The life and work of a noted White House reporter.
A week after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy made clear that she wanted to keep certain reporters from writing about her husband’s presidency. Foremost among them was Merriman Smith (1913-1970), whom she derided as a bitter old man. Since 1941, Smith had been the White House reporter for United Press International, and he had become a celebrity in his own right, the author of several books, and a guest of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Merv Griffin on late-night TV. But as reporter and former New York Post editor Sanderson portrays Smith in his debut book, Jacqueline Kennedy had every reason to dislike him: an alcoholic, Smith was a mean drunk; he lashed out in anger and frustration at his first wife and often at his bosses at UPI; he was ruthlessly competitive, always “poised to battle his colleagues to get the story first and right.” Sanderson cites one altercation with a young reporter who dared to contradict Smith about the exact moment when Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office after the assassination. “He practically put a hammer lock on me,” the reporter claimed, due to the one-second difference in time. Sanderson implies that Smith’s concern over details made him a great reporter, but still, he emerges as a difficult, self-important, combative man. Focusing on Smith’s reporting of the Kennedy assassination, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, Sanderson conveys the tension and confusion after the event, as Smith and other newsmen scrambled to ascertain facts. Smith soon became a favorite of LBJ, who gave him special access and used him “as a conduit for routine information meant to enhance his image.” Drawing on interviews and many oral histories, Sanderson recounts Smith’s tormented life, but he strains to justify why he merits this biography.
More interesting than Smith himself is the author’s portrayal of the news business in the 1950s and ’60s.