I had fun reviewing the front pages my father saved from the Kennedy assassination. So I’ve decided to make a look back at historic (or just interesting) front pages an occasional feature of this blog.
Since this is Jan. 20, I have to remember the day a bigger story pushed a presidential inauguration to secondary status: Jan. 20, 1981. Ronald Reagan taking the oath of office was a huge deal, but after 444 days of captivity in Tehran, the release of American hostages from Iran was bigger.
Of course, the capture of the hostages and Jimmy Carter‘s failure in attempts to free them by a military surprise rescue mission or by diplomacy was a key reason Reagan was taking his first oath as president rather than Carter taking his second. (Soaring prices and interest rates were other reasons, but the hostage crisis was the biggest humiliation and failure of the Carter presidency.)
I worked at the Des Moines Register at the time, and the Register and our sister afternoon paper, the Des Moines Tribune, worked frantically to cover the varying developments over the last days of the Carter presidency and the first day of the Reagan presidency.
The stories and pictures of both events came from the wire services, but this was a local story, too: One of the hostages, Kathryn Koob, was a native of Jesup, Iowa, and both papers had covered her captivity intensely for more than a year. And, of course, one of the thrills of working on a newspaper is putting together a historic paper, whether the story comes from your staff or not. The local staff writes the headlines, edits the stories and lays out the whole paper, including that historic front page.
A day with two historic stories on the cover is as good as it gets for a print journalist. And in 1981, I was a hard-core print journalist.
As you can see from the page above, the hostage release broke on the Tribune’s news cycle. More on that later, but let’s wind back a day or two as Carter’s foreign policy team finally negotiated the release.
The news broke on Sunday, Jan. 18, that the Carter administration had signed an agreement with Iran to release the hostages, so of course that dominated the news, rather than the mundane planning for the inauguration. But note the story in the lower left corner, what we called the “reader,” a place where we tried to put interesting or fun stories.
Bob Hullihan was the Register reporter most likely to fit in the reader spot. He wrote with enough wit and style that he was an Ernie Pyle Award winner. Many of his stories revealed a fascination with death, including this one, about President William Henry Harrison, who died from pneumonia a month after taking office because he was outdoors so long on a blustery Inauguration Day.
Bob’s byline always makes me stop. His death two years later was one of the saddest stories I covered in my career. Bob killed his wife and daughter, then himself. He left a suicide note in his desk at work, found by a colleague.
The Tribune’s front page on Jan. 19, 1981, had two Koob stories: one on her family awaiting her release and one on her hometown. A local photo shows a billboard being updated, from “Iran, let our people go” to “Praise the Lord.” A nice job of localizing a national/international story. Only one story on the front page is about anything else. The next day’s inauguration gets a mention only in a story on the “frantic finish” of the Carter presidency.
The Register’s Inauguration Day edition had the hostage stories above the fold, along with a photo of Koob being examined by Algerian doctors:
Executive Editor James P. Gannon noted the inauguration with a piece below the fold, starting a series on Reagan’s first 100 days. Every day for 100 days, we were going to have stories about the policy challenges and initiatives of the new administration. One newsroom smartass bet that we couldn’t keep it up for 100 days. He won because we didn’t use the logo on the front page the day of the assassination attempt. I may post a front page from that day in a couple months.
I’ll add this about Jim Gannon: I worked with him for six or seven years and never got an inkling of his political leanings. He wrote a column for the Sunday opinion section, and addressed politics at times, but I remember him as being hard on all parties and all politicians, though fascinated with politics.
I was surprised years later to see Jim as a conservative commentator at American Spectator. If he was as conservative in the 1980s as he is now, I presume he was amused at the vilification of the Register as part of the “liberal media” by Iowa conservatives (our editorial page certainly was liberal).
Perhaps his likening Reagan to Franklin D. Roosevelt before he even took office might have been an indication of his leanings (I thought it reflected his Washington-centric view — he was fairly new to Iowa at the time). That First 100 Days project took some tough looks at the initiatives of the Reagan administration and I recall Register reporting under Jim’s leadership as relentless scrutiny of all parties and politicians in power.
Maybe some Register colleagues saw conservative leanings. If so, I welcome your memories in the comments (and I’ll send this on to Jim in case he wants to comment). But I remember Jim as a classic, fiercely independent editor who kept his own views out of the news columns.
Update: See Gannon’s response below, including a fascinating memory from a couple months later.
The big news stories of the day broke perfectly for the Tribune’s news cycle: Reagan taking the oath at 10:30 a.m. Iowa time and the hostages flying out of Tehran at 11:33 a.m. Iowa time. (See if you can think of Americans flying to freedom from Tehran without thinking of the great taking-off scene from Argo; I can’t, even those were people who escaped the embassy siege and never became hostages.)
I’m guessing the Trib’s front page was laid out by the late Rich Somerville, but Kathleen Richardson might have done it (or had a hand in it). I’ll email Kathy, but if any former Tribbers reading this know who laid out the front page that day, please give credit in the comments. Update: Kathy doesn’t remember, but thinks I’m probably right that Richie would have done it.
It’s rare to have a historic front page with no photo above the fold. I presume no strong photo was available that captured the event of the release. So the Trib editors went with their logo that had counted the days of hostage captivity. The fold was just below the top edge of the photo of Reagan taking the oath from Chief Justice Warren Burger, as Nancy Reagan looked on. That’s Sen. Mark Hatfield in the background in the middle, with the Carters at right. (You can see where the fold is on my old front pages: The top half generally has seen more light in the past 33 years than the bottom, so the paper is more discolored above the fold.) The New York Times used a photo from the same angle, with with the Carters cropped out.
The local school story below the fold in Column 1 looks out of place with all this historic news. I think I’d have given the whole front page over to the big news (recognizing that second-guessing is easier than remaking an afternoon front page when your big story breaks after 11:30; I suspect the inauguration led the page until that happened).
Also, I understand why newspapers have promotional plugs at the top of the front page. But I encourage throwing those out when you have a historic paper. “Those mannerisms that offend” above the “They are free!” headline just looks silly. On a historic day, drop the must-have stuff (weather, index) to the bottom of the page and let the nameplate and historic headline rule at the top.
Of course, the news was old, but still historic, when the morning paper came out, so it still rightly dominated the front page. I presume Jim Larson probably laid out the front page, but it might have been George Hanrahan. Both of them are dead, but I’ll send this link to Randy Witke and see if he remembers (if Jimmy and George were off, it probably would have been Randy, but I can’t imagine both of them taking off Inauguration Day).
The headline (probably also written by Jimmy) ties the two historic stories together fairly smoothly, first the release, then the inauguration.
The New York Times, by the way, flipped the order in two separate, wordy front-page headlines:
Rightly, the whole front page is given over to the two big stories. Larry Fruhling and the late John Hyde and of the Register’s Washington Bureau covered the inauguration (I don’t remember Larry ever being assigned to the Washington Bureau; I wonder if he traveled to DC to help with inauguration coverage. Any old R&T hands remember him being in the bureau? If anyone knows how to reach Larry, please pass this along and invite him to share his memories of the day). Update: Ken Fuson tells me on Facebook that he remembers Larry spending several years in the Washington Bureau. Not the only thing I’ve forgotten from those years.
The lead inauguration story is credited “From the Register’s Wire Services.” This is what we called a “leased wire” story, meaning a copy editor probably spent three or four hours that evening editing the lead story from several different wire versions: I’m guessing multiple AP stories, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Knight-Ridder and Chicago Tribune, or some such combination. We often essentially wrote our own story, assembled from the best pieces of all of the wires. I don’t think we actually leased anything at that time. I suspect we had leased the wire machines back in the teletype days. If anyone knows the origin of that term and wants to shed some light, please clarify in the comments.
I spent two years on the Register’s copy desk editing such stories. It was tremendously challenging and satisfying to edit a leased-wire story on the big story of the day. I learned a ton about editing doing that and I’m tremendously grateful for the experience.
I’m also willing to bet that no journalist today gets that great experience. You couldn’t possibly justify committing that much time of a local staff member’s work to produce your own version of a story that’s already been edited by professional editors at the wire services. Editing of wire stories today, if they are edited at all, is a quick once-over.
One more point about leased-wire stories: If we did such a thing today, I would push for (insist on, if I were the top editor) better attribution to our sources, probably an italic credit at the end listing all the services whose materials I had used in the story.
The localizing of both stories is classic Des Moines Register pursuit of the “Iowa angle” that we could find in almost every story. Of course, Koob gave us our Iowa angle on the hostage story. That story was by Jim Healey, Jack Hovelson and James Ney (they didn’t get front-page bylines, but got a credit with the jump). Photos inside showed Koob getting off the plane (she was first off) and family members on the phone getting word that she was free. I’m pretty sure I worked on this story, but I can’t recall if I was the lead editor.
The other local story was by Jerry Szumski, telling the story of an Iowa soldier killed in World War I whom Reagan had quoted (misquoted, actually, as Jerry noted) in his inauguration address.
The other Iowa touch on the front-page was the Frank Miller cartoon. For decades the Register distinguished itself from other newspapers with the clever, funny, biting and, on occasions such as this, celebratory editorial cartoons of Ding Darling, Frank and Brian Duffy. Brian’s job was eliminated while I was in Cedar Rapids (I explored the possibility of hiring him for the Gazette, but couldn’t pull it off). Nothing illustrates the Register’s decline over the years more clearly than turning its back on this special part of its heritage.
I cherish all my historic front pages, but I especially like those that bring two historic stories together on the front page, as this one did. As I noted when Neil Armstrong died, I have a 1969 front page with Apollo 11 dominating the top of the page and Ted Kennedy‘s Chappaquiddick crash below the fold. I’ll post another double-historic front page later this week.
In the meantime, I welcome contributions from others: If you’re a Register colleague from that time and want to share memories of producing these papers, I welcome you to tell me by email or in the comments. (I’ll message Jim Gannon, Jerry Szumski, Randy Witke, Kathleen Richardson and a few others inviting their recollections.) Or if you have a hostages-inauguration front page from another newspaper, please send it along (whether you have observations or memories to share, as I’ve done here, or just want to share the front page). Email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) come.
Jim Gannon responds
I’m delighted to add this response by email from Jim:
Steve Buttry’s fascinating look-back at our papers at the time of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration brings back a lot of memories. His mention of the project I launched as Executive Editor at the time — a daily series on the first 100 days of the “Reagan Revolution” — provokes a comment or two. The idea was my own and I believed it was worth doing because I expected Reagan to make big changes in government — as he did — and because we had a superb Washington Bureau that was capable of managing this very challenging task. It was a chance to show off the great work of our Washington reporters.
I am sure the project met with much eye-rolling and sotto voce comment around the newsroom, especially coming from a guy recently imported from Washington and the Wall Street Journal. But you all know that popularity in the newsroom was not my primary concern, and I thought the project would make for good journalism and something distinctive for the Register.
Steve’s commentary on the matter includes one of the finest compliments I have received about my work as editor: ” But I remember Jim as a classic, fiercely independent editor who kept his own views out of the news columns.” Thank you, Steve — that was one of my prime goals as a newspaper editor, and it is my major lament about the state of journalism today — that there is far too much bias, outright opinion, and obvious ideology — most of it liberal — in most newspapers, including those most widely held in high esteem, e.g., New York Times and the Washington Post. The media have ruined their credibility with the vast majority of people in this country by displaying such bias.
Finally, there is an interesting untold story about our 100-days project. The Reagan White House became aware of our 100-days series and they were quite fascinated by it. I wrote to Mike Deaver, one of Reagan’s closest aides, suggesting an idea: Let’s get President Reagan to come to Des Moines on the 100th Day and conduct a public forum on his goals and plans as president. Deaver loved the idea and invited me to come to the White House to discuss it with him and other Reagan aides. My appointment with him was set for Monday, March 30, 69 days into Reagan’s presidency.
You’ll remember what happened that day. I was in the White House press room that morning, waiting for my appointment with Deaver, when all hell broke loose — Reagan had just been shot in an assassination attempt. It was unclear whether he was dead or alive. This weird coincidence placed me in a position to write about events that day from the perspective of someone enveloped in the chaos of it all. The story appeared the next morning in the Register.
Needless to say, the attempted assassination put an end to the idea of a 100-day forum with Reagan in Des Moines. But to this day I believe it would have happened if John Hinkley Jr. had not shot the president.
My political beliefs did not shape the news agenda at The Register and Tribune. I am a conservative, and as a retired editor and citizen I occasionally write opinion pieces that reflect my beliefs. And I still don’t give a damn whether anyone likes it or not.
Other front pages
Here are some other posts where I’ve featured historic (at least to me) front pages: