The two photographs that appeared side by side in last Sunday's Post may well be remembered long after the text and spirit of the nuclear summit agreement are forgotten. One picture showed an avuncular Soviet official outside the Russian Embassy greeting children bearing "peace" flowers; he invited them in for cookies and Cokes. Great PR. Juxtaposed was a photo of a man in work clothes inside the White House grounds throwing a bunch of roses into a trash barrel; the children had just been there and had been unceremoniously sent on their way. Bad PR.
The White House press office issued a lame "regret" for the insensitivity of the security people. The Post and others took the cue and placed responsibility for this minor but unfortunate incident on the people who guard the entrance to the White House. This was unfair. The security people are the first to have eye-to-eye contact with those who wish to see the president, whether it be a prime minister by appointment or a wandering minstrel by whim. Security people are trained to protect the body of the president, not the body politic. It is the press office that must shoulder the blame for this type of negative event.
It probably would have been a good idea this past week to have stationed a press office representative with the guards at the main entrance. The Secret Service looks at things somewhat differently from the way the White House press office does; the two have only one thing in common -- they both tend to look at the news media as their natural enemy.
Without making too much of the matter, the occurrence did bring to mind two incidents on my watch in the White House press office some years ago that could have created unnecessary PR problems had someone not been in a position to challenge decisions of the security people. Both involved applications for press credentials.
In one case, a prominent CBS foreign correspondent was being transferred from Europe to Washington, and the security people turned thumbs down on the network's request for his credentials. It seems he had been observed in various capitals lunching with Russians who were identified as KGB agents. It was explained to the local lawmen that this was known in journalistic circles as consorting with news sources, not the enemy. They were also reminded that an ABC correspondent who had cultivated a healthy relationship with a KGB agent in Washington had provided a valuable information channel for the White House during the Cuban missile crisis. That worked.
The other case was a little more difficult. A Midwestern newspaper was transferring a staff correspondent to the nation's capital. His application for admission to White House press conferences was peremptorily rejected because he had a local police record that involved homosexual activity. Argument that this hardly posed a threat to the president didn't budge the security people.
At that frustrating moment came a phone call from a correspondent representing a Kremlin-controlled newspaper behind the Iron Curtain. He had sold an article to an American national magazine titled "I Am a Communist in the White House," an amusing first-person account of his experiences covering the president.
His call inspired a new line of attack -- a direct inquiry as to whether the security people could check local police records of representatives from Tass, Izvestia or Pravda. Of course, their answer was no. Aha, I said, with no way to check it is conceivable that a Soviet newsman might be a homosexual and the security people wouldn't know it. So it was okay for a Soviet communist gay to have access to the White House, but not an American taxpaying homosexual? Cold logic will do it every time.
The KGB was sensitive to good PR even before glasnost, but that doesn't always filter down to street level, as evidenced by how their gendarmes roughed up a U.S. cameraman in the Soviet capital last Sunday. When I once led a contingent to Moscow, the Secret Service advance team relayed some hints from its Soviet counterparts: "If any of your press people are approached on the streets in Moscow and are offered a good deal," the KGB confided, "tell them to pass it up; they are probably from our organization."
Now that's good PR, Soviet style.