I REMEMBER THE TIP came by telephone and it came from someone I knew. He said he had a story for me and then he told me that the $25,000 Maryland Congressman William O. Mills had received from the Committee for the Re-Election of the President had not been reported under Maryland law. That was May, 1973, a busy time at this newspaper what with Watergate and Agnew and all, and I did not have the time to write the story myself. Another reporter did that. A day after the story appeared, Mills killed himself.
It's enough to say that these things happen and that is precisely what I said at the time. I did not know, of course, that the man was troubled and that the story might have been the provebial straw that broke his back. Anyway, the truth is that I did not feel particularly responsible for what happened and so I did not hestitate to call a member of the family afterwards to check a fact. I think it was a daughter who answered the phone. I cannot recall for sure, but I do remember precisely what she said:
"Mr. Cohen, haven't you done enough already?"
I got sick. What she said hurt and it made me think about what had happened - what I and my colleagues had done. I gave it lots of thought and concluded after a while that I had done nothing more than my duty - what i'm paid to do. If someone had done something wrong, the it was the late Mr. Mills. He is the one who took the money and failed to report it.
I reachead that conclusion easily. It was not so easy years earlier, in 1965 to precise, when a reporter for the New York Times by the name of McCandlish Phillips broke the story that Daniel Burros, a 28 year old New Yorker who had organized for the Klu Klux Klan and wrote foe Nazi publications, was staying in the home of Ray E. Frankhouser, identified as the Grand Dragon of the Pennsylvania Klan. Frankhouser told the police that Burros read the newspaper and said, "I see it's all written about me in the newspaper. I've got to get a gun. I'll kill myself." He did just that, shooting himself once in the chest and once in the temple.
This is the sort of nightmare all journalists live with. It's a bit facile to say that all we do is report events, not influence them, since both the New York Nazi and Mr. Mills took their lives after they had been exposed, and to a certain extent ridiculed, in the newspapers. These are two examples that come to mind. One topic of conversation during the Watergate era is what would happen when someone committed suicide. There were plenty of us who thought that sooner or later someone would do just that. After all, more than news was being made. Lives and reputations were being mangled and the persons involved, despite some tough talk, were mostly desk-types - lawyers and businessmen who are only as good as their public reputations.
All this is by way of addressing myself to the controversy surrounding athe Post's publication of a story revealing that King Hussein of Jordon had been on the CIA payroll for soem 20 years. Some people appear to be saying that the story should not have been published - that it could have jeopordized chances for peace in the Middle East. They might have a point. You could even go so far as to say that the story could have provoked a war - Hussein, say trying to enhance his anti-Israeli bonafides by lofting a shell or two in the direction of Tel Aviv. At the very least, the story caused Hussein some embarrassment and complicated the life of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance awho was in Amman when the story broke. It won't be the last time the press will make lifed ifficult for Vance.
All of this came up the other night in a discussion. There were several journalists there and all of us analyzed the story, debating the virtues of publication. There was a government official present also, but for a time he said nothing.
Finally he started to that and told us more or less, that we were forgetting who we are. We are not, he said, the government. It is not our obligation to keep secrets. We are not the ones who instituted the payments and we made. Nor are we the government officials who should have thought about what would happen if the press found out about the payments. That, after all, was always a possibility.
Well, I for one, was a bit stunned by what he said. It's not every day in this town that you come across a government official who thinks the press has an obligation to report the news and leave policy questions to the government. He seemed to by saying something like "You do your job and we'll do ours." Most officials see it differently. They would love to have the press join with the government into some sort of unholly alliance in which the two decide what is best for the public. There are journalists in this wotown who see things they have been elected or appointed to public office instead of merely given a press pass. If you stay around this town long enough the danger is you'll start to think that way. I was almost there the other night.