There comes a certain age when your thoughts about the present get entangled with memories. So it was with me the other evening at a gathering here of old friends and present colleagues among the Washington press corps.
The present colleagues were many, the old friends reduced by time, and I'm afraid I succumbed to the remembrance of things past and to thoughs about the changes time has wrought.
At any rate, I am old enough to remember when the entire Washington press corps numbered only a few hundred. I remember my first presidential press confrence-for the record it was Friday, may 15, 1936-when no more than two dozen reporters gathered around President Roosevelt's desk in the Oval Office.
In the West Wing of the White House in those days there was an office for Steve Early, the president's press secretary, for Marvin McIntyre, the president's only other aide and for Missy Le Hand, his private secretary. They made up the entire White House staff.
That press conference, like others of that day, was informal. We could paraphrase what the president said but use no direct quotations without express permission. He could give us information "for background only," which we could use but not attribute to him. And he kept the privilege of going "off the record" when he chose.
Today all is different. The old State Department building is now the Executive Office Building, housing more aides to the president than there wre, in those olden days, members of the entire press corps.
Presidential press conferences are no TV events; it takes an auditorium to house them.
Press conferenceof Cabinet officers and other high officials are also staged with the panoply of show business. The Congressional Directory is thick with the listings of all those from press, radio, magazines and television entitled to seats at the show.
Though I am a little reluctant to admit it, there are gains in the way new technology has altered the manner of doing things. The ordinary citizen today gets a chance to see the president in action and to form impressions not just by what he says but how he says it. His grace under pressure, or his lack of it, is not wholly irrelevant ot his performance as our national leader.
So too, with a secretary of state speaking on foreign policy or an economis adviser testifying before a congressional committee. Even a 10-sceond snippet on the evening news tells something about the person.
But I'm not persuaded, I fear, that all is for the better. President Roosevelt could, and often did, just think out loud without fear that every word was put indelibly upon the record. The president could, and sometimes did misstate himself at first expression, as everone may do in casual conversation and then on second thought rephrase his remarks.
The modern president has no such latitude. He must live in constant fear of the slip-of-the-tongue. A misstated name can be an embarrassment. Awkward phraseology on some matter of public import is beyond recall or correction.
One consequence is that presidents today tru to say no more at a press conference than what might be put as well in a carefully drafted statement. The president has thus lost an opprtunity to be frank and open. The press has lost an opportunity to share his thought processes, which, without being the stuff of tomorrow's headlines. nonetheless could help them do a better job of informing their readers and listeners.
Along with these obvious changes wrought by technology and the growth of both government and press corps, there have been more subtle changes in the role this journalistic craft plays in the society in which we live.
In those different times we in the press did not think of ourselves as adversaries, enemies even, of our government.
We were cynical about much in government, yes.We were skptical about many government prgrams, yes. We thought of ourselvers as watchdogs of government, yes. We delighted in exposes of bungling and corruption, yes. Ubt enemies of government? No.
In any event I don't recall hearing much about the "adversary relationship" between press and government. Today I hear it everywhere.
It's reflected in many ways. At these new-style press conferences, including those of the president, the questions seem often designed less to elicit information than to entrap, Even the daily press briefings by Jody Powell have become a sort of duel, an encounter that would have astonished Steve Early and the then White House press corps.
I suppose we can blame it on the depersonalization of so much of our society, the burgeoning of government and the concomitant multiplication of the press corps. Nonetheless, it leaves me uneasy.
Under our Constitution the three official estates of the realm are the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. Eash has a different role and sometimes they disagree with one another. But no one supposes that makes them "enemies" by nature. Unless each gives the other a full measure of respect, our society would dissolve into anarchy.
The press isn't an institution of government. But it is most definitely an institution of our society. It's not too much to say, I think, that one intent of the First Amendment was to make the press, collectively, a part of the system of checks and balances that help preserve a free society.
That is-in Macaulay's felicitous phrase-the press constitutes a Fourth Estate of the realm. But that very phrase "Forth Estate" implies that we part of the self-governing process of our society, not something apart from it.
As such we are permitted-nay, invited-to inform the people what the other estates are doing and upon occasion criticize what they are doing.
But that is not the same thing as casting ourselves as enemies of government as government. There is a distinction between differing with a president and being an adversary of the presidency.
Yet there appears to be a widespread view that here on the one side are we, the press, and there on the other are government officials, none of whom can be trusted.
That makes me uneasy because our society depends upon a mutual trust among all its parts. I am especially uneasy because if the press collectively thinks itself an enemy of government, why should not the government begin to think of itself as an enemy of the press?
We have already seen signs of that. Some of us have been spied upon-our mail opened, our telephones tapped-as if we were agents of some hostile power. Somer of us have been hauled into court and thrown into jail.
In polity as in physics, every action creates a reaction, and so we in turn have reacted to this harassment, as well we should. We in the press ought to cry alarm whenever the government seems bent on intimidating us by harassment.
But we ought to take care, or so I think, that we, too, do not overreact.
We should with all the energy that is in us, defend the rights of all citizens against governmental spying. We should defend all against unwarranted searches and seizures of their private papers, holding both the Executive and the Judiciary strictly accountable that the rights of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects be not violated.
We should insist that no warrants or subpoenas be issued against anyone, ourselves included, except upon probable cause duly supported and particularly describing why and what is to be seized.
We should also be zealous in protecting the right of accused citizens to a fair trial by an impartial jury, which means their right to obtain witnesses in their favor-by compulsory process, if need be, as the Constitution provides.
So long as that is where we stand, defending the rights of all, our position is impregnable.
Beyond that we should be wary. We should be wary of giving an impression that we and our government are adversaries because it is upon press and government together that all our liberties depend. We should be especially wary of claiming for ourselves alone exemptions from the obligations of all citizens, including the obligation to bear witness once due process has been observed. There is nothing in the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, that makes the press a privileged class apart.
The risk is that the people may think us arrogant. That First Amendment we cherish is not some immutable right handed down to Moses on Mr. Sinai. It's a political right granted by the people in a political document, and what the people grant they can, if they ever choose, take away. There is no liberty that cannot be abused and none that cannat be lost.
So, anyway, ran the reflections on a nostalgic occasion by someone who has spent more than 40 years as a small part of the Fourth Estate. I trust thery were not heard as lamentations for some illusory past but as expression of hope that this Fourth Estate will, with the others, keep us a free and self-governing people.