Peregrine Worsthorne, the hugely distinguished British journalist, has died aged 96. He was a wonderful man and a brilliant columnist, who once described his job as ‘the articulation of an intelligent, well thought out, coherent set of prejudices’. He also worked as Washington correspondent for The Times and The Daily Telegraph. In 2014, he wrote the following piece about meeting various American presidents. It was his last contribution to The Spectator. RIP.
I feel a bit of a fraud writing about the ‘presidents I knew’, since journalists do not really get to know the great figures they interview or shake hands with. Indeed the relationship between journalist and great personage is about as false as any relationship can be, since each is trying to make use of the other. So in all likelihood my dreamed relationship with President Herbert Hoover — which began and ended in 1933 when I was aged 11 and only lasted for about a minute — came nearer to being a genuine human relationship than all the other journalistic ones later — which included Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, Richard Nixon, LBJ, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Quite a mouthful.
My Hoover story — to the best of my childish memory — happened like this. Having just been humiliatingly defeated by Franklin Roosevelt, on account of his disastrous handling of the Depression, Hoover was in London to visit the great interwar governor of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman — himself a hate figure because of this hardline capitalism — who happened to be my stepfather. His home telegraphic address at this time was ‘The Red House, London’. Normally my brother and I were kept out of the way when great personages — like Hitler’s Dr Schacht — visited our home. But on this occasion, by some accident, I literally ran into the great personage in the hall. This much-hated figure, however, could not have been more sympathetic. Putting an avuncular arm around my shoulder, he said, ‘You, my boy, are lucky enough still to live in the Red House, London, while I have just been kicked out of the White House, Washington.’ Expecting chastisement, this sympathetic reaction won my heart, and as a result I could never again entirely believe in his malign reputation. I had seen him as nobody else had and knew better. He had become my personal trophy.
Arguments about the Great Depression, of course, were all the rage throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But armed with my personal evidence, I got into the habit at school and university of weighing in on the conservative side in general and Hoover’s in particular — a wildly unfashionable and unpopular habit that served me very ill indeed when in 1951 I was posted to Democratic-dominated and Republican-loathing Washington as a Times correspondent.
Believe it or not, I was one of the first professional journalists — albeit a very junior one — they had sent there. The previous Times men had simply been well-connected expatriates with private incomes. Nor was American history a must, which was just as well since none was taught in those days either at Oxford or Cambridge; French, German, Russian or Italian history — but no American history. Of course in reality, as a consequence of the second world war, the US had already replaced Britain as the world’s dominant power, but neither Fleet Street priorities nor Washington protocol had quite caught up. For one of the anarchistic customs that still prevailed was that a new Times man — in Washington it was still The Times, not yet, as it is now, the London Times — was personally received by the President at a little ceremony in the White House, like a mini-ambassador, and it is this that proved my undoing.
It started well enough. Visiting the President was not then the big deal that it is today. Nor was Harry Truman in the least impressive personally — a small man in a double-breasted suit with a big smile on his face.
So when he began by asking whom I had been seeing in Washington, I took the liberty of replying, truthfully but with inexcusable tactlessness, that I had been having interesting talks first with Robert Taft, junior, then head of the Republican party, which was bad enough, but also with Senator Joe McCarthy, the Republican demigod who was busy smearing Truman for being soft on communism — about as bad a gaffe as an American correspondent visiting Downing Street in 1940 and telling Churchill that he had spent a rewarding day chatting with Sir Oswald Mosley. The whole room and all its occupants froze, and I was ushered out of the White House, never to see Truman again. How could I possibly have been so rude and foolhardy?
I think it was the Hoover experience all over again. I had actually talked to Senator McCarthy — which is more than most of my Washington colleagues had done — and I wanted everyone to know that he had made much more sense than his detractors recognised. As a matter of fact I still think so. Once the Cold War against communism had begun in earnest, as it just had, it really was a bit of a scandal that the Truman establishment, in charge of prosecuting that war, continued to employ so many former communist sympathisers, just as it would have been a scandal in 1940, once America had come into the war against Germany, if the Washington establishment had gone on employing erstwhile Nazi sympathisers. In other words, Joe McCarthy had a trenchant point. Unfortunately for me, however, the point was not only unacceptable in the Oval Office; it was utterly unacceptable to the editor of the Times, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal called Sir William Haley who had formerly been director-general of the BBC, and who wrote to say that my job in Washington was not to find excuses for Senator McCarthy but to condemn him.
It was a bad presidential beginning, which could only get better, and it did, since my next presidential encounter was on the campaign train of Truman’s successor, the non-political war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. This was the last of the old whistle-stop campaigns by train which called at towns and villages across the continent with a candidate to address small crowds from the rear carriage. One morning I was sitting in the dining car having breakfast when Eisenhower came strolling through and stopped to have a chat with the famous CBS correspondent, Eric Sevareid, whom I was by chance sitting next to. Out of politeness Sevareid introduced me. ‘This is Peregrine Worsthorne, General, the new Times man.’ Clearly finding my name a bit of a mouthful, the general asked me to spell it out, which I did, jumping up to add something I had learnt a very few days previously: that the first baby from Mayflower to be born on American soil, and therefore the first American citizen to be born, was also christened Peregrine. Another long pause. Then came the reply: ‘Well, sonny, that name sure didn’t catch on.’ This exchange got into the gossip columns and later, during President Eisenhower’s press conferences, he would occasionally pick me out for further teasing sallies. On the whole I found that having such an usual combination of names for my newspaper byline has been more of a help than a hindrance, since at least it’s not easy to forget. At boarding schools, however, it had been a disaster: my mother had given me the nickname of ‘Sweet Pea’ and one of her letters once fell into enemy hands. You can imagine the consequences of that.
In any case, for one reason or another, halfway through the Eisenhower administration I was called back to London for a meeting with the editor. He took me to a teetotal lunch at the Athenaeum — an unwelcome honour which was a sure sign of bad news to come — and said that he wanted to promote me from Washington to Ottawa, pretending, quite implausibly, that Canada was going to be the great power of the future. I got the message: he wanted me out. In any case, I turned down the Ottawa job, which proved a sensible thing to have done because half a century later, on a visit to Ottawa, I found the poor man who had taken the job instead of me still there in the Times office — very old, very miserable and very, very drunk. As for me, I had much better luck, since the Daily Telegraph took me on and sent me back to Washington.
Fast forward to President Kennedy, the first president remotely of my generation, several of whose closest aids and advisers — Arthur Schlesinger, Ken Galbraith, Joseph Alsop and Walter Lippmann — were also contacts of mine. So I ran into the President socially from time to time, and into his friends and advisers very often. Lots of other journalists did too, of course. In this respect Washington was quite unlike the London of those days, where journalists — apart from the editor of the Times — did not inhabit the same social universe as senior politicians. We knew our place. In Washington it was much more open, informal and, above all, equal. For example, at dinner with Ken Galbraith, who advised Kennedy on economics, I had occasion to say that some current international crisis in Washington reminded me of London during the phoney war when everyone was busy filling sandbags. A few days later, to my utter amazement, the President used this self-same analogy in a speech. I have never felt nearer to power. Galbraith later dropped me a note to say that he had passed my reminiscences on to the President, which made me feel very plugged in.
Interviewing the President shortly after the disastrous American-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, I asked him why he had authorised such a doomed Suez-style invasion. Kennedy’s defence was that military planning for the adventure, originated by his predecessor Eisenhower, had acquired such a momentum that it could not be put into reverse without ‘a screaming of gears’ (his phrase) which would have got his presidency off to an alarming start. In theory, presidents were all-powerful, he said, but in practice a great ship of state was as difficult to turn around quickly as the proverbial oil tanker.
As it happened, the next time I was to see President Kennedy was two years later at the time of his triumphant handling of the Cuban missile crisis. By then he really was in charge. It had been a terrible week. The possibility, even likelihood, of thermonuclear war was very real. During the entire week he and his aides had been incarcerated in the White House and when, the morning after the Russian tankers had turned back, he emerged to tell us the dramatic news, the whole emergency press conference roared its admiration. I remember writing in my dispatch that it was like watching Prince Hal suddenly turn into Henry V. Kennedy had been transformed. Cynical journalists are not meant to lose their heads, not meant to go wild with enthusiasm, but this we did, fighting, almost literally, to shake his hand or touch his garments. Back in London the subeditors were also infected, heading my piece with the over-the-top words ‘New Emperor of the West’. Such hyperboles were bound to turn the gods against him, as indeed, all too soon, they did.
My next president was Lyndon Baines Johnson at the height of the Vietnam war, which I was one of the few British journalists to support — and it was because of this support that I received, out of the blue, an invitation to come to Manila, where he was stopped over on his way to visit American troops. As it happened, the Hollywood mogul Jack Valenti — one of LBJ’s closest chums — was in London, and he offered to fly me to Manila.
The interview took place in LBJ’s hotel. Although it lasted from about 6 to 8 p.m., nothing of note was said. It did include some revealingly awful language, such as ‘I never trust a man unless I have his pecker in my pocket’ or ‘Give me a man’s balls, and his heart and mind will follow’ — not at all the kind of thing you expect to hear from the leader of the free world. As I got up to go, however, LBJ led me across the room to the balcony, which had a magnificent view of the famous or infamous red-light district sprawling out below. He stood there for some moments looking down and I thought that perhaps at last he was about to say something quotable about the future of Asia. Instead he said, again most un-presidentially, ‘Oh boy, Mr Worsthorne, what wouldn’t I give to join you down there for a night on the tiles.’ As he was speaking, however, sounds of Lady Bird Johnson dressing for dinner came from the bedroom suite, and fearing that he might have been overheard, he added: ‘Only joking, Mr Worsthorne, because right next door I have the best little lay in town.’ To quote or not to quote, that was a difficult question. Much as I was tempted — the rest of the interview had been a washout — I decided, most uncharacteristically, not to tell. It seemed unfair to Lady Bird.
About a year later there was another LBJ interview, this time in the White House. By then the Vietnam war was even more unpopular; so unpopular that LBJ could only escape from the White House by helicopter.
No sooner had the interview begun than the President got a buzz on his telephone. Apparently important guests had arrived unexpectedly, he explained, whom he would have to see at once. Naturally I jumped up to my feet and offered to withdraw. Not at all, the President insisted. It would be good for me to see in person the kind of pressures he was under. Naturally I was agog with expectation. What historic presidential encounter was I about to witness? Suddenly the double doors were flung open and in raced two very young grandchildren. Nor did the charade end there. After much romping around, one of them climbed into the vast chair behind the presidential desk over which the great seal of office hung and started to play with one of the telephones on his desk. ‘For Christ’s sake, boys, don’t touch that one!’ bellowed the President. ‘It’s the hot-line.’ All this I did report. Nothing else in the interview was nearly so newsworthy. Possibly this was how it was meant to be. At least it gave the lie to the rumours that the President was sunk in gloom, even if it risked giving the rather more damaging impression that he was off his rocker.
On my way out, the photographer in the antechamber presented me with a complimentary photograph of the meeting for my scrapbook. Flatteringly to me, it showed the President on one side of a sofa listening intently to me holding forth on the other. As it was, I had hardly an opportunity to open my mouth, but apparently it was always possible to get one such shot of the visitor. Even if he was only saying ‘Yes, Mr President.’
Interviewing President Nixon was a different matter. Again the opportunity arose because of my support for the ever-more-unpopular war. There had never been many English journalists in support but by now I think I was on my own — apart from Kingsley Amis. This time I was given for three days the run of the White House, with unrestricted access to all the presidential aides, including Henry Kissinger, and several of those who ended up in prison over Watergate. Finally came the interview itself in the Oval Office. Nobody else was present, not even the customary stenographer. At the time I took this to be another mark of trust, which it wasn’t, since that very week the President’s taping system — the one which led to his downfall — had been installed. Two subjects in the interview have stuck in my memory. First the enormous weight Nixon attached to being feared abroad, which he regarded as much more important than being loved at home, at any rate so long as the Cold War lasted. Given the balance of thermonuclear terror, he explained, it was essential that the Russians believed the American President would be mad enough to press the fatal button. He recognised that this was a dangerous game to play. If he behaved too convincingly like a mad monster, there was a great danger that he would frighten not only the Soviets but America’s allies too. But this was a risk he had to take to preserve the peace. Becoming a hate figure in the world’s liberal press, however, did not worry him one little bit. It was proof that he was doing what had to be done.
Subject two had to do with class. In the course of the interview, it became clear that he had a massive social chip on his shoulder. He was convinced that the American Wasp establishment were against him because he was born on the wrong side of the tracks. All his success had in no way lessened his sense of grievance. It was an extraordinary experience to listen to the most powerful man in the world complaining about his class victimisation, rather like listening to a man who has won the lottery grumbling about not having had enough pocket money as a child. To the best of my knowledge, no working-class politician who has got to the top in Britain — allegedly a much more class-conscious country than America — has ever felt so bitter, and when I put this point to Nixon he said the discrepancy was easy to explain. Working-class people in England were so used to snobbery, he said, that they took it for granted. Only in a classless country like America was his own experience so singular as to sear a man’s soul (his words).
At about 12.45 p.m., long after the interview was due to end, an aide rushed in with a message, only to be turned away by the President with an impatient wave of the hand. A few minutes later, another even more frantic aide received the same treatment. Then Kissinger himself came bustling in looking distraught. ‘The astronauts have just splashed down, Mr President, and the networks are waiting for you to greet them back on Earth.’ Still the President refused to be rushed. ‘Is it in the schedule?’ he asked, and on being told that the return to Earth most certainly was in the schedule, he adamantly insisted on completing the interview. That was obviously fine by me. I approved of his order of priorities — putting a visiting English journalist before a returning American astronaut.
Unfortunately, the following morning’s White House version, as reported in all the newspapers, was: ‘The President and Mrs Nixon watched the splashdown in their private apartment.’ Pressure was put on me to adjust my account to the official version, and my refusal to do so was regarded as a breach of trust. Journalists are accustomed to being lied to, but expecting me to corroborate the lie was over the top. By that time the Nixon administration had abandoned even the pretence of being honest.
Incidentally, Harold Macmillan, when prime minister, also knew a thing about flattering journalists. Towards the end of an interview I was having with him in Downing Street, a flunky interrupted to say that the American ambassador had arrived. ‘Be so good as to ask his Excellency to wait,’ came the reply, and the conversation continued on its stately way for at least 20 more minutes. Mentioning this to a colleague, my pride was swiftly deflated when he replied: ‘That’s a very old trick of his — he plays it on us all.’
Back, though, to Nixon. For years after his enforced resignation, to my great surprise and, yes, satisfaction, he kept in touch — and from time to time, on his visits to London, I would pick up the telephone and be startled by a voice saying ‘Richard Nixon here’, inviting me over to Claridge’s for a chat. He was always shockingly realistic and unsentimental — as statesmen, who do the world’s dirty work on our behalf, ought to be. Of all the presidents I met, he was the only one with whom I came remotely close, and I still cannot be sure whether this is a source of pride or shame. The last occasion we met, shortly before his death, was when he was the guest speaker at the London Conservative Philosophy Group — a group founded in the Thatcher years by right-leaning Oxbridge academics to discuss politics with right-leaning political writers like myself. On this occasion, the dinner afterwards was given by the future jailbird Jonathan Aitken, who was then in Mr Major’s cabinet, who was the only one of us to have a large house, and unbeknownst to members he had somewhat mischievously included in the company two of his most unprofessorial cronies, one of whom was the lion-keeper and glamorous gambling-den impresario John Aspinall, and the other Taki, the high-life gossip columnist. Nixon was placed at dinner between them. I was at the same table and watched transfixed as Nixon, in all innocence assuming them to be learned academics, listened to the one haranguing him on gorillas and the other on girls, with the furrow-browed concentration normally reserved only for Nobel Prize winners. Nor was the President only pretending to be impressed. For when Nixon got up to go, I heard him say in all seriousness, ‘Thank you, professors, listening to you has been a real privilege.’ Yes, he really meant it. What a pathetic last memory of a Caesar who had once held the world in thrall.
Lastly, almost as a footnote, came Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior, both of whom I only knew before they came to office. Having completed his term as governor of California, Reagan was thinking about going on to stand for the presidency and was living in a relatively modest house in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, where one afternoon I went to call. He answered the door himself, impeccably dressed — black trousers, white silk shirt, looking much younger than his 67 years. Beautiful drawing room, looking out onto a spacious swimming pool. He offered to fix drinks. No servants in sight. Rhodesia (Zimbabwe now) was in the news and he thought Britain should hang on to Ian Smith, then in revolt against the Crown, for fear of getting something worse. Wise Reagan, as it turned out. In my diary I wrote: ‘Talks very softly, and is the opposite of the extrovert cowboy of legend; rather reminds me of Alec Douglas-Home — the same aristocratic air of unassuming authority.’
Not much new there, I agree, but when later Reagan was President elect — that is to say, the few months between election and inauguration — I was lucky enough to eavesdrop on a telephone conversation which he had with my very old American journalist friend, the late Bill Buckley, who had played a major role in getting him elected. I was sitting with Bill in his Connecticut home and the call came through. This is what I heard. Bill: ‘Hi, Mr President, nice to hear your voice.’ (Inaudible to me rumble from the other end.) Bill again: ‘It’s mighty kind of you, Mr President, but I don’t think I ought to accept… No, Mr President, you can’t twist my arm. After all, I am Irish, and that wouldn’t go down well with the Brits.’ (More inaudible rumbles.) Bill again: ‘Yes, Mr President, since you ask, there is one favour you could do me. Why not appoint my friend Van to Paris, I really would appreciate that.’ And so it turned out: Bill didn’t become American ambassador in London and Van Galbraith, his friend, did become ambassador in Paris, very unsuccessfully as it happened — a tiny piece of history which I have never recounted before.
The only thing I remember about George Bush senior was an exceptional act of kindness. He was then the American representative in Peking — as it was still called — and had asked me to lunch.
It was a scorching day. In the course of the conversation I mentioned I was going on to sleep that night in Mao’s favourite village in the south, a place of pilgrimage for the faithful. ‘Don’t forget to take a good overcoat,’ he warned. ‘It’s mighty cold down there.’ Not aware of the extreme changes of climate, I didn’t have a good coat, and it certainly was freezing down there. On opening my bag, however, I found a bottle of Jack Daniels with a note from the future President of the US saying, ‘This might just help to keep you warm.’ If only the son had been as kind and thoughtful as the father. But that, I fear, is another story.