President Reagan recalled his days as a radio announcer yesterday to a crowd celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Voice of America. He told them how he used to broadcast baseball games, relying on teletyped information and imagination to fill in the blanks. "I don't know if he ran or took the ball when it came to him," he said after recreating a bit of a baseball game radio-style. "But it was the truth that he got there.
"In other words, the truth can be attractively packaged," he said as the audience laughed.
Packaging--or not packaging--the truth has been both a quest and a quandary for the VOA during its years of broadcasting overseas. Its twin duties of presenting news as well as explaining the official policies of the American government sometimes collide in a philosophical tangle between journalism and propaganda, and the Reagan administration has added new concern to the debate by calling for a harder line in the information the VOA disseminates abroad.
Actor, producer and writer John Houseman also spoke at the anniversary celebration at the VOA's headquarters to a crowd of about 500 and reminisced about his sojourn as the first head of the radio program bureau of the Office of War Information, a branch that eventually became the Voice of America. He left the job "in a rage" after being denied a passport by the State Department because some of his previous associations were perceived as leftist.
"Someone said I was a communist leader in Switzerland," he said in an interview after his speech, with that air of elegant disdain that has endeared him to fans of his movies ("Paper Chase") and television commercials (Smith Barney and Puritan Oil).
When Houseman joined the OWI, attracted not only by patriotism but by the sense of professional challenge, "we had no facilities and no machinery whatever.
"We had very little choice as to the news and how it was handled," he said. "It was all bad.
"We had to report our reverses without weasling," he said, underscoring a basic tenet of the philosophy behind the VOA. "Only that way would we establish credibility. All we could do was radiate confidence; the giant was girding itself for a righteous war it had no doubt of winning."
The first broadcast was in German, and to get things off to a grand start a rousing version of the "The Battle Hymm of the Republic" was commissioned from Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. "It sounded glorious . . . until we were informed by the British that it was the same tune as an old German marching song . . . We sadly replaced it with a band version of 'Yankee Doodle.' "
A man who had known Houseman in the early days came up to the stage and greeted him. "People think I'm a curmudgeon because of the characteristics of Prof. Kingsfield in 'The Paper Chase,' " he said later, pulling on a tall bourbon and water. "This man says that's nothing to the way I behaved at the VOA."
He's had little association with the VOA since he left in July 1943, and said he was misplaced on the list of former directors of the now 2,214-person agency. For years, he said, the fact that he had donated $100 to an organization headed by the folksinger Pete Seeger was kept in his government dossier as evidence of leftist tendencies. "Then a few years ago someone called from the VOA and said they were doing a program on Seeger and understood that I had known him and would I be interviewed for the show? I categorically refused!"
He was reluctant to discuss current administration policies but offered his own philosophy about government-sponsored information: "I think the American people have a deep-down resistance to propaganda," he said. "More than any other people they distrust politicians, they are skeptical of momentary enthusiasms."