When the dust cleared after President Carter’s Cabinet purge and the resignation of U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, one old war-horse was still there—Joe Laitin, 64, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Public Affairs and one of Washington’s legendary maestros of survival. Beginning with John Kennedy, five Presidents—Democrat and Republican—have employed Laitin’s mastery of public relations and image making. It was Joe, for example, who ghosted much of astronaut Frank Borman’s material from lunar orbit, including his affecting selection of Genesis I on Christmas Eve, 1968. When Laitin delivers his own copy, it’s in a Brooklyn cadence. Joe was so keen to be a reporter that he never finished high school; instead, he dropped out in anger after the student council censured him for an exposé he wrote revealing why the football team lost all its games: carousing on Friday night Joe became a war correspondent for Reuters and later moved to Hollywood, where he prospered free-lancing profiles of everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Warren Beatty. Laitin was then wooed to Washington in 1963 to become assistant to the Budget Bureau’s director for public affairs—and never left. But his days may finally be numbered. Laitin’s frank, freewheeling ways discomfit the Carter staff, and he could be forced out at the Treasury, where he has been since 1977. While riding out this latest storm, Laitin sat down with Clare Crawford-Mason of PEOPLE to talk about his life in government flackery.
Some people say PR men are professional liars. How do you plead?
I’d like to think that I’ve never told a lie. But I couldn’t say that honestly. I can say that I have never misled anybody, and that is not always so easy. I probably would lie if it meant saving somebody’s life—but not if it meant saving their skin.
Have you ever pulled anything you now regret?
The one really dishonest thing I’ve done professionally was with Averell Harriman, when he tried for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952. I got an audio tape of a speech he made in Arizona and had an engineer take all the urns and ahs and awkward phrases out of it. When I played it back, he sounded just like FDR. I played it for Stewart Alsop and he said, “You’ve done wonders for that man.” Then he wrote a column about what a great speaker Harriman was.
How did you become Lyndon Johnson’s deputy press secretary?
I was working for Kermit Gordon, the budget director. George Reedy, LBJ’s press secretary, would call me all the time asking things like, “Aren’t these supplemental funds going to increase the budget?” I’d say, “Hell, no. That comes out of the contingency fund,” which amused him because the contingency fund isn’t really a fund; it’s a gimmick. One day Reedy called me and said he needed me in the White House.
What did you do for LBJ?
One time I was asked to take care of then consumer affairs adviser Betty Furness. Nobody would help her. At the swearing in, Johnson said, “Betty, any time you got any problems, you pick up the phone and call me.” Presidents say things like that; they may mean it, but it doesn’t work. She took it literally. When she couldn’t get through she raised holy hell. I hit it off with her because I treated her like a movie star. I was rather expert at that.
What other unofficial functions did you have?
When I traveled with the press corps, he would call me at 11 p.m. every night to pick up the latest gossip. The more lurid things I could report about the behavior of the reporters, the better.
Do you regard the press’s increasing probing into politicians’ private lives as beneficial to the republic?
A man in high public office in this country must endure this probing, even though it is frequently unfair. There are areas where I wish the press would mend its ways. There are too many in the news media who of recent years consider a government official guilty until he proves himself innocent. I would also like to see reporters learn how to interview again, not cross-examine. There was a time when crusading journalists described themselves as carrying a torch of truth; too many of them have now switched to blowtorches. It is not fair to anyone, including the reader.
You’re considered an expert leaker. How many have you sprung?
LBJ taught me how to leak a story. But the attitude in the Nixon, Ford and Carter White Houses that I leak everything isn’t true. Most of my leaking has been what’s called “authorized leaks.” Let’s say you want to prepare the country for a presidential action. First you might go to a reporter whom you trust, but who is clearly not a friend. You say, the President is going to make up his mind on this issue within 24 hours. Then you tip off the wire services that this paper might have one hell of a scoop. You protect yourself because nobody would believe you’d give the story to someone who isn’t a friend. And you build up speculation and excitement for the actual announcement of the President’s decision.
So you approve of leaks?
Actually, I’m opposed to them unless they serve a purpose. Leaks are a simple defiance of authority. But if we ever have a leak-proof government, that’s the day I head for the border. That means we have a totalitarian state.
As a Democrat, how did you survive the arrival of President Nixon?
One of the reasons I stayed on with Nixon was because I was curious to know if I could survive in a hostile environment—and believe me, it was hostile. After about a year Haldeman and Ehrlichman were a little uneasy about me. But I was the house Democrat. Then James Schlesinger, who was to become Atomic Energy Commission chairman and Secretary of Defense, began to cultivate me.
He didn’t really know this town, and he spotted me as a guy who did. One thing I taught him was that you’ll learn more in this town by reading what used to be called “the women’s pages” than the front pages. Read the agate type—who gets invited to state dinners and, what’s more important, who doesn’t. All this was news to him. I also began developing a constituency for him—setting up off-the-record talks on national security between him and journalists like Max Frankel and Tom Wicker of the New York Times. I told them they could use the information, but not to quote Schlesinger. So one of them wrote the column as if the ideas were his own. A friend of Schlesinger’s at the Rand Corporation sent it to Schlesinger and said, “You know, Jim, this guy thinks just like you.” That was the first glimmer Schlesinger had of what I was getting at.
How did you two—the dropout and Schlesinger the Harvard egghead—get along?
Not all that well. One day he said, “You’ve got the most undisciplined mind I’ve ever encountered. You’re always jumping to conclusions that frequently turn out accurate.” I think he was telling me that he appreciated that not all right decisions are reached through an orderly process of thinking. Despite our different temperaments, the relationship grew. I became his sounding board. All the years I’ve known Jim, he’s never made an important move without consulting me.
How have you fared with the Carter team?
The first day of the Administration, I was fired from the Federal Aviation Agency by incoming Transportation Secretary Brock Adams. The next day there were four people negotiating to hire me—energy adviser Schlesinger, HEW’s Joe Califano, Treasury Secretary Mike Blumenthal and Budget Director Bert Lance. I accepted Blumenthal’s offer. By interesting coincidence, all five people are no longer here.
It’s said that you’re next and that you’ve been in trouble with White House press secretary Jody Powell ever since the Bert Lance resignation.
Well, when asked for advice after the first revelations about bank irregularities, I told Jody it would be in the best interest of the President if Mr. Lance said he’d accomplished what he had to do, and now it was time to return to Georgia. Jody listened to everything I told him and said, “I’m getting sick at my stomach.”
What has been the secret of your survival in Washington?
I wish I knew the answer to that. I must be doing something right—or something wrong.