"You do not give up freedom. That's what we are talking about here. Freedom. Because without the watchdog, your freedoms would be stripped from you."
Jack Anderson speech, Page 2
There was an occasion. I don't know whether I should relate this one. Tender ears here in Mormondom. Well, let me go ahead. I was visiting with him in the Oval Office once, and he was furious at Congress. I can't remember why, but he was furious. "Birds fly upside down over Capitol Hill. It ain't worth shitting on." That was the way he (Lyndon Johnson) talked. But it was Lyndon Johnson who first explained to me that George Washington was born in Texas. I hadn't known that before. He said that little George, when he turned 8 years old, was given a shiny red hatchet for a birthday present. He tested out this hatchet on a pecan tree. When his father came home that evening, and found the tree missing from the family landscape he demanded to know who was responsible, and little George stepped forward, and said, "Father, I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the pecan tree." At that, the old man lifted little George upon his knee, and said "Son, if you can't tell a lie we are going to have to leave Texas." That's how they got to Washington. That was Lyndon Johnson's version.
One sequel. I'm sorry, but we will get back to your business later. One sequel. Lyndon told me he grew up in poverty. This was obviously before he got into politics. He grew up in absolute poverty on the banks of the (Pedernales), one of the Texas rivers. They were so poor they couldn't afford indoor plumbing. They were obliged to use an outhouse that was perched on the banks of the river. Little Lyndon was a mischievous fella, and couldn't resist one day pushing the outhouse in to the river. Not long afterward his father came roaring in to the house full of outrage, demanded to know who was responsible for this deed, and little Lyndon kept his mouth shut. He decided that his best ploy was to keep quiet. When the guilty finger began getting closer and closer to him, at the last minute he changed his mind, he thought his best ploy at that point, was to use the George Washington gimmick. So he spoke up and said, "Father, I cannot tell a lie. I pushed the outhouse in to the river." At that, the old man whipped off his belt and gave little Lyndon a strapping. The whimpering little Lyndon said, "When George Washington told the truth about chopping down the pecan tree, his daddy didn't whip him!" And the old man said, "Yes, but his daddy wasn't in the pecan tree."
Well, let me open this discussion by quoting, as I promised to do, the late President Lyndon B. Johnson. And Johnson's words: "Let's lift up the cow's tail, and look the situation straight in the face." The press in America today is not particularly popular. It probably does not deserve to be particularly popular. We have adopted many of our mainstream organizations radio, TV, newspapers have adopted the legal profession's way of learning the truth. A lawyer can prove anything. He may represent the defendant one day, the plaintiff the next, and he can take whatever facts are available on one side of the story and spell out a tale that proves either side, and he doesn't much care which side he is on. Depends usually on who offers him the biggest fee. Increasingly tabloid television programs and tabloid newspapers are doing the same thing. They decide what would make a good story and then they go out to prove the story, and they can prove anything there, investigate your background, find out all there is to know, all there is on the record about you, and take all the derogatory stuff that I learned, and put it all in one column without any compensating favorable information on the other side, and I could destroy your reputation. Well, I appeal to you, who are going in to this business, you who are taking communications under a great communications director, who will teach you right.
Let me tell you what I tell my reporters. I say I want to know the facts. I want to know the facts as they are, not as you think they are, not as you hope they are, not as someone tells you they are. I want to know the facts as they are, and I confess it is more difficult for them to find out those facts than it is for me to tell them to find out those facts. But I tell them that politicians (whom it is our duty to cover in Washington), that politicians are proud, egocentric people. Most of them would give an arm or a leg before they gave up their reputations, their good name. I can tell you that a man named Bill Clinton is in absolute agony over the stories about his personal life. He suffers. He has complained petulantly to friends: "How can they write these stories about Hilary and me? What do they know? Only Hillary and I know what our relationship is. How can they write these terrible stories?"
Richard Nixon went off his rocker for a short period of time, over the agony of Watergate, and the stories that we wrote about him. So I say to my reporters, "So, if you enjoy doing this too much, I don't think I'm going to like you." But I tell them it is our function to do it. This is our function. Our Founding Fathers understood, that government by its nature tends to oppress those it has power over. Our Founding Fathers decided that there must be, there had to be, there should be and there is, an institution that keeps an eye on government. That is what we do. There is nothing in the Constitution about freedom to practice law; there is nothing in the Constitution about freedom to practice medicine; there is nothing in the Constitution about freedom to engage in commerce; there is nothing in the Constitution about teaching. But there is something in the Constitution about freedom of the press. Our Founding Fathers understood, that it would be necessary to have a watchdog on government.
Have we been good watchdogs? Sometimes. Sometimes we serve you better than you deserve to be served. More often, lately, we have done a poor job. But it is our job, it is our function, it is what we are supposed to do, and we do it just about as well as the politicians do their job lately. And that isn't too well. You do not give up freedom. That's what we are talking about here. Freedom. Because without the watchdog, your freedoms would be stripped from you. You do not give up freedom for anything else. And if you do, you have made a bad bargain.
So Thomas Jefferson, that wise man, that sophisticated man, that cultured man, that rich man -- he was a plantation owner he understood. He advocated and supported a free press, and yet Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. He was excoriated by the press. He was abused more by the press than Bill Clinton, or Richard Nixon, or anybody that we have had in recent times. Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. Excoriated. And he was human. He didn't like it. He went nose to nose with a couple of editors in Philadelphia. He said to one Philadelphia paper: "Nothing in this paper is true, with the possible exception of the advertising, and I question that." And yet that wise Thomas Jefferson, in a moment of truth, said, "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." After all he had been through, he was wise enough to understand. And there is no one here that has been through as much as Thomas Jefferson. There is no one in Washington that has been through as much as Thomas Jefferson, but he said, "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government," he would take his morning paper.
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Archived Months:September 1998