Pierre Salinger

Press secretary to President Kennedy
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The Independent Online

Witty, fond of reporters and a master of the presidential press conference, John F. Kennedy was often said to have been his own press secretary. In fact, however, he had one - and a very influential one for that matter, almost as witty and dashing as himself - in the person of Pierre Emil George Salinger.

Pierre Emil George Salinger, journalist and politician: born San Francisco 14 June 1925; Press Secretary to John F. Kennedy 1959-63, to Lyndon Johnson 1963-64; Bureau Chief, Paris, ABC News 1977-87, Chief Foreign Correspondent 1983-93, Senior Editor, Europe 1988-93; four times married (two sons, and one son and one daughter deceased); died Cavaillon, France 16 October 2004.

Witty, fond of reporters and a master of the presidential press conference, John F. Kennedy was often said to have been his own press secretary. In fact, however, he had one - and a very influential one for that matter, almost as witty and dashing as himself - in the person of Pierre Emil George Salinger.

A lifelong Democrat, Salinger came to the post after working as a reporter for Collier's Magazine in the mid-1950s. He then joined the staff of Robert F. Kennedy, before joining the latter's brother John, then Senator for Massachusetts, to work on his 1960 presidential campaign. He came to Washington just as television was changing the nature of political coverage.

He was adept at a press secretary's traditional skills, of the managed leak and the deflective answer, and played a key backstage role during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, persuading The Washington Post and The New York Times to sit on the news that Soviet missiles were being installed on the island, just 90 miles from the United States. But Salinger was the public face of the White House, organising the first televised live presidential press conference in 1961, and becoming a personality in his own right. If Kennedy Washington was indeed Camelot, then Pierre Salinger was one of the knights.

At that time, of course, the White House press corps was a smaller and less fearsome group than the predatory, judgemental and intensely competitive group that works there today. It was an almost exclusively male clique that did not pry too closely into Kennedy's sexual escapades and medical problems.

On one occasion, however, the rumours grew so loud that a reporter directly confronted Salinger about the presidential sex life. "Look," came the answer,

he's the President of the United States. He's got to work 14 to 16 hours a day. He's got to run foreign and domestic policy. If he's got time for mistresses after all that, what the hell difference does it make?

As Salinger later acknowledged, "That was the 1960s and I could never have got away with that in the 1990s" (when Bill Clinton's sexual peccadilloes let directly to the humiliation of forced testimony to a grand jury, the Kenneth Starr report, and an impeachment trial in Congress). Nor, it might be added, in this Francophobe era in Washington could a 21st-century president get away with a press secretary like Salinger, whose mother was French, and who spoke the language almost as a native tongue.

In fact, his own private life was only scarcely less colourful than that of his boss. As a child, Salinger was a phenomenally gifted piano player. In later life, he was a very snappy dresser who loved a drink and long poker sessions in equal measure. He too had his fair share of mistresses, in addition to four marriages, three of which ended in divorce.

On the dreadful day of 22 November 1963, Salinger was on an aircraft bound for Tokyo with an official government delegation and thus was not at Kennedy's side when the President was assassinated in Dallas. But he stayed on at the White House for four months, serving as Lyndon Johnson's first press secretary until March 1964, when he resigned to run for an open Democratic Senate seat from California.

He won the primary, and actually served on Capitol Hill for five months. But he was defeated in the general election of November 1964, and left Washington for good.

After a spell in corporate PR, he returned to journalism as a roving editor for L'Express magazine of France, before becoming a top international correspondent for ABC News, based in Paris. He was a formidable reporter in his own right, seeming to know everyone, and breaking many an important story. None was more important than his 1980 scoop that the US was negotiating the release of the American hostages in Iran, for which he won a prestigious George Polk journalism award.

But, as the years went by, Salinger became increasingly eccentric, insisting that PanAm flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie in 1988 as a result of a botched federal drug operation, and that in July 1996 TWA flight 800 was shot down after taking off from New York by a stray US Navy missile. Both theories were far-fetched. In the case of flight 800, he was duped by a hoax document from the internet.

For most of his life after the White House, Salinger split his time between Paris, London and Washington. But, after the 2000 presidential election, he departed the US to spend his remaining years in Provence. "He was very upset with the electoral system in the US," his fourth wife, Nicole, told The Washington Post. "He said, 'If George Bush is elected President, I will leave the country' - and we did."

Rupert Cornwell



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