Six former White House press secretaries with service dating to the Truman administration had a brief turn at their old platform yesterday during a wistful and pleasantly raucous 30 minutes in the White House briefing room.
Ron Ziegler, President Nixon's embattled spokesman during the long Watergate drama, had the most praise for the press. Roger Tubby, who held the job in the last months of the Truman administration, was the most condemning, and Jody Powell, of the Carter years, the funniest.
All were here for the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner tonight and were invited to the White House for lunch by President Reagan's deputy press secretary, Larry Speakes. It was Speakes' idea that the visitors might enjoy ascending the podium just one more time for questioning by reporters.
Generally, the six said they did not feel that Reagan is being treated too roughly by the media.
But Ziegler, who said that in his travels since leaving office he has come to hold the American press in high esteem, said humorously that he thought Nixon had gotten a free ride.
"You got a free ride right out," ABC's Sam Donaldson shot back.
Only President Ford's spokesman, Ron Nessen, and Powell admitted to having told a lie as press secretary.
Nessen said he had tried to give reporters the impression that there was an official reason for a trip Ford took to Florida when Ford just wanted to play in a golf tournament. Powell confessed to having lied when reporters had asked whether Carter was planning a raid to rescue the hostages in Iran.
"I don't remember if I did," said George Christian, who served under President Johnson. "Maybe I don't want to remember it."
When asked if he had told a lie, Ziegler drew friendly laughter by asking, "You want me to respond to this one?" He said he never knowingly lied, because he was kept in the dark about the Watergate scandal.
Tubby said he had never "deliberately lied," but many times "had no comment when, perhaps, I should have or could have said something about an issue."
Tubby, however, followed up with criticism of the press, reading from notes he had scribbled on the back of a laundry form provided by his hotel.
"From Castro's rise to El Salvador and the PLO, there has been a media disposition to look more favorably on what it considers liberal positions," he said.
Suggesting that anti-nuclear demonstrations in Europe were orchestrated by communists, he asked rhetorically who was behind the demonstrations this week in the United States.
"Teddy Kennedy and Mark Hatfield," said UPI reporter Helen Thomas as nearly everyone in the room but Tubby erupted in laughter.
Jerry terHorst, who served Ford for the first month of his administration, was there. Pierre Salinger, spokesman for President Kennedy, and Bill Moyers, one of Johnson's press secretaries, both now in television, were out of the country on assignment.
Moyers' CBS documentary Wednesday on the impact of Reagan's budgets cuts on the poor, which has drawn stinging criticism from the Reagan White House, was mentioned, and Tubby was the most outspokenly critical.
But, Powell deadpanned: "There have been allegations that it was one-sided and biased. And I kind of have to agree with that in this respect. All that CBS program showed was just the people who had been in some way hurt by the present situation. And it seems to me that CBS now has an obligation to go back and do a program which shows the people that have benefited from the present situation."
Speakes laughed. "I give these guys a free meal and look what I get out of it," he said.