Monday, July 28, 2014

Washington Social Diary

by Carol Joynt

The front-page story in The Washington Post of Friday, August 9, 1974, ends with this paragraph:

“Thursday was a wet, humid August day, but despite intermittent rain the crowds packed the sidewalks in front of the White House. It was an orderly crowd, resigned and curious, watching newsmen come and go and being a part of a dramatic moment in the life of the nation.”
Do you remember that day 40 years ago? Where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news that prompted Gerald Ford to declare, “Our long national nightmare is over.” It was the day Richard Nixon resigned as president, ending a drama that began with the break-in at the Watergate office building on June 17, 1972. Ford, who became the appointed vice president the year before after the resignation of scandal-soaked Spiro T. Agnew, would serve the remaining 2 ½ years of Nixon’s second term. Ford later named Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president.
President Gerald Ford Taking the Oath of Office, August 9, 1974.
It’s all somewhat dusty and hazy now, as history tends to become in the mind. But in 1974 these next two weeks were both the lull and the climax of a scandal that consumed the nation, and in particular the Congress, the courts and the media, with an escalating drama defined by criminal acts, world class journalism, revelations, charges, hearings, firings, indictments, court actions, ruined careers and lives for some, and sudden fame and fortune for others.

For CBS News, where I was one of Walter Cronkite’s three personal writers, Watergate was a wild ride, but combined with our coverage of the Vietnam War, it established The CBS Evening News as the benchmark in network news. The broadcast’s hard-hitting reporting early in the scandal gave us equal footing with our brethren in the print press, where The Washington Post basically owned the story. None other than Post editor Ben Bradlee, commenting on a ballsy CBS Evening News two-part report just before Nixon’s 1972 re-election, said, “It was as if the story had been blessed by the Great White Father.”
An undated photo on the set of the CBS Evening News, with Walter Cronkite, CJ, and behind the letters, editor John Merriman.
It’s difficult in 2014 to comprehend how a network news anchor could have that kind of authority and power, but in 1974 it was a less cluttered news landscape and Cronkite was that anchor. With our executive producer Paul Greenberg, correspondents Dan Rather and Robert Pierpoint at the White House, Roger Mudd on Capitol Hill, and Daniel Schorr, Bruce Morton, Phil Jones, Fred Graham, Connie Chung and Lesley Stahl on related beats; Eric Sevareid providing perspective, and so many other talented reporters and producers (shout out to the great Stanhope Gould), the CBS Evening News was an unstoppable force. But the White House tried. That memory is clear.

Later we would be honored with every conceivable award, from Emmys to Peabodys to the duPont, but scoring awards was not the motivating factor in our work. We weren’t fools. We knew good ratings gave us heft. But this was a story like no other and, bonded by our journalistic instincts and talent, we were a committed band of brothers and sisters, with a news division president, Richard Salant, who had our backs, a network vice chairman, Frank Stanton, who had Salant’s back, and a network owner, William S. Paley, who fumed over the White House flack we drew over that 1972 two-parter, but who more or less let us do our jobs. It wasn’t always sunshine and roses between Paley and the news division, but compared to the network culture of today there was separation of church and state.
CBS News correspondent Daniel Schorr, who died in July 2010.
Eric Sevareid on CBS News, a voice of reason and perspective during the Watergate scandal.
On a routine day those of us on the “Cronkite show” would arrive at the Broadcast Center on West 57th Street at approximately 10 o’clock in the morning and begin the process of building a half hour program that would air live at 6:30 pm. On the days when a Watergate bombshell broke, however, we were up and out of our desks and on the way to LaGuardia and the Eastern shuttle to Washington, where we would do the broadcast from the newsroom of the CBS News bureau at 2020 M Street. Because we sensed these bombshells might happen, we’d arrive at work with packed bags.

Co-writer Sandy Polster with wife Rea and daughter Rebekah in their New York home in 1981.
It breaks my heart when I think of how many people are gone now, beginning with Cronkite, but also my editor, John Merriman, and my co-writers Charlie West and Sandy Polster. We were a core group who zoomed to the capital with Walter.

On each trip, one writer and a few producers remained in New York to handle the overall broadcast but also the segments that weren’t Watergate related. The director, H. Richard Mutschler, and his AD’s, including Stu Schutzman and Steve Besner, also stayed in New York. Once in Washington, everyone had his or her own favorite hotel. Cronkite stayed at the Madison; Charlie West at a Georgetown hotel that’s now called the Graham; Merriman at the Jefferson. I preferred the Hay Adams, with a view of the White House.

If the bombshell was a one-day story, we’d broadcast the show, go out to dinner, sleep, and head back to New York in the morning. But sometimes we were in DC for a few days. These would be opportunities to have dinner with friends from the Washington bureau – often Susan Zirinsky, or Rita Braver and her husband, Bob Barnett; the show’s Washington producer Ed Fouhy; friends from Time magazine, where I worked before CBS News, and occasionally Bob Woodward, who was a friend from when I was a reporter in Washington. Random memory: dinner at a basement restaurant (now Vidalia) with Woodward, Fouhy and a few others with Bob announcing he’d just signed a deal with Robert Redford to make a movie out of “All the President’s Men,” the first Watergate book he wrote with Carl Bernstein.
Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in "All The President's Men."
At the end of July 1974, this very week, the House Judiciary Committee passed the articles of impeachment. It was landmark news, of course, and we were off to Washington. But then it was August, and there was a lull in the story, and many of us on the show, including Cronkite, scheduled some vacation. Walter went to Martha’s Vineyard. Sevareid, Greenberg, Charlie West, John Merriman and others flew off to vacation spots, too. I went to a favorite getaway, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and checked into a weathered and wonderfully laid back beachside inn, eager to stop my brain and bask in the sun, hitch rides out to the continental shelf on deep sea fishing boats, eat crab cakes and stare at the stars at night.
Dan Rather, filling in for Cronkite and anchoring The CBS Evening News, with Sandy Polster on the left.
Sophisticated communications were fundamentally nonexistent in 1974. There was no TV in my room. In the hotel’s lobby there was a black and white set with rabbit ears. When it was on, the pictured rolled. No cellphones. No computers. One local newspaper that was so local, with a limited view of the news, that it once splashed my picture on the front page: Walter Cronkite’s Writer Vacations On Outer Banks. (In sum: simpler times).

One of the inn’s staff knocked on the door of my room on the morning of Thursday, August 8. “Carol, you have a call at the front desk,” she said. On the line was Mamie Schroth, one of Walter’s two assistants. “You have to get to Washington,” she said, “Nixon is resigning tonight. Everyone is being called in. I’ve got you booked on a flight out of Norfolk. Can you get there?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the lobby TV and the rolling image of Dan Rather, microphone in hand, in front of the White House. He was live on the air reporting on the “smoking gun,” a just-released and incriminating Oval Office recording of Nixon and H.R. Haldeman. Humpty Dumpty was falling off the wall.
Less than two weeks after the Watergate break-in, in this National Archives photo, Dan Rather stands and questions President Nixon at a televised news conference.
I had no idea how I’d get to Norfolk Airport, almost two hours away. I didn’t have a car. Regardless, “I’ll get there,” I said to Mamie. The young man who did volunteer to be my ride was slight, blond, friendly and drove a down-on-its-luck VW van artfully plastered with decals of flowers that would have impressed Peter Max. No recollection of how I procured his assistance, but he understood we had to get there quickly. He did not have a car radio. There was no plug-in to what was happening in Washington. We were both in our early 20s. The world had been crazy for our generation. This day was one more bizarre chapter.

CJ, circa early 1970s, when she was a writer for The CBS Evening News and liked hats.
My flight was scheduled to take-off within about five minutes of our arrival at the airport. I didn’t have work clothes, only beach clothes, and in bell-bottoms, t-shirt, platform sandals, floppy hat and sunglasses, and with no TSA to stop me I ran through the terminal to the gate. But my plane was gone, taxiing to the runway. It was near panic until the nice woman at the gate said, “A woman in Walter Cronkite’s office called and asked us to hold the plane. They’re bringing it back for you.”

My arrival in the crowded cabin was greeted with cold stares. The mostly male and entirely inconvenienced passengers clearly wondered, “Who in the hell is this little hippie girl and why did we have to come back for her?” When my seatmates learned why, though, they were hearing for the first time that Nixon would resign that night. The news spread among the other passengers, creating an excited mood of shared urgency. All of a sudden I wasn’t the creep who had delayed their flight, but practically, nearly, almost Walter Cronkite himself. It was a historic day and we were all in it together. When we arrived at the gate at National Airport, they urged me to get off the plane first.

Which was sweet but also unnecessary. I arrived at the bureau with not much to do but follow events and wait. Colleagues from the show streamed in from their various vacation spots, sporting tanned faces and sunburned noses, garbed in the most formal of the vacation outfits they had in their suitcases. Walter was in suit and tie, of course, but also had a nice tan.
President Nixon's last White House lunch plate of pineapple and cottage cheese.
President Nixon, Pat Nixon, Vice President Gerald Ford, Betty Ford, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Tricia Nixon Cox, Edward Cox, and David Eisenhower say farewell near the Air Force One helicopter door during the President's last day departure ceremony.
We wrote, packaged and produced the live 6:30 broadcast and went live for Nixon’s address to the nation, after which we stayed on the air as long as it took to reprise all that had happened since the infamous break-in.  The next day, Friday, would be the official resignation and farewell on the south lawn, where Nixon famously thrust his arms into the air from the steps of Marine One while Gerald and Betty Ford stood by grimly, and the nation exhaled.

That Thursday night after Nixon’s broadcast, and after we went off the air, and after I checked in and dropped off my baggage at the Hay Adams, I walked across the street to Lafayette Park to join the gathering crowd of the curious who stared quietly at the White House. Every window in the mansion had a light on. It was, literally, glowing like a Christmas tree. But it was the quiet that was chilling and is burned in memory. After all that ranting at Nixon over the years, over war, over Watergate, over whatever, the shouting had stopped.

This past week we were able to confirm the rumor that was reported here last Monday, that Washington NFL owner Dan Snyder is among those rich enough to consider buying the Upperville, Virginia, estate of the late Paul and Bunny Mellon. Mellon executor Alexander Forger, in a phone conversation, said Snyder had made “an expression of interest,” in the property, known as Oak Spring.

Bunny Mellon in the 1980s at Oak Spring; she stands amid the herb topiaries she popularized. (Architectural Digest).
Forger also confirmed that the 2,000 acre spread would list for $70 million. “Our preference would be to sell it as one parcel to a single owner,” he said, adding that the buyer gets “a landing strip, the red brick main house, 20 tenant houses, a pool house, stables and barns, maintenance buildings, greenhouses and guest houses, and virtually every other structure that comes to mind.”

Not included are an adjacent 100 acres and the whitewashed farmhouse that was the Mellon residence and is now headquarters to Bunny Mellon’s horticulture library and her foundation, which will be funded by the property sale in Upperville, and other parcels on Nantucket and Antigua, and previously sold properties, and the November 10 Sotheby’s auction of more than $100 million of Mellon treasures.

The realtor with the listing is being discreet, but if you’re a billionaire who is interested, DM me and I’ll hook you up.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt