"This town would be well-served," the White House side was saying," if some of the old pros in journalism would leave their papers and find something else to do."
Sour grapes from a thin-skinned government type who's been burned in the press? Not so. That comment comes from a certified old pro of Washington jounalism. Al Eisele, who left his newspaper chain on Inauguration Day this year and found something elese to do. He signed on as press secretary to Vice President Mondale.
"I had written 300,000 words a year for a decade," Eisele explains when his former colleagues ask him - repeatedly - why he made the move.
"Anybody with that kind of grind is going to get stale. It just seemed good advice to set it aside for awhile,"he said.
Although not all of them are candid as Eisele on the subject, vertean journalists have been taking that "good advice" in unprecedented numbers this year by moving into public relations jobs in the Carter administration.
There has always been a two-way street between journalism and the government, but in this administration the avenue from the press corps to the bureaucracy has taken on the dimensions of a superhighway.
In addition to Eisele, who was a Washington correspondent for the Knight-Ridder chain, the White House press operation includes Rex Granum (from the Atlanta Constitution), Jerrold Schecter (Time magazine), Bob Dietsch(Scripps-Howard newspapers),Tom Joyce (Newsweek) and speechwriter James Fallows (The Washington Montly).
The top pree job at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare is held by Eileen Shanahan who was a financial reporter for The New York Times. The Transportation Department's press office is run by Dave Jewell (a former Washington Post reporter) and Frances Lewine (from the Association Press). At the Pentagon there is Tom Ross (Chicago Sun-Times). At the State Department, Hodding Carter iii (Delta Democrat-Times) and Mike Janeway (The Atlantic). At the Federal Energy administration, Jim Bishop (Newsweek).
Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance has displayed the strongest preference for media veterans.
Vance has gone so far as to hire journalists for nonnews-related jobs. He has named New York Times diplomatic correspondent Leslie Gelb to be the department's director of politico military affairs, Times columnist William Shannon to be ambassador to Ireland and the former editor of Foreign Policy magazine, Richard Holbrooke, to be assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific.
For the most part,though, reporters who have taken jobs in the administration are involved in public relations (or "public affairs," the preferred term in government circles).
The unusually large influx of journalists into "public affairs" positions reflects a mellowing of reporters' traditioinal disdain for such work. The working press has its own derisive term, "flasks," for public relations people, and there has been a feeling among reporters that to accept such a job was to sell one's principles for a plush office and a bigger paycheck.
This year, though, some of those who have made the switch are insisting that government work is the nobler calling.
"Journalism is less and less concerned with substance these days," said former Newsweek reporter Bishop, chief press aide to energy chief James R. Schlesinger Jr.
"How long can you stay at a place when you see gossip and trivia becoming the main coneerns of your management?" Bishop asked, "It was tremendously refreshing to move from Newsweek to the energy office. I'm working now with people who are seriously involved in susbtantial, important work."
If a growing disenchantment with their trade impelled some journalists to leave their old jobs, a strong attraction to Carter and the liberal Democrats in his adminstration helped lure them into their new ones.
"I never though I would do this," said Eisele in a comment echoed by almost all the reporters who shifted this year. "But Mondale was one of the few guys in politics I respected enough to go to work for. I found I could do press work for him - and for Jimmy Carter, too, for that matter -
"Those of us in the Washington without any personal qualms."
Eisele suggested that recent history also contributed to the journalists' willingness to transfer.
"Those of us in the Washington press corps have covered just about everything in the past 10 years," he said. "And then there was Watergate. What could possibly follow that? You got a feeling that it was time to leave."
In some cases, the former journalists had been more or less forced out of their newspaper jobs when they made the switch. Ross, now at the Pentagon, was a victim of a major reshuffling of The Chicago SunTimes bureau here.
HEW's Shanahan was in the midst of an angry battle with her New York Times superiors - she had learned that men with less experience in the paper's Washington bureau were paid more than she was - and was consequently receptive when HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. offered her a job.
Although few of them mention it, the material aspects of a government job also are attractive to journalists here.
Except for the network news stars, few reporters can expect to earn the $50,000 salaries paid Cabinet press officers. The large offices, titles and staffs that go with government jobs also are unknown to the average newspaper gunshoe.
Indeed, those who have remained reporters complain that some of the rookie public officials from the press corps have let the perquisites go to their heads.
Reporters who knew Zbigniew Brzezinski's press aid, Jerrold Schecter, when Schecter worked for Time complain that their former colleague now sends them snippy notes - on White House letterhead stationery - pointing out errors in their stories.
There are angrier complaints about Shanahan, the New York Times reporter who is now an assistant secretary at HEW. Reporters grumble about her failure to return their telephone calls and her tendency to tell them directly when she thinks an inquiry is stupid.
Shanahan answered her critics in a recent speech to reporters, which she titled, "How to Get the Most Form Your Friendly Neighborhood Flack."
"They shouldn't be calling me," the scrappy, selfassured Shanahan said. "I've got a lot of things to do and there's no way I'm going to answer 40 telephone calls in an afternoon."
In contrast, Eisele, the Vice President's press spokesman, wins high praise from reporters for answering their questions and respecting their deadlines.
"It's not me," Eisele said. "It's Nondale. He's learned that just about everything that happens is going to get out anyway, so I don't have much trouble getting him to answer a press question."
The genial Eisele said he had to give Mondale "a little nudge" when questions came about the audit of the Vice President's 1976 tax return. Similarly, he had to convince a reluctant Mondale to provide details when porters asked about the team of Navy stewards who serve the Vice President's family.
Like other reporters who moved to government this year, Eisele says the basic instincts of his old trade were slow to subside.
"There must have been 25 times in the first few months when I heard something in a meeting and I jumped up and said 'great story' to myself and started looking for a telephone," he said.
Most of the new crop of journalists turned bureaucrats are hoping to keep their reporter's instincts alive because most plan someday to return to the press corps.
"You can call it revolving door if you like," said Shanahan. "But I insist it is in the public interest to have continging interchange between the press and the government."
"It means people in the press will know more about government, and people in government will care more about integrity."