"Smitty" talk dominates Unipressers reunion at the Club

During its glory days, UP (subsequently UPI) was fueled by a host of talented but underpaid and understaffed correspondents, eternally bonded by a sense of esprit de corps.

The brightest star in this constellation was Merriman Smith. When Smitty, as he was almost universally known, died the UPI story identified him as “Merriman Smith, the dean of White House correspondents." The next day, one UPI staffer said the lead should have identified him as, simply and elegantly, “Merriman Smith, the White House reporter." In other words, “THE White House reporter.”

Although he died 46 years ago, by his own hand perhaps during the grief of losing his namesake son in Vietnam, Smitty still dominated a gathering of Unipressers (including this writer) and friends at the National Press Club Thursday night to recall the long-gone glory days. The event, with several panelists, including Smith’s son, Tim, was arranged by Gil Klein the club’s chair of the history and archives committee. The panel was moderated by Mike Freedman, a former managing editor of UPI’s Broadcast Division and now a Club board member. Freedman spoke of the intense competition between UPI and the AP and said “no one” epitomized this more than Merriman Smith.

Much of its focused on Smitty’s coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963, including an eyewitness account from Sid Davis, then a Westinghouse broadcaster and later NBC Washington bureau chief.

Bill Sanderson read from his forthcoming book about Smith and the assassination, “Bulletins from Dallas,” a detailed account of what happened when Smitty, as usual in the front seat in the motorcade’s press pool car, recognized three loud pops as coming from a gun. Smitty, who knew guns from owning several himself, grabbed the mobile phone to call the Dallas UPI bureau to say that shots had been fired at the motorcade -- and a scant five minutes later, based on Smitty’s reporting, UPI sent a flash that Kennedy was wounded “perhaps seriously perhaps fatally.” Smith later won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of that day. No one who was in that pool car is still alive.

Adding details, Davis said that the press bus in which he was riding was in front of the warehouse from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots and that Robert Pierpoint of CBS shouted, “that’s gunfire.” Later, Davis said, at the Parkland Hospital he overheard priests saying, "He’s dead alright,” but his superiors decided to wait for the official announcement before broadcasting news of the death.

On a panel was Al Spivak, Smitty's colleague at the White House, who, along with Helen Thomas, gave UPI perhaps the most formidable team ever to cover the president. Gwen Gibson, another panelist, recalled that when she was in the UPI Denver bureau she was assigned as a sort of aide-de-camp to Smitty who was covering a visiting Dwight D. Eisenhower. Smitty later arranged for her to be transferred to the Washington bureau, where opportunely she met her future husband, Washington bureau chief Grant Dillman.

Tom Johnson, who spent several years in the White House and went on to become publisher of the Los Angles Times and CEO of CNN, said that when he was “a lowly White House intern,” Smith offered to be a friend and they developed a “really close friendship.” He said of Lyndon B. Johnson, “LBJ really liked Smitty, and I know Smitty liked LBJ."

A self-dscribed “millennial” in the audience asked the panelists what Smith would have to say to today’s journalists. Several quickly responded that Smith loved gadgets and electronics and would have been right at home with today’s technology. Tom Johnson summed it up when he said Smitty “would admire reporters of today who had the same values” that he had. And those include, he said, getting it right, fact-checking, treating people with respect.

One of Smith's contemporary colleagues in the audience recalled that Smitty was a fine writer and recited what the colleague called "the greatest lead ever written on a breaking story." Smitty was in his 20s still in the Atlanta bureau and probably in the late 1930s and he wrote:

"TUTNALL, Ga. (UP) -- Six Negro men in the death house atop Georgia’s Tutnall State Prison started singing early this morning but by lunchtime their song was ended. "Oh you sinners, better get ready, God is comin," they chorused loudly, hour after hour, until the electric chair had claimed every one of them in the largest mass execution in state history."

Tim Smith said he found the quote in a yellowed clipping and gave it to Robert Donovan, LA Times Washington bureau chief, who wrote the foreword to a book Tim Smith edited, “Merriman Smith’s Book of Presidents.”

Tim Smith said Smitty raised his children as “precocious little journalists.” One evening at dinner, Tim, then 10, asked his father, “What are we going to do when de Gaulle comes?” His sister asked, “Who’s de Gaulle?” Tim said he turned to his father and shrugged as if to say, “what can we do?” His sister was 7.