White House spokesman Larry Speakes, reportedly furious that the latest in a series of off-the-cuff remarks by Ronald Reagan was made public Sunday, is considering banning network microphones from all future presidential appearances and putting microphones at such events under White House control, industry sources say.
Jack Smith, Washington bureau chief for CBS News, said yesterday that Speakes called him Sunday evening after a CBS radio network broadcast that included a replay of Reagan's remark about the hostage crisis. "After seeing 'Rambo' last night, I know what to do next time this happens," Reagan had joshed into a live microphone before making an eight-minute national address about the end of the hostage crisis.
Reagan was referring to Sylvester Stallone's hit movie about a Vietnam veteran who single-handedly charges into North Vietnam and rescues a group of American prisoners of war.
Smith said Speakes was angry but did not directly threaten to ban network microphones at that point; the networks say they heard about the possibility later from other White House sources. Smith said Reagan's remark was picked up by radio stations monitoring the line because the microphone is routinely open for about one minute before such addresses.
The incident was reminiscent of a Reagan flub made in August, when just before one of his Saturday radio addresses, he joked, "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." The crack was widely reported.
Smith, who was on duty as White House pool chairman, said that during their conversation Sunday night, Speakes said he wanted the three network bureau chiefs and the bureau chief of Cable News Network (CNN) in his office for a meeting Monday morning at 7:30. The bureau chiefs said they couldn't make it because they were tied up on the hostage story and suggested a meeting at 11 a.m. or any time after. Speakes never responded to this suggestion and has not contacted Smith since, Smith said yesterday.
Speakes isn't even returning Smith's calls. Nor did Speakes respond to a reporter's inquiries to his office about this incident yesterday.
NBC News bureau chief Robert McFarland said that while he hadn't heard from Speakes directly, he understood that he was "mightily angered " over the reporting of the president's jest. George Watson, ABC News bureau chief, said, "I can imagine on Sunday night that Larry was a little annoyed. I was a little exercised myself," because a "red-light system" that is supposed to warn the president when his microphone is open was not being used by the White House.
The red light was installed after the president's bomb-the-Russians joke, Watson said. "The White House Communications Agency is supposed to alert the president when the mikes are open, but the system was not being used," said Watson, who added that neither ABC radio nor television broadcasted the president's remark anyway. White House correspondent Bill Plante quoted it on CBS television and the actual audio recording was played on an NBC TV news report.
Spokesmen for the two networks said the remark was considered reportable after it appeared in a wire service story. McFarland said that when it comes to any statement made into a live microphone by Reagan before a speech, "They the White House want these things to be off-the-record, and we can't live with that."
If the White House were to ban network microphones at presidential appearances, as sources said Speakes is considering, the networks would have to accept an audio feed controlled by the White House or find their own ways to circumvent the restrictions.
The three network bureau chiefs expressed skepticism that Speakes would pursue a major protest on this matter since the "Rambo" remark seemed so much more innocuous than the "bombing" remark. There was also doubt about whether the president really was unaware that what he was saying would later be reported.
"Ronald Reagan has been around microphones and the industry all of his life," McFarland said yesterday. "Any broadcaster is aware that a microphone can always be hot."
Watson said it seemed odd that Reagan could have been caught by surprise again considering his previous adventures with open mikes.
"With less than one minute to go before air, he decides to tell us about what he saw at the movies last night," Watson said. "It's hard for us to devise a fail-safe system that works when with less than one minute to go, he says things into a live microphone. If we have a responsibility in this, I think the president has one, too.
"He's certainly tempting the hands of electronic fate" by making the remarks, Watson said. "The mike is open, the room is completely quiet, everybody in the world is waiting for him to say something, and he says something he doesn't want anybody to hear."