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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 523

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This is the grave of Pierre Salinger.

Born in San Francisco in 1925 to a wealthy half-Catholic, half-Jewish family, Salinger grew up with stories of his family’s past. His grandfather led the defense of Dreyfuss in the French Assembly, for instance. The family moved to Canada, where Salinger became a child prodigy on the piano, learning to play a grand piano before he learned to read. He was on his way to becoming a professional pianist, but at the age of 12, his parents intervened. Seeing what that goal would do to the child’s social life, i.e., he wouldn’t have one, they asked him to put the piano aside for a year. He did and developed a new passion: writing. He went to high school back in San Francisco and enrolled in San Francisco State College in 1941. In 1943, he left college to fight in World War II, where he commanded a submarine chaser off Okinawa. He won decoration for saving stranded men during a typhoon there. He returned to college after the war, graduating from San Francisco University in 1947.

Salinger took a job with the San Francisco Chronicle and also wrote for many magazines, rising to become an editor at Collier’s. In the 1950s, he wrote a bunch of articles about the corruption of Teamsters’ head Jimmy Hoffa. With the ambitious Kennedys seeking to make political capital off exposing union corruption, this put Salinger in their orbit. Bobby Kennedy read his articles and hired Salinger to be legal counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee he chaired that was investigating organized crime. He got along with the Kennedys real well. They loved his sophistication and style, not to mention his musical skills. Salinger soon became close with not only Bobby, but John and Jackie. He was a leading advisor on JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign and then was hired by the new president as press secretary in 1961. Kennedy was the first president to have televised news conferences, which Salinger managed, using his charm on the press, which helped create good relationships between the president and the media.

He played well internationally. Khrushchev really liked the guy and not only asked Kennedy to bring him along, but, once, when Salinger visited the Soviet Union on a different matter, Khrushchev found out and invited him out to his dacha to take long hikes, talk about the Berlin Wall, and no doubt drink. After Kennedy’s assassination, Salinger stayed on as Johnson’s press secretary for awhile longer, helping ease the transition. He finally left the job in March 1964 and went back to California. He had started developing electoral ambitions of his own. Pat Brown named him as the replacement in the Senate for Clair Engle after his death in July 1964. He won the primary for a full term that fall in a tough battle against Alan Cranston. But even though this was a huge Democratic wave, Salinger actually lost the election to George Murphy. There were two main reasons. First, there was a big hubbub over whether Salinger really lived in California. Second, and more important, Salinger was a major supporter of legislation to fight housing discrimination. But Californians were all about housing discrimination and they weren’t going to have a senator who forced through actual integration. It is indeed shocking that Reagan would be elected governor two years later.

After his loss, Salinger published a memoir in 1966 of his time with Kennedy. He even appeared on an episode of Batman in 1968, playing a lawyer who defends Catwoman and The Joker in a trial. That year, he also was one of the major players behind Bobby Kennedy’s presidential run and was standing next to him when the candidate was assassinated. Salinger was just devastated by this. He moved to France and went back into journalism. This is how I remember him. Growing up in the 80s, what I knew about Salinger was that he was on the news all the time as a correspondent and talking head. This started in 1976 when he became a commentator for the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. He did well and in 1978, ABC hired him to run its Paris bureau. When Peter Jennings took over as the anchor of ABC News, Salinger rose to become chief European correspondent. He did a lot of sports and also was a major correspondent on Middle Eastern issues, often covering the terrorist and hijacking incidents of the 1980s. In 1991, during the Gulf War, he managed to uncover a recording of a conversation between Saddam Hussein and U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie, where she seems to tell him that the U.S. does not care about “Arab-Arab conflicts,” just days before Saddam invaded Kuwait. Salinger also did a lot of work on French television.

In the 1990s, Salinger retired from ABC and went into the elite executive circuit, becoming the head of some big time PR firm. When George W. Bush “won” the 2000 election, Salinger moved to France permanently, saying he would not live in nation led by such a man. He died in 2004 in that country.

Of course, Salinger loved being on TV, so we might as well check out some clips.

Pierre Salinger is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit more White House press secretaries, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Alas, Ari Fleischer is still alive. But George Christian is in Austin, Texas and Ron Ziegler, who ran interference for Nixon, is in San Diego. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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