I was a little over two months away from turning eight years old when the Western Union telegram arrived for my dad.
The telegram read: “It would be useful to me to have an exchange of views with you on state, regional and national problems. Therefore I would be most pleased to have you as my guest at luncheon on Friday June 15, 1962 at 100PM at the White House (enter the northwest gate on Pennsylvania Avenue). I hope it will be possible for you to attend. It would be appreciated if you would kindly reply to Press Secretary Pierre Salinger.
John F. Kennedy”
Say what? Dad had only been the owner, editor and publisher of The Power County Press for two years and eight months and already THE President wanted to discuss his problems with him. Tell that to the boys back in Utah where dad had been working as a police beat and general assignment reporter.
Had it been the first of April it would have been less of a surprise.
But the telegram was real. Kennedy was reaching out, state by state, inviting members of each state newspaper association’s boards the opportunity to dine and discuss whatever they’d like. Eleven Idaho publishers took him up on the offer.
Just under a year and a half later, dad was invited by the Secretary of the Navy to travel to Hawaii on the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard. Along the way they also accepted rides on a destroyer and submarine. That cruise left San Diego for Hawaii on Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, three days after Kennedy would be pronounced dead at the hand of an assassin’s bullet, stirring probably one of the most emotional moments in this country’s short history.
Included this week on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination are the thoughts of the late Press and Times Publisher Bob Crompton on his visit to the White House.
Just as a side note, accepted use of descriptives for African-American people have evolved over the years. Earlier terms may now be considered offensive. We have left Bob Crompton’s terminology intact, to maintain the accuracy of his comments. There was no intent, either by him or myself, to offend anyone.
June 14, 1962
by Bob Crompton
Thursday I’m going to buy a new bow tie.
I’m going to pack my best suit – really it’s my only suit. I’m going to stow into my wife’s green-stamp suitcase my shiniest black shoes.
Then I’m going to go have lunch with the president.
President John F. Kennedy, that is.
He invited me (see telegram above). John said he would like to talk over “state, regional and national problems” with me.
And the way my Republican wife looks at it, he needs some advice.
Now, seriously, it is in my mind a great honor to be invited to meet with the president, along with several other Idaho publishers. I took it seriously enough to upend this month’s budget to finance the trip.
And, seriously, there is a question or two I’d like to ask the president, like:
Are you going to support the Idaho Democratic nominee for governor?”
June 21, 1962
by Bob Crompton
President John F. Kennedy smiles easily, answers quickly and loves a bull session.
He’s tall, full-faced but thin, composed, more deeply voiced than on TV and his Harvard accent is barely noticeable in easy conversation.
At least those were some of the impressions left me last Friday in a White House luncheon with the president, Press Secretary Pierre Salinger and 11 other Idaho publishers.
I was not left with the impression that the weight of the job was “aging” the president, but rather that he is absorbed in his tasks, likes the responsibilities – loves the job.
We drifted into the White House from the Northwest gate on Pennsylvania Avenue in three or four clusters, walked past an armed guard, who hardly looked at us, and into the lobby of the historic White House.
They knew we were coming. In fact seating arrangements had already been settled and diagrammed on a yard-long board. We checked it, and knew exactly where we would be seated.
My chair was the second from the center of the oval table, one seat away from the president, with only Publisher Lewis Hower of Emmett sitting between us.
The seating was not really important. Every guest was within whispering, eye-staring distance of the president.
A colored butler directed us to a small reception room, decorated in blue and furnished with chairs and tables that date back to the early years of the Republic.
Another very old colored butler, who later said he had worked in the White House for 40 years, shuffled into the room with a large tray of cocktails and tomato juice. Each guest helped himself.
Press Secretary Pierre Salinger arrived first, took a glass of tomato juice, related that his brother had taken a masters degree at the University of Idaho and discussed, among other things, log rolling contests in Orofino (he had once written a story on log-rolling there for Collier’s magazine).
Then, a butler announced: “Gentlemen, The President of the United States.”
Mr. Kennedy strode into the room briskly.
“I’m happy to see you all here,” he said. He walked from one guest to another. Each shook his hand and announced the town he represented.
Each time the president said, “I’m happy to see you,” or “it’s nice to have you here” or something similar.
A butler announced that lunch was ready and the president said:
“Let’s go in here.” He pointed to the next room, decorated in red and referred to as the family dining room.
Before the salad was served the inquisitive Idaho publishers started tossing questions at the man at the head of the table.
He answered quickly and earnestly and allowed the publishers to pick their subjects. The subjects ranged from wheat in Power County to Castro in Cuba.
The possibility of increasing sugar beet quotas in the U.S. lead to talk of Castro and the state of affairs in Cuba.
I asked the president if there is a possibility that Castro and communism will tumble in Cuba soon and I questioned if this country is doing anything to aid in Castro’s downfall.
Answers to those questions came clearly, but Mr. Salinger asked (he did not order) after the meeting, that they not be reported.
Restraint in reporting on some other international problems was also requested. The president had spoken too frankly on several issues to be quoted, Pierre Salinger said after the lunch.
I asked the president if he regularly reads any paper published in the West. He said “No.” Pierre Salinger in one of the few times he spoke, advised that his office takes some 60 newspapers, including many from the West.
“Of course I can’t read them all,” the president said.
(NOTE – We’re putting the president on our mailing list.)
Talk was still flowing then a butler passed a box of cigars.
Between me and the president Lew Hower inhaled deeply on his – and coughed. Like the cocktail before lunch, it was the pure stuff.
The luncheon ran well over the usual hour and a half the president spends with publishers, closer to two hours I believe.
And, finally, the president stood up, the publishers followed, and he said:
“I have another appointment. Gentlemen I appreciate your coming such a long distance.”
The president circled the table, shook each man’s hand.
“Thank you,” he said.
A tour of the White House followed. Then came a reception at the Capital Building where we were guests of the Idaho Congressional delegation, Senators Frank Church and Henry Dworshak, and Representatives Ralph Harding and Gracie Pfost.
That night Mr. Harding and Mrs. Pfost took the group to a ball game, the Senators vs. Baltimore. The Senators were terrible.
LAST NOTE – When I arrived home Monday morning at 3 a.m. I found a banner spread clear across the living room wall with a hand-printed message on it.
“Welcome home famous father and happy Father’s Day” the kids had scrawled.
It was well worth every penny of the $304.22 the trip had cost me.