips, weren’t they? I mean you’ve seen it from the ground up, as well as from the Senate Gallery.
RICHARD STROUT: That’s right, yes.
BILL MOYERS: There was another episode in your life you write very movingly about, and that’s watching the invasion of Normandy in 1944.
RICHARD STROUT: D-Day, yes. That was out the normal track of the Washington reporter, and I was aligned to the USS Quincy, one of the most magnificent cruisers in the world. And I was the only reporter on board. And the captain took me up to the forward lookout, and there I was to watch the battle of D-Day. He provided a stenographer for me, was to stand right beside me, and I was to dictate to him as it went along. But I found I couldn’t dictate, so I typed the story up, but I typed it on a typewriter that spoke French. It all the French, and every time they would let go of a salvo of guns, something would fall off the wall. A shaving brush, or a bolt or something came to the ground, and the whole boat would quiver.
That evening, we didn’t know who’d won the battle. Our hearts were in our mouths. And then over from England, came a line of airplanes. Every airplane had a glider behind it, and it was towing. We could see the airplane along a little wafer, a Zephyr and then a glider, and it just came from England. It didn’t stop coming. They kept coming, more and more of them. By the time they had reached, done whatever they had done, the airplanes began coming back again, but without the gliders. The gliders had been let off, they had landed on Normandy, and they were behind the lines.
And I still have a feeling of, well, there’s no other word to use than religious. I had a religious feeling of prayer. It lifted me out of myself. We can phrase it any way you would want, but there it was. This was America. We had done this.
BILL MOYERS: We reporters can never truly, finally separate our own feelings. We can never really be objective, can we?
RICHARD STROUT: No, of course not. We shouldn’t be. No, but we should keep it under restraint.
BILL MOYERS: You once wrote that this has been an extraordinarily fascinating half century from Teapot Dome to Watergate. It was marked, you said, by America’s coming of age. What do you mean coming of age?
RICHARD STROUT: Well, there was this innocence that we had when I came to Washington in every way. You go back, the street cars, and no television.
BILL MOYERS: And no airplanes coming overhead?
RICHARD STROUT: No airplanes overhead, and we couldn’t lose a war. It was impossible for the United States. We never lost a war, so we must be superior to anybody else. That was before Vietnam. And things have constantly got more complicated, and things are speeded up, and the tempo is faster, the dangers are vastly greater than they were. I think we’ve been united.
And I think we, well, we have to say that we have to put in a word of praise for the American Nation democracy. We believe in democracy, and we believe in live and let live. We’ve got better. When I came to Washington the World Almanac every year at the end, would have a horrible list of lynchings that had occurred in the United States during the past year. And there’d be 60, 70, or 80. Well, the World Almanac doesn’t carry any account of the number of lynchings in the United States.
You can say anything you want about how Civil Rights have a long way to go in this country. But compared to what they used to be, we have a very civilized nation. We have a magnificent achievement. We’ve done pretty well.
BILL MOYERS: Have you enjoyed this show?
RICHARD STROUT: Enjoyed it? Yes. Of course, and it’s never ending variety. You always think you’ve seen everything, and then you’ve got something brand new that has never happened before. It happens every day. You get a new kind of President. You get a new set of questions that are asked him. You get a new challenge to him. You get a new international problem.
So it’s quite a spectacle from 1922.
RICHARD STROUT: Oh, it’s the greatest show on earth.
BILL MOYERS: This has been a look at Presidents and Politics Richard Strout. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 7, 2015.