Pierre Emil George Salinger, 79, press secretary to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and chief European correspondent for ABC News, died of a heart attack Oct. 16 at a hospital near his home in Le Thor, France, his wife said.
Mr. Salinger, a witty, debonair bon vivant, rose from a newspaper reporter in San Francisco to a top position at the White House before he was 40. He was an appointed senator from California for five months, wrote books and became ABC's Paris bureau chief. His journalistic reputation was besmirched in the 1990s, however, after his insistence that two major airline crashes were not what they seemed.
He said the 1988 explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was a Drug Enforcement Agency operation that went wrong -- a theory for which no evidence materialized. He also fell for a hoax document found on the Internet that claimed that TWA Flight 800 was shot down near Long Island, N.Y., by a stray Navy missile in 1996; investigators concluded that it was blown up by a spark in its fuel tank.
Until those incidents, Mr. Salinger enjoyed a reputation as a reporter with sources in the intelligence communities of the world. He won a number of prestigious journalism prizes, including a George Polk award for his 1981 scoop that the U.S. government was secretly negotiating to free the Americans held hostage in Iran.
Mr. Salinger had recently been ill, said his fourth wife, Nicole, in a telephone interview from their home in Le Thor, Provence, where she runs a bed-and-breakfast. They moved there four years ago from London and Washington.
"He was very upset with the electoral system in the States," she said. "He said, 'If George Bush is elected president, I will leave the country,' and we did."
Always a Democrat, Mr. Salinger worked for both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy on their presidential campaigns, and for George S. McGovern in 1972. He was White House press secretary from 1961 to 1964 and ran the first live televised presidential news conference in 1961.
President Kennedy called him "the voice of the White House," but Mr. Salinger described himself as "a reporter for the rest of the press." He was agile at leaking news and suggesting stories. The job demanded incredible discretion; between the president's sexual liaisons and his chronic, secret medical ailments, Mr. Salinger was often called to account for a missing commander in chief. In apparent gratitude, Kennedy gave him, for his 36th birthday, a medical encyclopedia.
In a 1993 Washingtonian interview, Mr. Salinger said a journalist once asked him directly about Kennedy's sex life. "I gave him a 1960s answer, not a 1990s answer: 'Look, 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?'
"The reporter laughed and walked out. That was the end of the story. For sure, I couldn't get away with that in the '90s."
In 1962, Mr. Salinger was involved in efforts by the Kennedy administration to keep a lid on news that the Soviet Union was installing medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. At Kennedy's behest, both the New York Times and The Washington Post agreed to withhold publication of the news in the interests of national security.
The president announced a blockade of Cuba on national television, and Mr. Salinger wrote in his 1966 book, "With Kennedy," "the next six days were the most anxious and active of my life."
Born in San Francisco to a French-born mother and a father who was a mining engineer, Mr. Salinger learned to play piano before he learned to read and gave his first recital in Toronto at age 6. Fearful of the abnormal effects of a career started so young, his parents cut off his public performances but continued private lessons. He attended San Francisco State College and at age 17 enlisted in the Navy during World War II, commanding a submarine chaser in the Pacific. After the war, he finished his degree at the University of San Francisco.
He plunged into journalism at the San Francisco Chronicle, several times having himself jailed as a vagrant in order to write a series about prison abuses.