Ethel's Dubious Achievement Award

(Dave note: This originally appeared as a Usenet post in rec.arts.sf.fandom. Before it was posted, I exchanged several e-mails with mom, so the facts are all firsthand.)

I've been telling this story since it happened, 25 years ago. The story has remained largely the same, but the world has changed. One minor detail stands out in stark relief now, telling the story years later. I'll mark that sentence with a [*] and talk about it in a footnote. (I wasn't there, and all quotes are semi-quotes.)

Washington DC, April, 1973. American Society of Newspaper Editors conference.

The ASNE annual conference is a Big Deal. Newspaper editors and publishers gather from all over the country, all over the world, and meet to listen to and interview the newsmakers; learn more about the issues of the moment from the powers that define the issues, exchange news, study other's techniques, look at new hardware, and gossip. My father was editor of The Times-Herald Record in Middletown, NY, and always brought my mother; I had been to a few of them.

Three years out of four ASNE is held in Washington DC. When it's held in DC, the adult attendees go the White House. The conference ends with a speech by the President of the United States.

In 1973, Richard Nixon was president. He had just won a second term in office by a landslide. In retrospect, this was after the events of Watergate, but before the story broke. Later, we were to learn that during this period, he had become extremely hyper sensitive to all criticism.

He had just expanded the Vietnam War by bombing Cambodia. This turned out to be disasterous, not only for the Cambodians, for whom Nixon's actions were to destabilize the country and lead to Pol Pot and the Killing Fields, but for Americans, who died needlessly in a losing effort.

The war was never very popular, and the bombing caused a huge outpouring of protest, which evidently came as a surprise to Nixon. He waved around all the telegrams he'd received in support of his moves, but it later turned out that he had orchestrated the telegram-sending binge (paid for by Ross Perot) .

The night before Nixon was to speak at the ASNE conference, the cabinet members met with the editors, and the wives of the cabinet members met with the wives of the editors. [*] On the receiving line was a grade school teacher in front of my mother. The teacher said to editors' wives and to the various wives as she moved through the line that her pupils had asked her to tell the President to stop the bombing. My mother heard those remarks and said, "Many people here feel the same way."

At the end of the event in elevator going down, one of the cabinet wives offered to drop off my mother at the hotel. During the ride, mother said, "Maybe Nixon doesn't know how unpopular the war in Cambodia is. If people at the receiving line tomorrow were to say to him, 'Mr. Nixon, please stop the bombing' as they shook his hand, perhaps he would understand." And then she went merrily on to a party at the hotel.

The next day, Ethel and Al Romm waited in the long line to shake the President's hand. A Secret Service Agent politely tapped her on the shoulder and pulled them out of the line. "Could you tell me what you plan to say to the President?"

"M-m-m?" said my mother, puzzled.

"Well," said the Secret Service Agent, "we can't have everyone having long conversations with the President. It would hold up the line and..."

At this point, my father leaps in, "C'mon, Ethel, we're leaving."

The Secret Service man said, helpfully, "I'll get you a cab."

You don't pull a stunt like that in a city full of reporters and get away with it. The next day, the story was on the front page of almost every newspaper in the US. (Not, of course, on the front page of the Record. There, it was on page 8.)

(Mom adds: If daddy had not been so huffy, and if the Secret Service man had not gone to this trouble, which seemed later like more coercion, it would not have been a news story.)

Esquire gave my mother a 1973 Dubious Achievement Award for being so naive as to think if you say anything to a president, it means anything.

[*] "The cabinet members met with the editors, and the wives of the cabinet members met with the wives of the editors." That's pretty much how it read in the Program Book. There had been female members of the cabinet going back to Roosevelt's time, and there was the occasional female newspaper editor, but both were rare. Now, look around. If anyone thinks the world hasn't changed very much since the 60's, I direct them to compare tidbits like these.

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