An in-depth look at one of the twentieth century's star reporters and his biggest story.
Thanks to one reporter’s skill, we can fix the exact moment on November 22, 1963 when the world stopped and held its breath: At 12:34 p.m. Central Time, UPI White House reporter Merriman Smith broke the news that shots had been fired at President Kennedy's motorcade. Most people think Walter Cronkite was the first to tell America about the assassination. But when Cronkite broke the news on TV, he read from one of Smith’s dispatches. At Parkland Hospital, Smith saw President Kennedy’s blood-soaked body in the back of his limousine before the emergency room attendants arrived. Two hours later, he was one of three journalists to witness President Johnson’s swearing-in aboard Air Force One. Smith rightly won a Pulitzer Prize for the vivid story he wrote for the next day’s morning newspapers.
Smith’s scoop is journalism legend. But the full story of how he pulled off the most amazing reportorial coup has never been told. As the top White House reporter of his time, Smith was a bona fide celebrity and even a regular on late-night TV. But he has never been the subject of a biography.
With access to a trove of Smith’s personal letters and papers and through interviews with Smith’s family and colleagues, veteran news reporter Bill Sanderson will crack open the legend. Bulletins from Dallas tells for the first time how Smith beat his competition on the story, and shows how the biggest scoop of his career foreshadowed his personal downfall.
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About the Author
Bill Sanderson spent almost two decades as a reporter and editor at the New York Post. His work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, and the Washington Post. Sanderson lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The White House beat
IT'S OK TO CALL HIM Smitty. Everyone did, and he wore the name like a press card in the band of a brimmed hat.
Albert Merriman Smith was born on February 10, 1915. As a teenager, he added two years to his age so he could get a job. That's why government records say Smitty was born in 1913. The lie stuck, and even his gravestone is marked with the wrong date. By the official records, Smith arrived in the world more than a year before his parents wed. This bothered his mother, who didn't want anyone to think she bore her only child out of wedlock. She was still fussing about it in 1965, when her son turned fifty. Smith worried about the scandal or investigation that might arise if he tried to set the record straight. "Now, really, Mother. Let's let this one drop," Smith wrote her. "I'm the one who should feel awful. I've reached that age."
Smith grew up in Savannah, Georgia. Journalism was the only career he imagined. "It never occurred to me to do anything else," he said. Smith began working for newspapers as a child. He delivered them, collected classified advertising money, and submitted news items about the Boy Scouts. As editor of The Blue and White, the student newspaper at Savannah High School, Smith was suspended for writing an editorial that called the school building a firetrap. He also got in trouble with an English teacher over an essay "about what the Savannah waterfront looked like at dawn, complete with drunk sailors, tawdry women, ships coming to life and in general the start of another day." The teacher advised him that "young writers should stick to subjects with which they were acquainted personally." "I insisted this was true in my case. She was shocked," Smith recounted years later. He explained to her that during the summer, he worked overnight at a Savannah boarding house owned by a relative. The teacher accepted his paper, but excused Smith from reading it aloud in class.
Smith enrolled in Oglethorpe College in Atlanta in 1932, planning to major in English. He worked on Oglethorpe's school paper and wrote press releases for the college's president. He also covered sports for the Atlanta Georgian, one of William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. The newspaper business lured him from his studies. In 1934, during his junior year, Smith dropped out of Oglethorpe and took a job writing features for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine. The following year, he was hired as managing editor of the Athens (Ga.) Daily Times.
In April 1936, Smith covered the aftermath of a tornado that killed 203 people when it destroyed downtown Gainesville, Georgia. President Franklin Roosevelt's train stopped in Gainesville on April 9. "I am happy to see that you are determined to rebuild this city on bigger and better lines than ever before," the president told a crowd. Smith noticed the relative luxury enjoyed by the reporters on Roosevelt's train. He hadn't had a change of clothes in days, and he had to file his copy by climbing a utility pole to a spot where a temporary telephone was installed. He envied the lot of the White House press. "Man, that's the way to cover news!" Smith thought.
Soon, he found his way up. Late in 1936, Smith went to work for the United Press, one of the three big American news services of the day — the others were the International News Service and the Associated Press. He started out as a sportswriter in Miami. When the UP's man in Tallahassee took sick in 1937, Smitty went there to cover the Florida legislature. He spent the following three years assigned to the UP's Atlanta bureau. Smith covered so many calamities in the South that he described himself as the Atlanta bureau's "holocaust man."
Smith married a social worker, Eleanor Doyle Brill, in September 1937. By 1940, the Smiths and their young son, Merriman Jr., had a home in a suburban neighborhood about three and a half miles north of downtown Atlanta.
Smitty climbed rapidly at the UP. In December 1940, he transferred to the Washington bureau. He was twenty-five years old and felt obliged to grow a mustache so he would appear older — Washington was a city for senior reporters. First he covered the Treasury. Then he was assigned to the State Department. He shared those beats with other reporters. The idea was to break him in and figure out where he'd fit best. "UP is putting me through a painful process known as learning the town," he explained to his mother. "New places and new people every day. ... Last week, met [Treasury Secretary Henry] Morgenthau, [Assistant Attorney General] Thurman Arnold, [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover and a lot of other people who eat, drink and smoke like the rest of us."
Sometimes he covered the White House on weekends and holidays. His bosses decided the White House suited him. Smith was assigned to the beat full time in the fall of 1941, and there he stayed for the next twenty-nine years, with only a few interruptions.
His first days at the White House were easy. No newspaper or wire service had more than one reporter on the beat, and usually no more than eight or ten reporters were at the White House at any one time. Most days, Steve Early, Roosevelt's press secretary, finished his briefings by 10:30 a.m. After the reporters filed their stories, they headed for a nearby bar. Presidential press conferences usually consisted of a dozen or so reporters gathered around Roosevelt's desk in the Oval Office. The patrician president had a cordial but adversarial relationship with the White House press. He joked and debated, and bullied the reporters if it suited his interests. If a reporter asked a hostile question, Roosevelt would give an elaborately formal answer that might include a greeting to that reporter's editor. He knew editors often planted such questions. The reporters mostly liked him.
In the White House reporters' caste system, Smith saw himself as a member of an "inner clique" he labeled "the regulars." This exalted group included the three wire service reporters and reporters for newspapers in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington. "These are the men whose full-time job is reporting the activities of the President and they are on the job in close proximity to the Chief Executive regardless of whether he is in the White House or in Honolulu," Smith explained. In his view, the regulars' role was to "serve as the eyes of the world, staring coldly at everything he does and telling all about it a few minutes later."
As war clouds gathered, the reporters spent less time at the bar. Within weeks of Smith's arrival, covering the White House turned into an eight- to ten-hour-per-day job.
Smitty was off on Sunday, December 7. He loafed around his house all morning. Early in the afternoon, while he was shaving, his wife knocked on the bathroom door.
"You know what the radio just said?"
"No, what?" Smitty answered.
"It said the Japanese bombed Hawaii."
He dashed from the bathroom to the phone. A UP editor called just as Smith picked up the handset to call his office. "Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor. Get to the White House fast as you can," the editor said.
Smitty grabbed a coat and tie and drove to the White House. Steve Early soon held a briefing giving details of the Pearl Harbor attack, which Smith called in to the UP's Washington bureau. "From then until about midnight there occurred the maddest scramble, the most rapid succession of world-shaking stories in the memory of the oldest old-timer in the newspaper business around Washington," Smith said. Within four hours that day, he handled eight bulletins and four "flashes," which are the highest-priority wire service news. Flashes denote big, big stories, like the death of a statesman or the outbreak of war. "This means to a press association man that the heat was on about as hot as it ever will be. Men spend an entire lifetime in press association work without ever handling one flash story."
Smith spent much of the war traveling with Roosevelt. "Did I marry a man or a traveling salesman!" Eleanor Smith remarked in a letter to her mother-in-law. Frustratingly to Smith, much of the president's travel during those years was secret. Roosevelt left Washington for days or weeks. Usually the only reporters on these trips were Smitty and his wire service colleagues. Often, they wrote nothing. Even the president's weekend trips home to Hyde Park, New York, were off the record. If something newsworthy did happen, the reporters sent out their stories after Roosevelt was back at the White House, if they sent out any copy at all. One five-day cross-country train run was so slow and boring, Smith rode through most of Oklahoma atop the engine cab, "waving to astonished trackwalkers who never before saw a man riding on top of an engine."
"You wire service men are just sitting around like vultures waiting for something to happen to me," Roosevelt said to them once. "Isn't that right?"
Well, not exactly, the reporters replied. "We're here in case something happens." Roosevelt called the reporters his "ghouls."
Several times during the war, Smith asked to be reassigned as a combat correspondent. His boss, UP Washington bureau manager Lyle Wilson, rejected all of his requests "on grounds that the White House was an important war front in itself and there I would remain." His itch to be a combat correspondent did not diminish his enjoyment of the White House beat. Smith reveled in the job. He liked being an insider, someone who saw the president every day. As the senior wire service reporter, he had the duty of declaring the end of White House news conferences with the phrase, "Thank you, Mr. President," which was the title of his first book in 1946. The book spent a month on the New York Times' best-seller list.
"I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. There is just no other way to get a front seat at the making of history except to be President, and my mother didn't raise me to be one," he wrote.
He also liked the celebrity aspect of his beat. Thank You, Mr. President included snippets about White House visits by Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra. He also wrote about Bob Hope's comedy routine at the 1944 White House Correspondents' Association dinner. "I sat by the President that night and Hope will never know how much Mr. Roosevelt enjoyed his gentle — and sometimes not so gentle — kidding," Smith wrote.
He shared the excitement of his life with his family. It would be years before women were admitted to the Correspondents' Association dinners. But in 1945, when Smith set up the entertainment as the association's president, he arranged with the Secret Service for his wife, Eleanor, and some of his colleagues' wives to watch the show from a film projection booth at the back of the hall. The entertainment that year included singer/comedians Fanny Brice and Danny Kaye and comedians Jimmy Durante and Danny Thomas. Smitty "sat between the president and the Earl of Athlone [the governor-general of Canada] and maintained the most beautiful poise and dignity in handling the introductions and details of the program you have ever seen," Eleanor Smith wrote her mother-in-law.
Smith gathered details about White House life from everyone from gardeners to Secret Service agents. He wrote about how much Roosevelt enjoyed stamp collecting, his model ship collection, movies, and swimming. In Thank You, Mr. President, published the year after Roosevelt died, Smith said Roosevelt's swimming "made up for his inability to walk." Roosevelt's inability to walk went unmentioned in White House reporters' copy when Roosevelt was alive. Rumors of the president's paralysis circulated around the country. The Washington press did not report on his condition, though there were hints: The proceeds of the 1944 Correspondents' dinner went to the National Infantile Paralysis Foundation, "the President's favorite philanthropy." Roosevelt himself brought up his infantile paralysis in a March 1945 address to Congress after his return from the Yalta conference. The New York Times transcript quotes him apologizing for delivering the speech while sitting down, and explaining that he must "carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs." Smith believed this was the first time Roosevelt mentioned his paralysis in public. But newspaper summaries of the speech omitted that part of his remarks.
Many reporters doubted Roosevelt would survive his fourth term. The presidency was clearly sapping his energy. Smith noticed that Roosevelt's voice was lower and his hands trembled. But he and other reporters told readers nothing about what they saw.
Smith was at Roosevelt's retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945. That afternoon, he had helped organize a barbecue for the president that was to be held on a Warm Springs mountainside. "The Brunswick stew was bubbling in a huge cook pot, country fiddlers were playing 'The Cat and the Chicken,' and everyone was on his toes for the Chief Executive's arrival," Smith wrote. When Roosevelt didn't show up on time, he called the White House's Warm Springs switchboard to ask where he was. "What's going on?" Smith asked. "Just get down here as fast as you can," the operator said.
Only after Roosevelt's death did Smith write a comprehensive story about the president's maladies. "Did President Roosevelt know he was an ill man and that the time had come to husband his strength?" Smith asked in his first paragraph. "Many of us who saw him often and traveled with him believe he did."
After Roosevelt's death, Smith asked one last time to be reassigned as a war correspondent. Wilson turned him down again, and told Smith: "Get on over to the White House and start learning to know the new boss."
On the morning of President Harry S. Truman's first workday at the White House, Tony Vaccaro, an AP reporter who had covered Truman in the Senate, caused quite a splash among his competitors when the new president gave him a ride to work. Smitty worried that Vaccaro's relationship with Truman assured AP a steady stream of scoops. Vaccaro knew better. He announced to his new colleagues in the White House press room: "Please forget this business about my being close to the President. Every one of you will be, too, before long."
Vaccaro was right. Truman quickly struck up good relationships with Smitty and the other reporters who covered him regularly.
Covering the White House is not as dramatic or dangerous as being a war correspondent or a big-city street reporter. Smith faced his biggest risk of injury when he ran to the telephone to call in a story. When Truman announced Germany's surrender in May 1945, Smith sprinted from the president's office so fast he tripped over a photographer's ladder, bounced several feet in the air, and hit the floor hard enough to dislocate his shoulder. He was hurt, but duty came first. Smitty spent an hour dictating his story to the UP's Washington bureau. When he walked out of his phone booth, he toppled over on the press room sofa. "I could not hold anything in my left hand. I hurt plenty," he said.The White House doctor gave him a shot of morphine, and Smith spent several days in the hospital. His reporter friends sent him a bottle of whiskey, Merriman Jr. drew him a Purple Heart in crayon, and Smitty got a lot of what he called "cheap notoriety."
Smitty sailed with President Truman aboard the USS Augusta to the July 1945 postwar Potsdam Conference in Germany. On the way back on August 3, Truman gathered Smith and the other reporters in the Augusta's flag cabin and laid out the story of the atomic bomb that was about to be dropped on Japan. "Here was the greatest story since the invention of gunpowder. And what could we do with it? Nothing. Just sit and wait," Smith said. Truman waited too. The president expected to hear the result of the bombing sometime on August 4. "But when we caught him on deck next day, he shrugged his shoulders. No word yet."
Finally, just before noon on August 6, the first news of the successful Hiroshima bomb was radioed to the Augusta and to Truman. Smitty reported what happened next in a story radioed from the warship: "The president himself broke the news of the awesome atomic bomb to officers and men aboard this cruiser during the 'chow' hour. 'We have just dropped a bomb on Japan that is more powerful than 20,000 tons of TNT,' he said. 'The experiment has been an overwhelming success.' The president said the announcement was the happiest he ever made because it meant a quicker end to the war, a saving of American lives. The men cheered."
Once everyone on the ship was briefed and the reporters' copy had been radioed home, it was time for poker. "Out came the cards and chips," Smith wrote years later in an article for This Week, a magazine inserted in Sunday newspapers around the country. Smitty suspected Truman went easy on the "comparatively low-salaried reporters. He became quite embarrassed when he won heavily. Consequently, he would stay in utterly impossible hands in an effort to plow his winnings back into the game."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bulletins from Dallas"
Copyright © 2016 Bill Sanderson.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Man and myth 1
Chapter 1 The White House Beat 7
The screening room
Chapter 2 Fame 19
The gospel singer
Chapter 3 Good New Days 33
Chapter 4 Texas 48
Chapter 5 The Wire Car 62
Chapter 6 Punchers 79
Chapter 7 Parkland 91
Chapter 8 Newsrooms 105
Chapter 9 Love Field 111
Chapter 10 Shooters 126
The East Room
Chapter 11 Getting Beat 142
A loose end
Chapter 12 Nightmares 149
Chapter 13 Close to Home 165
A fishing trip
Chapter 14 Conspiracies 182
Chapter 15 A Fatal Shot 196
Epilogue: Four minutes 207
Appendix A Merriman Smith's eyewitness story 213
Appendix B Dallas timeline 222
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bulletins from Dallas: Reporting the JFK Assassination chronicles the career of A. Merriman Smith (Smitty) as a Pulitzer prize-winning White House correspondent for UPI. By the time the Kennedy assassination occurred in 1963, Smitty had been part of the White House press pool for several presidencies. On November 22, 1963, Smitty was at the top of his game as he rode in the press wire car in that fateful motorcade in Dallas. Bill Sanderson offers readers a rare view of this historic event by placing us right there with the journalists, before, during, and after. Within minutes of those gunshots, Smitty did what he did best: commandeered the nearest phone and delivered the first bulletin. While Sanderson gives us “just the facts, ma’am,” he does it in such a way that you feel as if you are right there in that press car. You can almost feel the adrenaline surge, the pouring sweat, and the brutal competitive spirit as the journalists madly dashed to report, report, report! Of course, most people know about the JFK assassination and have heard the conspiracy theories; however, Bulletins from Dallas gives us a front-row seat to that main event as well as singular glimpses into the private or least-reported moments afterward and into the next presidency. Bulletins from Dallas, however, is more than that one event. Smitty embodies our journalistic ideal from that bygone era: crumpled suit, long hours, cutthroat ambition, witty one-liners, and lots of booze. Journalists today will never know how it feels to carry a portable typewriter or be on the lookout for a telephone. Unfortunately, that type of hectic, competitive career had a hefty price tag for Smitty. Alcoholism and personal loss inevitably took its toll. Sanderson introduces (or maybe reintroduces) the reader to Smitty, who could deliver a lightning quick bulletin; an engaging byline; and a well-written, in-depth story at a moment’s notice on a typewriter or over the phone. He could do it all, including writing a Backstairs at the White House UPI column that provided those behind-the-scenes tidbits that so many people love to read. In Bulletins from Dallas, Sanderson does an amazing job outlining Smitty’s accomplished yet tragic personal story amidst the headlines of the day. This book is timely because it clearly shows how the art of journalism has evolved over the decades and how the business is metamorphosing yet again into a completely divergent era of news reporting.
In a challenged media environment, especially with all the fake news issues, Sanderson's book is a great reminder to every reporter what journalism is all about. It doesn't deserve five stars. It deserves 10!