Pierre Salinger Remembers

Pierre Salinger was in town last month to promote his new book: “P.S. A Memoir,” published simultaneously in French and English. Happily, the event coincided with the 100th anniversary of Brentano’s bookstore, so the passage of some 30 million books and the publication of one new one were duly celebrated by a literary lunch at the Hotel Bristol on October 11, and an extremely successful book-signing at Brentano’s on the 14th. The dual publication is fitting for a man who has spent so much of his life in France and has been known to the French public as a kind of “voice of America” ever since he conducted a Kennedy press conference over 30 years ago and wowed the local press boys by addressing them in French.

I asked Salinger what had prompted him to write a memoir: “Well, it’s just that I was coming to that rather special age of 70 and thought that, having had a somewhat interesting life, it might be something people would be interested in reading about.” True enough, he has had an interesting life, although one’s immediate reaction may be, “Oh dear, more basking in the reflected glory of the Kennedy aura; yet another tome on the extended Holy Family of the United Sates.” A good part of his memoir does indeed deal with the Kennedy years, which for Salinger, were obviously a golden age.

Still, one can’t help imagining what it must have been like to stand before the Washington press corps and try to explain away the Bay of Pigs “incident” or the Cuban missile crisis, especially as JFK had kept him more or less uninformed. Salinger quotes Kennedy as having called him and said, “Pierre, I want you to stick close at home tonight. You may have some inquiries from the press about a military affair in the Caribbean. If you do, just say you know only what you read in the newspapers.” Salinger dismisses moments like this with comparative lightness in his memoir, but the actual threat of nuclear war, and the need to calmly communicate the issue to the press and hence the public, cannot have been a barrel of laughs.

Salinger’s life contains many of the elements that would have made a good MGM movie in the old days. Born to a French Catholic mother and an American Jewish father, he was a bilingual and prodigious child: a concert pianist by the age of 6, he eventually decided to renounce the concert stage for a more “normal” life. By the age of 19 he had served in the Pacific and been decorated for heroism, and was resuming a career as a journalist on the San Francisco Chronicle, where he remained something of a muck-raker until 1955.

In 1957 Salinger joined Robert Kennedy as a congressional investigator in the Senate investigations (the McClellan Committee) of the Teamsters union, Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa. And the rest, as they say, is history: from RFK’s investigator to JFK’s campaign press secretary to White House press secretary at the age of 35.

November 22, 1963: Salinger and several top Kennedy aides were on a plane bound for Tokyo when they heard the news. John Greenya, who assisted Salinger in the writing of his book by sifting through over 30 years of papers, told me that when he found the diary entry for the day, it said simply, “J.F.K. – Dallas. P.S. – Tokyo.” Obviously the circumstances following the assassination left little time for amendment of the text.

Salinger remained at the White House for a brief period as Johnson’s press secretary and then served an even briefer spell as a senator from California, after which he hit the presidential campaign train with Robert Kennedy, only to witness his assassination in 1968.

It was not too long after this that Pierre Salinger assumed the role for which he is now perhaps best known: that of a voice of America in France. In 1972, while visiting Paris, he was contacted by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, the owner of L’Express, and asked to join his staff, specifically to cover American affairs (which at the time included the Watergate scandal). It was a pleasing return to journalism that led to innumerable television appearances, much traveling and a stay of over 18 years in France (plus seven in England.)

Salinger is now back in Washington but not in politics (although he did tell me that he has slipped the odd suggestion to Clinton’s speech writers and that the lines have usually turned up in the appropriate discourse). He is vice chairman of Burson-Marsteller, the largest public relations company in the world. When I asked him if he missed Paris, he explained that he retained his apartment in Paris and that he and his fourth wife, who is French, spend a great deal of time here.

And what of politics? He sees the “horrifying rise in Islamic terrorism,” in France and elsewhere, as a direct consequence of the Gulf War, which he terms an unnecessary war that was fought because “President Bush wanted to go to war.” True, that little war (some 20,000 dead, I believe) did little to enamor the Western world to the Arab nations. As for next year’s presidential elections, Salinger isn’t sure that any of the 10 Republican candidates being touted thus far will run. No, he can see Newt Gingrich as a frightening possibility, though there should be a place for Colin Powell somewhere on the Republican ticket.

When asked about his future projects as a writer, he replied: “Actually, I’ve written a few chapters of a book and I’m not sure I’m ever going to finish it; it’s a book called ‘The Stupid World.’ Each chapter is about a stupid person or a stupid thing that’s happened.”

A vast project.


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