Less Than Meets the Camera’s Eye – a Former San Diego Journalist’s Recollection of Meeting Reagan and Bush

by on August 21, 2014 · 4 comments

in History, Media, Politics, San Diego, World News

330px-GOVREAGAN“What was surprising was Reagan’s ah-shucks, shambling kind of entry walk into the room.”

By Bob Dorn

I’ve met two Presidents of the United States (POTUS, the now fashionably artless acronym via the Secret Service) and they both happened to be Republicans: George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan. I can say with as much confidence as I can name the day I was born that they were far less extraordinary than a lot of other people I’ve met.

I was a nobody who happened to be making a living as a reporter, a more difficult practice these days than it used to be, which is another story, and more difficult to tell than this one. I don’t feel that I earned what I know about the two who appear in the paragraph above. I just happened to be in the right place when they exposed themselves.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan was Governor at the time, and I was at UC Santa Barbara working part time for an upstart weekly in Goleta. It was during the achingly slow march of the Board of Regents toward imposing tuition on students attending the world’s best free university. In August 1967 the weekly sent me up to UCLA to cover the meeting everyone knew would be the showdown between Reagan and The Board of Regents.

The board – comprising people like Edwin Pauley (chairman of Standard Oil of California), Dorothy Chandler (wife of Otis, the owner of the LA Times and Catherine Hearst (wife of Randolph, heir to the Hearst’s newspaper empire) – had gathered in the faculty senate meeting room that morning to wait for Reagan before starting the meeting.

The double doors swung open and 6 or 8 security people with wires in their ears swept in, taking up positions at the front, sides and rear of the faculty center before Reagan entered. University cops were there too. It was a year or so after the riots in Goleta, and a few more than that after the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, so it was no surprise to see gunmen flanking a California Governor.

What was surprising was Reagan’s ah-shucks, shambling kind of entry walk into the room; it played more Gomer than Governor. I could see his eyes scanning the room. They lit up when they landed on Dorothy Chandler, whose newspaper had already begun to gain the edge over the Hearst papers in LA and San Francisco, and went straight for her, bending down to give her a hug and say a few words.

Then he went straight for Catherine Hearst, who was waiting for him on the other side of the vast table to administer the bowing and hugging Hearst must have been expecting.

I got the feeling both women were genuinely thrilled by what was happening. They seemed almost to teeter, thrown off balance by the big boy, the best jock in their prep school. They weren’t actresses; he was an actor.

The morning session wore on with no vote on what was being called a “fee,” a language waiver in deference to Reagan’s decision to abandon using the dreaded t-word, and for his agreement he’d approve using some of the income to fund scholarships for low-income students. The majority of tuition income, though, would have to go toward balancing the budget deficit that would occur under Reagan’s spending cuts.

It had been known since March that Reagan wasn’t budging on the tuition issue, and more recently the vote was expected to come early in the first August session (Governors traditionally only attended the first day of the two-day Regents meetings). So the story was delayed.

At the press conference, Reagan ducked his head and played humble. He wouldn’t say whether he or one of his allies on the board would introduce a tuition vote that day. In the absence of certainty, the questions were “what-ifs” about the possible impact of fees on who attended the university, whether “the fee” was tuition in disguise, and so on. It was a sort of tease.

Upon reconvening in the afternoon, The Regents went right to the vote. Something must have happened over lunch. I hung on in the meeting while the reporters working for the afternoon papers broke for the exits, trying to reach their city desks with something for the same day’s paper. So did the TV people.

By the time I got to the side room designated for press, where I could start putting together my story, I was almost alone in it. A cameraman was shooting Tom Brokaw, who then was still a pretty face working for the LA affiliate of one of the three national networks. Brokaw did his standup in a few takes. Then a funny thing happened.

Brokaw sat down in a chair, adjusted himself and started asking questions to the camera that had been put by others at the press conference an hour or so before. Later, they’d be patched into his account as if he’d asked the questions.

I don’t remember if anyone exposed Brokaw. I’m pretty sure Reagan didn’t. I don’t think either of them were better than the other. I think Tom Brokaw could have been as good a POTUS as Reagan. I’m pretty sure Tom Brokaw thinks so, anyway.

We’ve always known Big Media is a necessary unit of political power. Back then its power was greater; a little less accessible to ordinary folk than it is now. Even so, it seemed to offer some promise it could live up to the belief “the truth shall make you free.” Also back then, the press and TV were commonly known as “the fourth branch of government” in the sense that information could expand democracy, enliven it.

Press and television are now much more dependent on government, politics and financial entities for their content since the Supreme Court identified money as power, corporations as people, and the NSA identified people as suspects.

So, now, the pretense and manipulation of the Reagans and the Brokaws is less necessary. Big Media, marketers, public relations people, NGOs, CEOs, lobbyists, professional associations, trade groups, IT and think tanks, financial institutions, insurance companies and others send their people in and out of government routinely. They are the fourth branch of government.

The sheer, unapologetic exercise of power and money over the political process has become a given. Big Media has largely been reduced to Sunday pros and cons over whether “torture” is a word that can be used in place of 1984’s “harsh interrogation.”

The control of information, and the gathering of it has become so complete, so far-reaching and technically challenging that even a president is no longer the chief and only executive at the top of the hierarchy.

It probably doesn’t matter if George W. Bush or Barak Obama is President. Or if Todd Gloria or Kevin Faulconer is Mayor.

George H.W. Bush

Bush cut me off, saying, “Yes, I know your name,” and looked peeved, as if he’d stepped on a popsicle or a roach.

CIA_Director_George_H.W._Bush_listens_at_a_meeting_following_the_assassinations_in_Beirut,_1976_-_NARA_-_7064954[1]In fall 1976, George H.W. Bush was in San Diego trying to clean up a mess that I and another Evening Tribune reporter had made for the agency he was then directing. I’d been tipped by a friend of mine, Newsweek’s stringer in San Diego, that the magazine was about to do a story on a Nazi criminal who was living somewhere in North County.

She had no more than that, and only a name, Edgars Laipenieks. Martin Gerchen and I worked our way through our thin list of federal sources and all the cross directories then available and got nowhere. So, we picked a Solana Beach neighborhood at random and started going door to door. It wasn’t long before we knocked on a door of a man who had a realtor’s directory of residents of the area.

At first we pooh-poohed his offer, but this little tool the man offered us ended up having the address and phone number we needed, and we raced over to Rancho Santa Fe in our Copley Press Chevy compact, which was promptly attacked by two snarling shepherds that slobbered up the windows.

Once we were inside, with the dogs in the backyard, Laipenieks sat us down in front of a coffee table bearing an 18-inch high stack of documents: brochures from the 1936 Olympics because he was Latvia’s entrant in the 10,000 meters run (remember John Carlos and Tommy Smith raising black-gloved fists in the power salute?) and pictures of him coaching San Dieguito high runners. He’d readied the documents for the next meeting with his lawyer. He was fighting deportation.

We got to the bloody reckoning somewhere near the top of the pile when he exposed three simple 8½ by 11 sheets that bore the letterhead of the Central Intelligence Agency. He tried to remove them from view but I’d already slapped my hand on top of the pile; Gerchen tried to copy them. Laipenieks wouldn’t allow it and said the meeting was over. We agreed to leave the pile alone.

Gerchen and I took off in the company car, back to San Diego. I drew the night shift to search for whatever I could find on the Baltic Nazis for background, and to call around looking for CIA numbers to contact in the morning, while Gerchen went back home to grab some sleep.

The first CIA number answered with a hello. When I started to identify myself as a reporter from San Diego, the voice at the other end said, “you have a wrong number,” and hung up. No one picked up on my second and third attempts. At another number a press spokesman asked me to read from a letter I said I had. Gerchen’s handwritten notes were nearly all illegible and the press person told me I obviously had no copy of a CIA letter.

I thought of a simple ruse and called Laipenieks back, telling him that the agency was denying his connection to it, and that the only chance he stood to avoid deportation was for me to force the agency to confirm it with the precise language contained in the letters. There was a pause while my heart was pounding, and I heard him say, reluctantly, to come up and I could copy the three letters.

One of them read:

…we have been corresponding with the Immigration and Naturalization… It is our understanding that INS has advised their San Diego office to cease any action against you… If such does not prove (to be) the case, please let us know immediately. Thank you once again for your past assistance to the agency.

The stories went worldwide. It was the first time the CIA had been shown to have recruited and employed Nazis.

Perhaps four or five weeks later Bush came to town to talk to the editorial board of Copley’s morning paper, then known, simply, as The Union. It was Copley’s flagship, and quite separate from the more blue-collar Trib. The Evening Tribune leadership was not invited to The Union’s chat group, much less Gerchen and I.

I went up to the fifth floor offices of the publisher, with the blessing of the Trib’s city editor, to try and crash the meeting. The publisher’s secretary wouldn’t unlock the door to the meeting room. I wouldn’t leave and waited in the anteroom for what seemed like hours.

When it opened Bush’s crew, unlike Reagan’s squad, had just three security guys with high ranks surrounding him; one of them I remember clearly was so muscled it showed through his suit. He was giving me a detective’s evil eye but allowed me to introduce myself to Bush. Bush cut me off, saying, “Yes, I know your name,” and looked peeved, as if he’d stepped on a popsicle or a roach.

He couldn’t answer any questions because he was in a rush to his plane. I begged to ride with him to the airport so I could do a quick interview, and he wouldn’t allow it. I begged him for just one question, and he said okay.

“How many other Nazi’s has the CIA knowingly hired?,” I asked.

“If it were in my knowledge [not a denial], I’m not sure I’d tell you” he said. That was it. A kind of little league “nah-nahee-nah-nah” from the CIA Director. Not at all as clever as I’d expected.

Of course, today I never would have gotten near to the story, or the Director. Laipenieks would never have received three letters on stationary reassuring him he was still a member of the agency’s family. I wouldn’t today be in the position to get the confirmations I did.

Maybe presidents and CIA directors needn’t be very quick or clever. Maybe they don’t even have to be smart. From what I’ve seen, I can’t believe Presidents can do all that much on their own about what happens in America.

The inmates at Guantanamo were waterboarded. Did the president know it? Last year the CIA was caught in an undisclosed surveillance operation on staffers of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The NSA has been spying on friendly governments. We know these things and more only because Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning leaked the documents. One of them is in prison and the other expatriated himself to Russia.

As to the former Nazi and the CIA? They won. Early in 1985, a federals appeals court blocked the INS from deporting Laipenieks, then 71, despite 12 witnesses who testified they saw him beat and kill some 200 Jews and gypsies and communists in Riga.

I may believe that the Republicans are primarily responsible for this arrogant indifference to the rules of the game, but it’s tough to get a Republican to agree with me. But it’s a fact that after Nixon came Reagan and after him came the Bushes. Watergate and Iran-Contra and Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. It’s tough to get a Republican to face all that.

They’ll argue they are against a strongly centralized federal government but they are primarily responsible for the development of our latter day adoration of the highest office.

Think of George W. Bush, such an average human being, maybe even below that, could go AWOL for a while somewhere in the South as a National Guard flyer during one of our wars, and yet felt impervious enough to run for president — a job which included his now-famous stride across a carrier deck in a flight suit, helmet under his arm, to announce “Mission Accomplished” just before the Second Iraq blew up in our, and his, faces.

He knew the drill the way Reagan did. Put on a cowboy hat and salute, put on a flight suit and salute. Look good, sound like the next guy and go back to the ranch.

Think also of the depth of the toxic hatred aimed at Obama by so many of the lunatic fringe of the GOP simply because they find him not presidential, nor even American. He may be able to sink a basketball from half court and walk off in a white shirt and tie, but there are plenty of fanatics out there who think he should be subjected to the equivalent of arrest for being president while being black.

He’s not as empty as the imagery carefully cultivated by the Republican party to reassure its vanishing number of members that they — not Wall Street, not lefty intellectuals or criminal immigrants — are the real Americans.

George Packer, writing in a review of a book about the politics of the 70s, refers to “‘the cult of official optimism…’ founded by Reagan (that) requires our leaders, including Barack Obama, to genuflect ritually before America the innocent.

“That rhetoric,” Packer continues in the review of Richard Perlstein’s book, The Invisible Bridge, “has grown extremely thin, however – not many Americans these days are optimistic. Reagan won, but the seventies never ended.”

Bob Dorn is a contributor to our online media partner, San Diego Free Press. The above ran as a 2 part series.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bearded OBcean August 21, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Other than the shock of a liberal not being terribly impressed with two future R’s in the White House, does anyone have any idea what the point of this article is?

Bueller? Bueller?


Frank Gormlie August 21, 2014 at 3:53 pm

I found it to be a pleasurable meander through some historical incidents involving great Republican leaders that Bob Dorn had brief contact with years ago, while he showed the differences that now surround the press and presidents today.


Bearded OBcean August 22, 2014 at 9:13 am

Yah. That was interesting, access to the powerful before 50-man advance teams and security and general detachment from our elected became the norm.

I wonder if it was the attempt on Ford or the near assassination of Reagan that changed our proximity to leaders.


Frank Gormlie August 22, 2014 at 9:21 am

Could be … or even before that, Reagan as governor of Calif couldn’t appear in public close to a college without causing a riot just because he was who he was.


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