Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened May 24, 1963
Oral History Interview with
May 24, 1963
by Charles T. Morrissey
MORRISSEY: Would you tell me Mr. Perlmeter, when did you first join the White House staff?
PERLMETER: In December, 1950.
MORRISSEY: And what was your title?
PERLMETER: Assistant Press Secretary.
MORRISSEY: What were your duties?
PERLMETER: Joseph Short was the Press Secretary at the time and determined to have two assistants: one for foreign affairs who was Mr. Roger Tubby; and one for domestic affairs which was me. Prior to that time, and I believe since that time, the custom has generally been to have only one Assistant Press Secretary, at least with that title.
MORRISSEY: Who else was in the office with you, Mr. Tubby and Mr. Short?
PERLMETER: Only the secretarial help.
MORRISSEY: Could you tell me in some detail, what would be your daily routine--what your duties would involve you in?
PERLMETER: Usually our first responsibility was dealing with matters relating to the press, radio, the television, magazines and other mass information media. This meant, in the first place, assisting the President in preparing for news conferences; in the second place, handling all correspondence relating to these matters; in the third place, providing assistance in related matters such as counseling on speeches, and accompanying the President on his visits away from the White House, and so forth. In a broad way, I think that describes it. Of course, this was by itself a day and night job, and seven days a week.
MORRISSEY: Could you tell me a little bit about why you think you were chosen for this post?
PERLMETER: Prior to this appointment, I had been for several
years in charge of public relations for the Internal Revenue Service; and prior to that time, I had been a Washington correspondent of the Associated Press. At the time I was working at the Associated Press, Mr. Short was also in the same office and undoubtedly our friendship at that time was a factor, or at least he had an opportunity to form some estimate of whether I could do a job or not.
MORRISSEY: Could you fill me in with a little more biographical material: birth date, education?
PERLMETER: I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, February 8, 1909, was reared in Omaha; went to Creighton University in Omaha for two years and to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska for two years. At the University of Nebraska I majored in journalism and took a part-time job working for the Lincoln, Nebraska, Star. Shortly after leaving the university, I transferred to the Lincoln office of the Associated Press and in the fall of 1936 was transferred by the Associated Press to its Washington office. During most of the time in the Washington office of the Associated Press, I was assigned to reporting activities of the departments and agencies, primarily related to business, financial and economic affairs, such as the Treasury and Commerce
Departments, the Budget Bureau, Federal Reserve and so forth.
MORRISSEY: Did you by chance attend any of Mr. Roosevelt's press conferences?
PERLMETER: I used to attend them regularly.
MORRISSEY: Where did your association with Joe Short begin?
PERLMETER: Joe was in the Washington office of the Associated Press ahead of me and Mrs. Short, by the way, who was also an Associated Press reporter, arrived in the Washington office on the same day that I did and was, of course, a friend of both of them.
MORRISSEY: Could you tell me something about Joseph Short--what kind of man he was?
PERLMETER: Well, Joe was, in the first place, an extremely competent newspaperman as attested not only by his career in the Associated Press, but later as a correspondent for the Chicago Sun and then for the Baltimore Sun. He was also very popular among the reporters and officials in Washington. His stature is indicated by the fact that he served a term as President of the National Press Club prior
to becoming Press Secretary.
MORRISSEY: Did he ever remark on why Mr. Truman chose him to be Press Secretary for the President?
PERLMETER: I don't recall that he expressed any particular reason except that obviously they were on good personal terms prior to that time.
MORRISSEY: You mentioned a moment ago that one of your duties was helping prepare the President for a press conference. Would you tell me what this preparation would entail?
PERLMETER: Prior to each Presidential press conference, (usually held a week apart) Mr. Short, Mr. Tubby and myself would make notes of probable questions and issues, would collect as much information as we thought necessary, usually by calling the head of the agency involved or one of his responsible representatives. And then, approximately a half hour before the press conference, the President would have a conference with his press staff and some of the other members of his staff at which the questions were discussed and the President suggested the answers
that he might give, or would just generally discuss the matter so as to be familiar with it.
MORRISSEY: Who were some of the other White House staff members who would attend these briefing sessions?
PERLMETER: Usually the other secretaries to the President would be there, which were Mr. Connelly and Mr. Hassett, until Mr. Hassett retired and was succeeded by Mrs. Short (Mr. Short having died in the meantime.) Also present customarily were Mr. Murphy, the Special Counsel, and some of the Administrative Assistants such as Mr. Nash, Mr. Stowe, Mr. Bell and Mr. Lloyd.
MORRISSEY: And these sessions, you say, would usually be about thirty minutes in length?
MORRISSEY: And what would be the objective?
PERLMETER: The objective would be to enable the President to respond directly and accurately and knowledgeably to any question that could be anticipated.
MORRISSEY: Were there times when questions were asked that you
PERLMETER: Naturally, it's impossible to anticipate all the questions, but our batting average was quite high.
MORRISSEY: Do you remember any specific instances when a "curve ball" was thrown that hadn't been anticipated?
PERLMETER: Usually the only questions that you can't anticipate are those which have such a personal or local flavor that a third party is not apt to know about them. As far as general issues of national or international affairs, anyone who follows the events can pretty well predict the questions.
MORRISSEY: Would the President schedule his press conferences on a fairly routine basis or were they scheduled pretty much as news came up that would require a press conference?
PERLMETER: Mr. Truman's conferences were held with great regularity once a week.
MORRISSEY: Sometimes in a press conference, Mr. Truman would read a prepared statement. Would that statement be prepared in this half hour session before the conference, or some days, for example before the conference?
PERLMETER: Usually such statements were prepared by one of the members of the press staff prior to the conference, usually the morning of the conference.
MORRISSEY: I see. The conferences then were usually held in the afternoon.
PERLMETER: Sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes in the morning.
MORRISSEY: Would the President himself prepare these announcements sometimes, or would he depend on the staff to do the work?
PERLMETER: The statements for the press conferences were usually prepared by the press staff.
MORRISSEY: Would the President tend to amend these or discard them?
PERLMETER: The President always reviewed everything that was written and did make corrections whenever he thought necessary.
MORRISSEY: Would you say that the President came to these pre-press conference briefing sessions already well-prepared
with a sum of knowledge within his grasp or were there times when he definitely needed to be briefed on some developments?
PERLMETER: It was very rare that a question was brought up that he wasn't very well aware of. Considering the vast number and complexity of the issues facing the President it was always quite amazing that he had such wide knowledge. I might say in this connection that those that worked in the White House were always aware of the fact that even after he left his office in the west wing in the evening and went to the residential part of the White House, he always took with him a portfolio, at least a foot thick, and that he spent a good deal of his evenings reading through these portfolios.
MORRISSEY: Sometimes after a press conference, the Press Secretary would submit a clarification to the press on some matter. Who would decide and how would it be decided that some statement or some aspect of the press conference needed clarification?
PERLMETER: The Press Secretary and his assistants were on the alert for slips of the tongue or ambiguities that might cause public confusion or misunderstanding and took the initiative
in preparing what you call clarification. Of course, these were submitted to the President for his approval before they were issued.
MORRISSEY: What was the procedure to be followed on choosing to allow the President's words to be quoted on occasion?
PERLMETER: The formal press conference hardly existed before President Roosevelt, although there were rudimentary press conferences as far back as Theodore Roosevelt. However, the rules which Franklin Roosevelt established prohibited direct quotation of his press conference remarks. When Mr. Truman became President, he automatically took over Mr. Roosevelt's rules making occasional exceptions. In most instances, during Mr. Truman's Administration, the direct quotations from press conferences resulted from requests from reporters during the course of the press conferences. Such requests were acted upon on the spot by the President. There were a few occasions when a request was made after the conference.
MORRISSEY: Could you tell me something about the development of the suggestion that the President's press conferences be taped?
PERLMETER: Very shortly after Mr. Short, Mr. Tubby and I came to the White House, it became apparent that the lag between press conferences and the transcription of stenographic notes was quite a serious hindrance to answering questions that customarily arose after a conference as to whether the President had made this or that statement or what it meant. Accordingly, I asked permission and received permission to attach a stenographic recording machine to the public address system in the press conference hall for the purpose of making a quick reference source from the conferences. This device had been used for a few weeks until an occasion arose when the radio, broadcasting companies asked permission to reproduce part of one of these recordings. This was approved by the President but it was found that the tonal quality of the plastic disk used for stenographic purposes was very poor. Accordingly, I made arrangements with the Army Signal Corps to substitute a high-quality magnetic tape recording for the other type recording, and from that time on, and as far as I know to this day, such recordings have been made, not only of press conferences, but also of all other occasions on which the President speaks in public, which would include formal addresses and also informal talks in the White House rose
garden and elsewhere.
MORRISSEY: I assume then the President was not reluctant to have this done?
PERLMETER: He gave his permission.
MORRISSEY: Was he reluctant about having some parts of some press conferences broadcast on radio?
PERLMETER: I don't recall his expressing any reluctance. Mr. Short was of the general opinion that it was unwise to allow general broadcasting, because of the fact that since the President was answering questions of which he had no advance notice and was speaking extemporaneously, there was always the possibility that he might make a slip of the tongue on a matter of very great importance, which could have very serious consequences either nationally or internationally. Therefore, it was unwise to commit the President so irretrievably as to allow direct quotation or broadcasting of the entire press conference. I might add that in practice, in the two years that I was at the White House, I don't recall any occasions when there were any slips of this kind. Of course, any human being can make some little mistake or have a slip in memory of minor
details, but I can't recall any serious slips.
MORRISSEY: Would you say then that Mr. Truman's memory was pretty good?
PERLMETER: I thought it was above average.
MORRISSEY: Was any consideration ever given to having reporters submit their questions beforehand so the President would have some advance notice of what might be asked?
PERLMETER: No. The submission of questions in advance limits the scope of the press conference quite seriously, and the press generally regards this as obnoxious and Mr. Truman, so far as I know, gave no thought to it.
MORRISSEY: When you were in the press office, had you made any preparations for handling the press relations of the President in case of a great national emergency such as an attack by an enemy power? Or in case of illness to Mr. Truman, were there procedures already determined of how the news would be handled?
PERLMETER: Well, there were (I assume everyone knows) plans for pro