The journalist and the politician

Former NYT reporter Arthur Krock had a long friendship with Joe Kennedy--and it showed in his coverage

Arthur Krock, one-time bureau chief and columnist for The New York Times, is an abject lesson in the temporality of insider influence. Once upon a time, he bestrode Washington as a journalistic colossus. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone under 60 who’s ever heard of him.

When Krock first arrived in Washington in 1919, he found what he called “a small group of pompous frauds” dominating its press corps, “identifiable not only by their disinclination to do legwork, which was great, but in most cases by their attire. They habitually wore frock coats and silk hats, dropped big names in profession, carried canes and largely made contacts with their single news source in the noble saloons of the period.”

Krock adapted quickly. He insisted that everyone who worked at the Times’s Washington bureau call him “Mister Krock.” When a senior reporter asked him how long he was expected to keep up this ridiculous formality, Krock replied, “as long as you care to stay here.” Times reporter (and later liberal pundit) Tom Wicker remembered his first sighting of the man: “He would stalk through the office, carrying a statesman’s girth with more aggressive dignity than anyone in Washington, his head cocked back to allow his gaze to play scornfully on the gods, a Churchillian cigar cocked toward his hat brim like a banner of war.” Since Wicker was writing the introduction to a collection of Krock’s columns, one can safely conclude that this was as generous as he could bring himself to be.

When Krock’s name comes up in the political histories of the period, it is most often as a conduit for the powerful to get their message across to Times readers. In my 1992 book, Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy—from which much of the above is drawn—I told the story of the manner in which Krock allowed himself to be used by his Princeton clubmate, James Forrestal, for the purposes of promoting Cold War administration initiatives, including most particularly the 1950 strategic magna carta, NSC-68 (which, ironically, remained a secret until it was published in full in Krock’s 1968 memoir, Sixty Years on the Firing Line).

Krock, who died in 1974, is also occasionally remembered for his tendency to seek favors from the wealthy, none more so than Joseph Kennedy. But the publication by David Nasaw of the first full-scale biography of Kennedy, The Patriarch, sheds new light on the impressive scale of the degree to which Kennedy was able to purchase the favors of the journalist and his newspaper via decades worth of bribery (and flattery) of the Times.

Krock first met Kennedy on the campaign trail in 1932 but he did not, as he would later record, “become really acquainted” with the politician until 1934, when Kennedy accepted the appointment as chairman of the SEC. Within a year, Krock was “an intimate of the family” by his own estimation.

As Nasaw explains, “For the next quarter century, while working as Washington bureau chief and as columnist, Arthur Krock would serve as Kennedy’s unofficial, clandestine press agent, speechwriter, political adviser, informant, and all-purpose consultant.” Whenever Kennedy had something he needed help saying, Krock helped him say it, often putting the news columns of the Times at his disposal as well.

And money did change hands, though it is probably a mistake to overemphasize this fact. Kennedy paid Krock handsomely to help ghostwrite the 1936 campaign book he published in support of FDR’s reelection; to assist his son, John F. Kennedy, in turning his college thesis into the book, Why England Slept; and to cover the cost of Krock’s Palm Beach and London vacations. No less important was Kennedy’s ability to offer Krock proximity to power, influence, and information.

And Krock more than returned these favors. They began with a couple of Times pieces by Krock and by one of his reporters, S. J. Woolf, that comprised an extended profile of the elder Kennedy in August of 1934. The man’s manner was “buoyant, his spirit exuberant and his clear blue eyes are merry,” they wrote. Of Kennedy’s nine children: “It is evident that he regards them as the best dividends he had ever received. One senses that he is solicitous of the future for their sakes; that the improvements for which he is striving are improvements which they will enjoy.” Following Krock’s work on Kennedy’s campaign booklet, he followed them up with columns in which he termed his patron to be “one of the outstanding figures in American life” and among the president’s “miracle-men.”

Later that same year, in May, when Kennedy found himself criticized in a draft—yes, a draft—of a forthcoming Fortune cover story, he and Krock collaborated on a letter to the magazine’s managing editor, Russell Davenport, listing what they termed to be its “statements” and offered “observations” and corrections before concluding that it would “be useless to attempt to revise a draft so permeated with bias and incompetence.” Kennedy, with Krock’s help, was rewarded with a brand new article to replace the old one. This one, Nasaw writes, was a “puff piece.”

At the end of the decade, before it became clear that Roosevelt would break precedent and serve a third term, Kennedy, now FDR’s ambassador to England, flirted with the idea of running himself. “I think it would be a very helpful thing if agitation could be started to have me address the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee in Executive Session,” he wrote Krock. “If you think this is worthwhile, you might start it in the works.” Krock’s response: The idea was “splendid… and I shall put it in the works. By the time you arrive, I think you will find every-thing ready…”

As part of his putative campaign, Kennedy tried to do both Krock and himself a favor by interceding in his behalf with the Times publishers to promote him to the top job. According to Harold Ickes (who was warning Roosevelt about the alleged plot), “It is reported that Kennedy has come to an understanding with Arthur Krock of the New York Times. It is expected that there will soon be a vacancy in the editorship… . Krock is doing all that he can to boost Kennedy and Kennedy is ready to support Krock financially if necessary.”

Krock did not get the job—Kennedy attributed it to the old fear of a ‘Jew in the showcase’ nervousness of the Times’s German-Jewish owners . Krock, meanwhile, continued to play publicity agent to his patron, albeit rather ungrammatically: “Your publicity continues good,” he wrote Kennedy, “and on every hand one hears golden opinions of what you are doing.”

And Kennedy’s campaign, alas, never took place. His importance on the national stage began to diminish with the ascendance of those of his second son, Jack. Krock continued to offer to help him both by pretending his pronouncements regarding national affairs were worthy of significant Times coverage, but more importantly, by far, by helping Jack’s career. The first boost came when, at Joe Kennedy’s request, to “go over it,” and “let his agent handle the publication” of Why England Slept. Next, in May 1956, JFK was, rather shockingly, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography for Profiles in Courage. Krock would later credit himself for convincing the jurors of the book’s merit. (In a recently published oral history, Jackie Kennedy complains about Ted Sorensen taking credit around town for having written the book for Kennedy, so it’s hard to know what, in fact, its putative author had to do with it.)

What is perhaps most shocking about the arrangement between Kennedy and Krock was how open and unashamed it was. Interestingly, no mention of Kennedy’s relationship with Krock was made in either of the two reviews published of Nasaw’s biography in the Paper of Record. The Times has repeatedly expressed its regret over its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Joseph Stalin by the notorious liar, Walter Duranty, during the 1930s, once it was revealed just how compromised his reporting had been. Perhaps, in light of the evidence turned up by Nasaw, another such statement of regret—if not apology—regarding Krock’s coverage of Kennedy-related matters might also be order.

It goes without saying that much has changed about the mores of journalism. Today’s top journalists have their own arrangements, of course. When, in the opening of the new Netflix series, House of Cards, an ambitious young female reporter offers the Speaker of the House a deal in which she promises to print whatever he wants her to print, the way he wants her to print it, no questions asked—all the while revealing more and more of her impressive cleavage—the notion that such a conversation might actually take place did not exactly strain credulity. We are, thankfully, through with the Arthur Krocks of the journalistic world. Whether we are really through with the kind of journalism they produced is a question for another essay.

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Eric Alterman is distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY School of Journalism. He is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a columnist for The Nation and the Forward. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. Tags: , , ,