to Selected Writing About Nicholas Johnson page
The Greening of Nicholas Johnson
By Howard Junker
April 1, 1971, pp. 32-39
[NOTE: Law students have often expressed curiosity as to how their professor ever got on the cover of the Rolling Stone magazine -- and in April 1971, when he followed no less luminaries earlier that year than John Lennon, Yoko Ono, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, and Muhammad Ali. It was an accomplishment viewed by many of them as far more impressive than his having served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black.
Although never in a hurry to publicize the explanatory cover story that went with the picture, now that nearly a quarter-century has passed since the article first appeared it may be possible to make it available online without my being charged with unseemly haste in self-promotion.
An effort has been made to provide a reasonable reproduction of the text of this Rolling Stone cover article. Aside from a reproduction of the cover itself, below, however, the other graphics (Annie Leibovitz' 13 full, and picture-in-picture, photographs and their captions) are currently omitted.
Also omitted is the author's very artistic effort to present the article in the format of a TV Guide schedule of programs. Thus, each of the headings (e.g., the first two are "The Unfinished FCC National Anthem" and "Sunrise Semester") are sometimes plays on then-current TV show names (as is the "As the World Turns" sub-head, above), and are always preceded with times throughout the day (in the examples just given, 6:25 and 6:30) and followed with the little miniature TV screens TV Guide uses with white on black TV channel numbers (in the examples just given, "3, 4, 8" and "7, 11").
It is reproduced here as non-commercial fair use for educational purposes only.
-- N.J., November 24, 2004]
THE UNFINISHED FCC NATIONAL ANTHEM
Tune by Frankie Keys, words by the Honorable Nicholas Johnson: Oh, say FCC/You are not very bright/When so badly you failed/To prevent public reaming/…
The Federal Communications Commission is one of a bunch of regulatory bodies which nobody likes or even admires, but which, nonetheless, form “the headless fourth branch of government”; the Interstate Commerce Commission (est. 1887 to protect farmers and manufacturers from the railroads), the Civil Aeronautics Board, the Food and Drug Administration and such commissions as deal with Power, Trade, Securities Exchange, Atomic Energy…The seven FCC commissioners and their staff of 1500, funded at $30 million) are charged with protecting the public interest by:
Answer: the recipients of political patronage. Chairman Dean Burch ran Goldwater’s ’64 campaign and served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. One commissioner’s uncle was the late Sam Rayburn. Another was administrative assistant to J. Edgar Hoover. Another was a station owner in Kansas. Another, as Governor of American Samoa, (at least) set up a model educational TV system. Another (Nick Johnson) was “transferred” from the Maritime Administration because he had antagonized everybody in the industry.
The most recent appointee, Thomas J. Houser, 41, ran Sen. Percy’s ’66 campaign, served in former FCC chairman Newton Minow’s law firm and, when Nixon took over, became Deputy Administrator of the Peace Corps…(Nixon had named two men prior to Houser; one was withdrawn after “bitter political infighting,” the other withdrew when some problems with income tax returns showed up…)
Houser’s appointment brought the Commission to full-strength and, according to Broadcasting magazine “brought a sigh of relief from Republican members of the FCC, which had increasingly been stalled on 3-to-3 votes by lack of a seventh commissioner.” The implication, of course, ins that decisions are reached strictly along party lines, which is not far from the truth. In this company, in Washington in general, it is difficult not to regard Johnson as a superstar, one of our few friends.
For tomorrow, please read his book (in paper, 95cents), How to talk back to your television set.
|THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM
The Age of Media is almost over.
Just as the Industrial Revolution concentrated the means of production in the hands of a few, so the electronic revolution will return the means of information-processing to the many. Everybody will have access. What Johnson calls “instantaneous, ubiquitous, no-cost information.”
At the level of social welfare, this handwriting is already on the wall. We are struggling to provide food, housing, medical care, schooling, jobs, legal services…for everyone.
How extraordinary that will be when achieved.
And how close we’ve come!
As to hardware, computers won’t be luxuries much longer. They are already as close as your nearest telephone.
Picture-Phone will (or should) give you your own basic camera. Which you could carry around and plug in at any convenient booth. Or into your cassette. To access anybody, an infobank.
Thus, programming will no longer be a mystery delivered by a priestly handful. Everyone will produce his own show.
And broadcasters will be reduced (if that’s the way you want to look at it) to passing along current events, a selection of what’s really happening in front of all those cameras, all those global monitors. Something as momentous (or boring) as a moonwalk every day.
To rehearse a bit: In the Sixties we idolized Communicators. The camera – man hero. To say nothing of the person who appeared before the camera (esp. on a Talk Show). The superstar The demonstrator. Charisma as content.
No more. Communicating is no longer a heroic act. It is simply unavoidable.
As for communicating, our technicians will do that for us. Half the telephone conversations in this country are already between machine and machine. Computers already repair and program themselves.
Inasmuch as getting and sending messages is now routine and we will soon get over being scared by The Information Explosion, it should be obvious that the Age of Alienation is also ending.
The separation of man from Others, man from things (like means of production) is now: 1) complete 2) irrelevant.
Distance has been obliterated. You are never out of touch, not even on the moon. Privacy—the state of being indetectible—is an illusion and should therefore no longer be valued. And isn’t, witness the Nude Revolution with its exhibitions.
Not is there a qualitative difference (one you can detect on your screen) between reality and mock-up, between instant replay and live action, between past and present.
What is a “live performance” anyway? One in which you’re in the same room as the performer? Or in the same galaxy?
Subjectively, in the face of global monitoring, is also a dead issue. There is no privileged position with regard to moon walks. Everyone gets to see.
And the difference between seeing it and doing it is almost trivial. Ich bin ein Astronaut.
Communicated experience is not “vicarious.” It is as real as anything else. Most of science for a long time has dealt with a reality that existed only by virtue of instruments; now, most of everyday life is similarly distanced. And without serious loss, despite what nostalgia-buffs maintain.
You are there on TV—for most things, from Super Bowls to state funerals to moon walks—better than if you were really there.
Anyway, who with any imagination would want to be an astronaut at this stage of the game? Who could sit still that long?
THE GOOD NEWS
“Wow, you’re from Rolling Stone,” said Nick Johnson, 36, poking me in the arm with his hamhock fist, such that I knew in my tricep he has to order his 14-C woodsman’s boots from KING-SIZE, Brockton, Mass.
And so we met, exchanging boyish grins. Me wondering: is this the man Ken Galbraith called “the citizen’s least frightened friend in Washington?” Whom Broadcasting magazine called “a teenybopper…the shrill and frequent critic of his elders…the self-annointed savior?” Whom five state broadcasting associations wanted to have impeached a couple years ago? Who received the New Republlic’s Second Annual Public Defender Award (the first went to Ralph Nader)?
Is this the Zapata-mustached face of a man locked in mortal combat with the monsters of media, Nixon and Agnew and even Ma Bell? All the while struggling through his own Greening? Or, as a stuttering reporter whose interview with the Commissioner I sat in on asked, What Have You Accomplished?
“In terms of long range benefits,” spoke Johnson as if to plug his pretaped cassette right into the reporter’s machine, “making vast wasteland speeches is kind of like bailing a leaky boat. You’ve got to do some institutional restructuring.
“For all I’ve done in terms of trying to frighten and cajole and encourage and push and shove the networks into better programming, in terms of lasting effects, the little I’ve done about:
BIKERCISE WITH NICK
Every morning, not necessarily at the crack of dawn, but whenever he leaves his apartment for the office, Nick Johnson rides in on his bike.
Nine miles along the Chesapeake & Ohio canal. He wears old clothes, so rain and snow cannot deter him. And he changes in the Commissioner’s locker room.
He claims bike-riding is central to his new attitude toward “the role of things in our lives.”
“You don’t have to ride a bicycle because you hate General Motors, and you just don’t have the courage to bomb an automobile plant. You don’t have to do it as a gesture of great stoicism and personal sacrifice. You don’t even have to be engaged, necessarily, in an act of political protest over the company’s responsibility for being the single greatest producer of air pollution by tonnage…”
“You ride a bicycle, basically, “cause it feels good. It just feels good. The air feels good on your body and even the rain feels better. And the blood starts movin’ around in your body…pretty soon it gits to your head..an’ by golly yer head starts to feel better. And you start lookin’ until you really see.
“And there’s kind of a nice feeling that goes along with knowing you’re doing a kind of fundamental life-thing for yourself—you’re providing your own transportation. You got a piece of your life back that you’d given away. And your satisfaction does not come from envy or jealousy of others, it comes from within you.”
And so Johnson likes to run on whenever he specifies, which is constantly, about how he is getting his life back, how he is greening.
How he is, after being a superstar law student and Supreme Court clerk and law prof and maverick Federal Maritime Administrator, undoing his other-directedness, unplugging from the Protestant Ethic, and, adapt the moderately advanced age of 36, getting in touch with his own self.
And to do so, you may note, he kind of has to slip back into that Iowa dialect, that boyish fervor for sloppy speech, that source of his considerable sense of humor.
MEET THE PRESS
Johnson is more of a triple threat than most public officials. He can talk, write and think.
From last July through January he made 31 public appearances of all sorts, including eight speeches from prepared texts, although he claims he’s cutting down on speeches, having realized he could talk eight hours a day for 500 years and still not reach the equivalent audience of a mediocre TV show.
His most recent article, taken from a speech, “The Talkin’ Blues: Television, Corporate Greed and Women’s Liberation,” given to The American Women in Radio and Television last March, appeared in December’s Playboy. It was re-titled “The Wasteland Revisited.”
He’s reviewed books for the Sunday New York Times, the New Republic, and Washington Post; he’s been on Dick Cavett and William F. Buckley, addressed the Federal Employees’ Teach-in after Cambodia, has three books about 60 percent written; and now has a copy of a British TV-documentary, in which he stars, and will consider sending to colleges, if he can’t go himself…
His interviews with journalists are a model of how to help the ignorant find out what they should know. The one I observed on January 26th was actually with a TV columnist from a Northwestern daily.
Who began: “There’s really not much sense in interviewing you. I know pretty much what you’re doing,”
Johnson countered by asking permission to take off his 14-C wing-tips.
“Why do you, ah, ah,” the interviewer started up, “you, you are criticized for being a publicity hound, for yelling to much? I know why, but why?”
And Johnson blasted off, declaring first, he doesn’t seek publicity (he has never called a press conference in Washington); second, he feels responsible to the 204 million people who pay his salary – he can report to them through the media; third, “unfortunately, it’s headline news in Washington that Public Official Serves Public Interest”; and fourth, it’s part of his no-lose strategy:
“As one of the seven guys on the commission, most of the time in the minority, I’ve got to think through what I can do in terms of cost-effectiveness.
“I’m not going to make FCC policy. I can here and there. I can embarrass them with a threatened dissent into not doing something that’s totally and utterly corrupt. I can get some language changed in a regulation.
“But by and large my effectiveness is not going to be so much in terms of what other institutions in our society do in the field of communications, some of which will involve bringing pressure to bear on the FCC.
“And since I don’t have enough energy to spend losing battles, even my dissents must achieve a purpose: to help educate the public as to how corrupt the process is and the extent to which the corporate state dominates their lives.”
Then, as he does so well, Johnson shifts his monologue, unassisted, from the specific to the general. The larger issue:
“The strategy and tactics of social reform have now become a sophisticated art. Part of what Ralph Nader has taught us is:
“1) you can involve people other than lawyers. So he gets doctors and engineers. I think he hasn’t gone far enough in this direction; the next stage is to bring in artists and PR guys and…
“2) you don’t just work in a single form. You don’t just do muckraking or introduce legislation or file lawsuits.
“You work out a whole strategy that involves these things! There again, I think he’s too limited; he ought to do more street theater…
“If you can orchestrate this whole thing – and get some citizens’ groups behind you, you can really get results.
“Basically, all you’re doing is what the lobbyists have been doing for decades. But you’re getting into their ball game and playing with their tools. And doing it on behalf of the public instead of the big corporate interests.”
And then, as he does so well, he steps it up to the grandest of all:
“I really think it comes closer to being a transformation than a revolution. It’s not a revolution in terms of a grand design and armies and strategies and conspiracies.
“Something’s going on, yeah, but what’s going on [and here he gives the stutterer a boyish, conspiratorial grin] is inside your head!
“And it’s just like a big imperialist nation like the US with all its heavy artillery moving into the jungle and trying to fight guerrilla warfare against an indigenous people. They can’t get ahold of it.
“You can have the Kennedys assassinated, put Black Panther leaders and Jerry Rubin in jail [and now Johnson is really greening, so he just whispers, leaning forward, straining into the eyeballs of his parishioners] that’s not going to stop it. “Cause people are turning off to the big corporations; philosophy and life style and pitch.”
But then, within shouting distance of the sun, as if the glue to his wings had begun to melt, he slips back, wafting an old-reliable Mason Williams’ aphorism at the reporter.
And, in the final revision to P.R.-manship, he has a secretary lay an armful of Nick Johnson speeches, articles and profiles on said reporter, complete with a one-liner from a former FCC chairman who, dismayed at the length and weight of a Johnson dissent, said, “You could kill a man with that.”
And then, having no more material to lay out and anyway it’s time to flick the dial, Johnson says. “There ya are, champ.”
And ushers the reporter out.
I would like to publicize a modest proposal for restructuring our government: abolish Washington, D.C.
Nothing less will do, for the town in living proof that architecture is destiny.
There is no there, there.
Only faceless, whitish, non-concentrations of non-skyscrapers. Monuments that look boring enough on postcards, and only a fool would want to climb to the top of.
Washington was the world’s first planned capitol and, as if it were the seat of a European cathedral, it was ordained that no building should be taller than the Capitol. How this has stunted growth! And aspiration!
Washington is such a non-place that only recently, under an extreme squeeze for space, have the slums bordering the Capitol itself been submitted to restoration as chic townhouses.
But whoever established the Pentagon knew what he was doing. That classical French fort, supreme, unassailable, commanding its own side of the river. (When will anyone listen to McGovern call for a meaningful reduction in our military budget? A mere $20 billion is all he suggests. Until then, the anti-war movement is doomed to have the relevance of a depilatory. To be encouraged, in some circles mandatory, but missing the ultimate point.)
By some good fortune, the FCC now resides in a not uncivilized part of Washington, along what might be called Restaurant Row. Two blocks, beginning with my Mother’s Place, where Tiny Tim did a one-night stand in early February, and including a topless bar or two, the best pizza parlour south of Jersey City and a Greek place where Nick Johnson usually has the Secretary’s Special with soup, oil and vinegar and coffee later.
On the main floor of the bronze-glassed FCC, there’s a bank, a movie theater and a card-and-book shop. The latter keeps Johnson’s book, hard and soft-cover, in the window. But when they run out – and the distributor is slow – Johnson assigns a legal assistant to hustle down a lend-lease of paperbacks from his own supply.
And so, out of gratitude – although he will repay the loan – the manager says he will give Johnson a couple of autographed copies of Kenneth Clark’s Civilization.
Johnson’s office feels open – the secretaries’ desks are against the wall of the reception room, not blocking all entrance, as they do in other Commissioners’ offices.
An FM stereo tunes in Contemporary Radio. There are no TV sets anywhere!
A hall of fame leads to Johnson’s office: photos of LBJ, HHH, RFK, MLK and HST (that’s your Harry S. Truman). A flag from Maritime, prints of great sailing ships, a Union Power poster on the back of a door.
The inner sanctum, decorated by Johnson himself, is in the style once called Motel Funky. There is a Japanese motif – a ceramic geisha under glass, paper flowers, a rack of mini-samurai swords on his desk.
On the wrap-around couch on which Johnson installs his visitors – while he stays loose in his rocker or in a rollerized chair – there’s a blanket for naps.
A red plastic bird hangs over his desk, as if over a crib. And there, not far from the family pictures, is a coffee mug from WMAQ-TV, Chicago.
On the book shelves, the silver-rimmed tray from NATRA, the announcer’s union, inscribed “to a bold, fearless and humane man who has made the industry aware of its legal and moral obligations…” is still in its plastic envelope.
The silver bowl, with an inscription by Yeats, given by the New Republic, contains as an extra award a can of Faberge hair control spray, which, Johnson declared on local TV, promises its user “she’s going to get laid.”
The station bleeped the remark, Johnson blew up, claiming censorship, and Chairman Burch allowed that “the English language is not so barren” that another phrase might not have served.
JFK’s updating of FDR’s “kitchen cabinet” accustomed us to the fact that every figurehead depends for his speeches, opinions and positions on his staff. It is these alter egos, subordinate yet responsible, who direct, if they do not actually exercise, the power.
And when Nick Johnson turns to his right hand, Bob Thorpe, 30, and asks, What’s our position on that?, he’s not just turning a phrase. Nor is there excessive irony when others in the office call Thorpe, Commissioner.
The first issue Johnson
engaged at the FCC – the proposed ABC-ITT merger – must have roused Thorpe’s
Johnson loves to tell how he learned rate-regulation from a paperback published by Thorpe’s alma mater.
And it was Johnson’s 72-page dissent in ABC-ITT that led to the pressure that ultimately persuaded ITT to withdraw. Further, Johnson’s studies in media concentration became “The Media Barons,” the Atlantic Monthly article that formed the cornerstone of his book – and his role as Public Voice.
As for Thorpe, he now goes to George Washington law school full-time at night. He’ll finish in January, 1973, just in time, he quips, to have six months to look for a new job. Johnson’s term expires that June.
Though he is not very anecdotal, Thorpe recalls how, back at Maritime, Nick asked Ralph Nader to come write speeches and such. But Ralph said he had a book coming and maybe he’d better see that through. And Thorpe smiled and said he hoped it might be another Silent Spring.
Thorpe’s wife, it may be noted, is Nader’s personal secretary. Does this indicate a possible conspiracy? I doubt it – although Nick asked me to delete this and the preceding paragraph when I submitted the manuscript (so he could check direct quotations – and make desirable corrections). Actually, Nick knows the Nader family from days at Berkeley, Nader’s investigation of several Federal regulatory agencies did not include the FCC, although a Nader FCC report is expected this spring.
Johnson’s two legal assistants also have their own cachet:
Gary Gerlach – from Iowa (it’s good to keep in touch with the folks back home) by way of Columbia Journalism and Harvard Law (because he believes broadcasting is controlled by lawyers). At Harvard he wrote “A Critique of Commissioner Johnson’s Extra-Administrative Activities: The Regulator as Muckraker.”
Tom Jones – poet-photographer, on the Junior Council of the Museum of Modern Art (his wife’s collection includes a David Smith, a handful of Magrittes). Columbia Law and a stint at the prestigious Washington firm, Covington and Burling, Nick’s alma mater.
And Andy Margeson, an intern from Colgate, who’s researching an article for Nick on children’s TV.
The typewriter once served the emancipation of women; it gave them a place in business. Now it’s a prime instrument in their exploitation by sexist-capitalists.
Johnson has three secretaries, one from the days of Maritime, one black. They too exert a subtle influence.
Mary Ann Tsucalas and Doris Coles and Bonnie Tatum all urged him to shave the beard begun last summer on a camping trip with his two boys. And he did, although in January, Mary Ann lost a bottle of champagne to her husband, because Nick had still not shaved his mustache.
INSTANT ANALYSIS OF LIVE COVERAGE OF COMMISSIONER JOHNSON’S KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO THE CONSUMER FEDERATION OF AMERICA’S ANNUAL CONVENTION, JANUARY 28, 1971
Television didn’t cover the event (“It’s getting harder and harder to sell a Nick Johnson story,” moaned the Washington Post’s Larry Laurent. “He’s hit a predictable vein; the shock value is gone.”)
TV did show up the next day for Ted Kennedy – in his first outing since his defeat as majority whip. And Teddy made the evening news, explaining how Truth-in-Packaging required him to say he was no longer, as billed on the program, Assistant Majority Leader.
Johnson’s name tag read “Nicholas Johnson, Federal Trade Commission.” But nobody bothered.
Johnson quickly got down to scolding the gentle ladies for continuing to play consumer, albeit intelligent ones. “You don’t need the products,” he told them, “they need you.”
He didn’t explain how he had gone so far in rejecting the life of wonderful products, the electric dishwashers and spatulas and other enslaving things, that he had walked out of his suburban home last year (“I left the house June 15th,” he told me February 9th, wife and three kids behind), having been separated from his wife.
He doesn’t burden the ladies, in their wigs and girdles, with such autobiographical detail, except while engaging the mythical Abbie Hoffman in “debate.” Then he passes on his own Nick Johnson anti-consumerist miracle, a 14¢ box of bicarb of soda, good for all that ails you, including baking.
Of course the good consumers love that.
And to top it all, Johnson praises Chairmen Burch – “Don’t’ miss it, it doesn’t last long”: “at least he’s now permitting citizens to plead their own case. To be heard is not necessarily to prevail. But it’s better than getting kicked out.”
THE HIGH NOON NEWS
BOOKS IN BRIEF
The Order of Things, Michel Foucault, pub. Date Jan. 25, 1971:
FOUCAULT. “. . . to write the history of a plant or an animal was as much a matter of describing its elements or organs as of describing the resemblances that could be found in it, the virtues that it was thought to possess, the legends and stories with which it had been involved, its place in heraldry, the medicaments that were concocted from its substance, the foods it provided, what the ancients recorded of it, and what travelers might have said of it The history of a living being was that being itself, within the whole semantic network that connected it to the world.“THE GALLOPING GOURMET
While developing his alternate lifestyle, Nick got into Crunch Granola. Whose ingredients he analyzed into his own recipe:
“2 cups of rolled oats (I try to get the old-fashioned kind that cooks in five minutes instead of the instant that cooks in one, because it must be betters).“You can put in brown sugar, if you want.
“1 cup of wheat germ.
“1/2 cup of raisins.
“Then it became flexible. You can add all kinds of things:
“1/2 cup peanuts (but some people don’t like peanuts, so sometimes I use walnuts; but some kind of nuts are nice, depending on what kind you have and how much time you’re willing to spend shelling them).
“1/2 cup dates
“I tried putting apples in, but because I wasn’t letting the apples dry it kind of fermented, like silage. So I put fresh apple on top, and I pour a lot of honey on top.
“Also, if you wanted, you could put skim milk-powder in the basic mix, and just add water . . .
“I also have a recipe for cranberry sauce, for prunes, for lentil bean soup . . .
“The things to remember with cranberry sauce is to do it in the oven instead of on top of the stove. It’s a much gentler from of sauce . . .”
RUN FOR YOUR LIFE
Appointments to the FCC are for seven long years, presumably as protection against political pressures. Needless to say, things don’t work out that way.
Ex officio, broadcasters have tremendous political clout; no politician can afford to antagonize the media back home. Further, many politicians – LBJ being the most notorious example – have broadcasting interests. And nowadays, even performers are going into politics.
So are FCC commissioners. The FCC might not seem like much of a power base, but Broadcasting Magazine has plenty of suggestions about commissioners’ political plans.
Chairman Burch, for example, may resign at the end of the year – and seek Goldwater’s seat when the senator’s term expires in ’76. Commissioner Robert Wells may run for Governor of Kansas in ’72.
Another broadcasting rumor: the first woman commissioner will be named in June; she is Congresswoman Charlotte Reid (R-Ill.), who won re-election for her fifth term last year.
As for the Negro, Broadcasting reveals the White House has leaked the good news: the color line will be broken in June ’72. Guess whose term expires then.
Johnson’s own prospects are understandably uncertain. Last August Newsweek spotted him as one of the Big Four frequently considered for college of university president. But “that’s not something I particularly want to do,” says Johnson. Nor does Johnson talk with excitement of his plans to stay in government. It strikes him a “highly unlikely” he would be reappointed to the FCC by anyone (even a Democrat) and, in any case, “basically, I’ve sort of done my FCC thing.” And unless he got to run some program with clout . . .
Still, I’ll pass along a little gossip: If Muskie were elected President, Johnson might be named FCC Chairman. In a Teddy Kennedy cabinet, Johnson might get interior. (Old Joseph Kennedy was the first Maritime Administrator; that’s been one bond with Teddy. Another, says Nick, is that both were among the Ten Outstanding Men of the year—chosen by the Jaycees in 1968!)
And then there is Harold Hughes, a good old boy from Iowa. No telling what that might mean . . .
“In a nation of states,” says Johnson, “I’m a man without a state. I’m a kind of Class D League national figure and not a figure at all in any state or local community.”
Still, there are jokes about reviving Kennedy-Johnson buttons.
And when Chicago’s radio-genius Studds Terkel interviewed Johnson, he asked, “Are you over 35?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Then you could run for President?”
“Yes, I could.”
FACE THE NATION
(re-run of September 14, 1969)
Selling air timed to a political candidate, said Commissioner Nicholas Johnson, is like “a criminal stealing a woman’s wedding right after he’s raped her.”
THE JOHNSON SAGA
Let’s hear it for the State of Iowa: Herbert Hoover, John L. Lewis, Billy Sunday, Henry Wallace . . .
And how about Iowa City, that hotbed of communicators: Wilbur Schramm, pioneer researcher into the ways of the media; James Van Allen, satellite pioneer and discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belt; Paul Engle, head of the Iowa writers’ school who, during the late Thirties shared a house with the Johnsons. And later on got a country place that Grant Wood had lived in.
In his office, Johnson has prints Grant wood did in this house. Actually they are reproductions of prints, Christmas cards sent by an Iowa TV station. The station where his younger sister did a children’s program while still in high school. Eventually she worked on NDB Monitor and the Cronkite show, although, not long ago, she dropped out . . .
Nick’s radio career began with turning a 10-in-1 kit into a transmitter (as powerful as a local station), wiring the neighborhood for telegraph, and hanging around the Navy’s Pre-Flight School (in Iowa City during the War) with the other kids, learning Morse Code . . .
Gramps Johnson had been brought from Sweden as a child; he grew up to be a cowboy and a cattle and wheat rancher in Kansas.
His son, Wendell, became a “despairing stutterer,” who in the course of curing himself studied psychology and became an expert in stuttering as well as General Semantics, which deals with the role of language in human behavior.
“Man,” Wendell would say, “is the only animal able to talk himself into troubles that would otherwise not exist.”
Stuttering, he discovered, “begins not in the child’s mouth, but in the parents’ ear.” It is not a defect in the child, but a response conditioned by a parent who can’t wait until the halting speech of his child develops on its own.
Johnson got one clue in this direction form noticing that an Indian tribe with no word for stuttering had no stutterers, and a tribe that had a word, had stutterers.
Johnson himself became a masterful public speaker, author of ten books, more than 150 articles. “Dad used to write limericks,” Nick recalls, “he made up intricate card games, he had sayings and Johnson’s Law.
“My speaking style is certainly not a conscious modeling of his, but just as most five-year-old boys walk like their fathers, I suppose I probably talk somewhat like mine.”
The family was poor, as academics were until recently, but they lived in a community of dedicated men “who almost took pride in having patches on their sportcoats—and not having suits—and having old cars—or not having any cars. And figuring ways to get along with little amounts of money.”
Mrs. Johnson took charge of all practical matters, including laying tiles in the kitchen and building cupboards. Wendell put his energy into his research, into his clinic, into his professional societies.
“Part of what I also got from Dad, but what I’m now trying to get away from—get into balance—is this total commitment to professional and intellectual activity.
In 1957 two years after a mild heart attack forced him to give up his administrative duties (he died in 1965), Wendell wrote, in a piece about stuttering in the Saturday Evening Post: “Take the foot off the accelerator. Our competitive way of life sneaks up on us. Before we realize it, we’re driving ourselves and our children at a ridiculous clip. We need sleep, leisurely companionship, time to ponder and collect our wits.”
The Johnson drive was suffused, as Nick puts it, “with a sense of humanism and moral values and the Protestant Ethic of hard work and responsibility and the Kennedy ethic of ‘from whom much has been given, much is expected.’”
The family was Unitarian (the non-church church), but Nick was “brought up to evaluate things on their merits, not to have knee-jerk, prejudicial reactions.” That is, he was encouraged to go around to all the churches in town and judge for himself. He chose the Unitarian.
He is still noon-institutionally religious: “I’d like to do a really heavy edit on the Bible. So it would make sense to people who just take it prejudicially and turn off.”
In fourth grade, he organized what he likes to remember as the first student sit-in—in the principal’s office to demand formation of a student council.
He became the first junior elected president of that council. And he became president of everything else, from the Letterman’s Club to the National Hi-Y, the YMCA youth organization.
On the basis of his Hy-Y constituency, he got on the National Board of the YMCA itself by telling the elders, “you claim to be a young man’s organization, but nobody on the board is under 60.” He then pointed out that nobody knew what Hi-Y should be doing; so an $8 million study was made, “the first systems analysis of an organizational enterprise.”
Nick’s vast public presence was therefore established very early. He was always a public figure, an office holder, a wide-traveler. His debating team was state champ three years in a row.
His first appearance in court came in seventh grade as he successfully argued—having bought a copy of the Municipal Code—that a friend’s parking violation should be thrown out.
Not yet 18, he married a girl he had known since 4th grade. They worked their way through the University of Texas, each with two part-time jobs, besides managing an apartment house and raising their newborn daughter.
Nick finished up in three years, Phi Bete, and moved to Texas Law School. Urged by friends to run for the state legislature, he instead clerked on the Fifth Circuit and then for Mr. Justice Black.
The rest is history.
VICTORY AT SEA
Nick did not room with Bill Moyers at Texas Law, nor is he related in any way to LBJ. None of the above led to his appointment in 1964 as the youngest Maritime Administrator ever.
He had, after all, taught administrative law (and oil and gas) at a first-rate law school (Berkeley) and done a stint at a top Washington firm, Covington and Burling. And, basically, it was a job nobody wanted.
Johnson, not yet 30, plunged right in. And by October he had become valuable enough to the Administration to go stumping against Goldwater.
Nick was severely critical of the entire Maritime subsidy program, which infuriated the shipowners. He wanted to build ships (cheaper) abroad, which infuriated the shipbuilders. And he advocated automation, which infuriated the unions.
Everyone, in an unprecedented show of unity, hated him. Still, he likes to recall, he lasted longer than all but one other administrator, and that was some guy during the war.
It is also said that Nick frequently tried to resign, but LBJ simply refused to let him—until, one day, a slot on the FCC came up, and it looked like Peace With Honor. But not Nick, who still hankered to go to some university and write. But LBJ asked nicely. And the rest is history.
THE EARLY SHOW
The Indispensable Man
Twenty years ago, there was a genre called “What Makes Sammy Run?” It concerned starts and heroes and even Madison Avenue big deals who had clawed their way through the Depression, survived the War and reached the Top—only to find nothing there. It wasn’t worth it, the rat race. And in those days, the only guys who could bring that news were guys who had already been there.
In the early Sixties, this genre was subverted, especially in Esquire, in terms of what Gay Talese called Over-Reachers. Guys who got out of their league. Who played for stakes a little too steep.
So what became interesting was how they failed, how they fell back into obscurity.
When our journalist picked them up, they were reduced to sad memories of former glory. The classic moment was Talese’s vision of Joe DiMaggio (who, had he stuck to baseball, would have been all right; but he wanted The Sex Goddess, too).
And so Marilyn Monroe turned to Joe as her career kept rising and said, “You never heard applause this loud.” And he replied, “Oh, yes I did.” And the reader knew it didn’t make no difference no more.
In the Fifties the beatnicks and in the Sixties a lot of kids began to figure there was no point in even trying to climb those same old ladders.
The kids had already started out pretty good in the ghetto of America, the Suburb. So the only place to go was down. Fall through the economic bottom, became a white Negro, the student as nigger.
And now, all that’s left of the bitch-of-success genre is the story of greening. Guys who didn’t get the message of the Fifties about other-directedness, who didn’t get the message of the Sixties about dropping out. Guys who bought the system, got the rewards and now want to have their cake and eat it and change it into a pie.
You remember weekend hippies. Now we have weekend greenies. Guys who are at the top and are not going to drop out. Who are going to stay in the corporate state and turn it around. Thereby earning a double batch of gold starts. Especially if they write songs before work. On a bicycle!
“it would be stupid and indefensible at this time in my history and in the history of the United States,” says Nick, “to leave the Commission.” Meaning not that he, Nick Johnson, has an Atlas-complex (if I don’t hold the world up, no one will). Only that if he left, Nixon would appoint another bad guy, and . . .
And so, on my first day of observation, January 22nd, just before lunch, Nick leafed through the press clips circulated by the FCC’s Office of Public Information, remarking on all the good things that were happening out there, things that weren’t connected with him in any way. He didn’t initiate them, they just happened. Out of the blue.
And he said, as if to clue me to the genuine modesty of his ambition, “I’d like to make myself the Dispensable Man around here.”
SALE OF THE CENTURY
The concept of selling out came very late to the profession of law.
Lawyers are eminently respectable. Beyond that, they are hired guns; they can represent either side in a matter, and although they’d probably prefer to be on the side of Truth, the adversary system is based on the assumption that the best man, using every available remedy, will prevail.
And except in criminal cases, there is seldom an absolutely guilty party. In general the law is a process of adjustment, of temporizing, of winning concessions.
One way this gun-slinger morality is traditionally justified, especially by big-firm lawyers, is by donating time, pro bono publico, for the public good. That is, servicing clients who can’t pay.
In the past, this meant poor people. Lately, welfare clients and certain rural poor, for example, are supplied legal services by OEO. And attention is shifting to another pro bono client—the public interest. (Consumerism is the ecology of ’71.)
So attractive (relevant) has pro bono work become that TV came up with The Storefront Lawyers and the big-firms are having to make healthy (say, 15 percent of time) allowances for it, almost as a fringe benefit to sign up the best young lawyers.
Along these lines, it is important to know how the best legal minds are allocated. Assignment in the hierarchy begins immediately, in law school; the top students get to edit the law review. The very best of these from the best schools get to clerk for the Supreme Court (as Charlie Reich and Nick Johnson did), often prepping with a year on a Circuit Court.
The next-best power centers for the first move are big firms on Wall Street, in Washington. Where connections can be made, the intricacies of power observed, the manner of exacting concessions learned.
It is the guys who sell out to these firms that are the best candidates for pro bono work. They are: 1) very bright to begin with, 2) making plenty of money anyway—$16 to 18 off the bat, 3) they need massive doses of self-justification, 4) their assigned work can be plenty dull, 5) they are committed by instinct and training to the system, but they also know how inequitably it works.
Perhaps the most prestigious Washington firm at the moment, former counsel to the Republican party, is Covington and Burling. Nick was spotted as a Maritime candidate at Covington. One of his current legal assistants came from Covington; his last year’s legal assistant, Tracy Westen, came from Covington. So did Al Kramer.
About Kramer and Westen. They are both doing full-time public interest work in communications.
Kramer, 30, took his
Master’s in economics at Berkeley, then a law degree at Stanford.
He is now a one-man show called The Citizens Communications Center, 1816
Jefferson Place, N.W., around the corner from the FCC.
In the past two years he has filed three or four dozen license renewal challenges on the part of black groups; filed for the 14 dove senators who won air time to respond to the President on Cambodia; filed for the Quakers who want to sponsor anti-draft commercials; and for the Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace, who want to run anti-war commercials.
Kramer is a Balding bear; stolid is his middle name. He has no phone in his inner office—to keep him from chatting instead of working. The legs of his desk are cement blocks. That poster of the Baez sisters and the one of Uncle Mao (festooned with a full-page of Arlo Guthrie) give the office that Movement touch.
The Center was funded at $25,000 for the first year by Midas Muffler. After his benefactor left the firm, the Stern Foundation (wealth derived from Sears, Roebuck) put up some money. But now Kramer is hustling.
It would be nice, he thinks, “not to be dependent on the largesse of private benefactors, the tender mercies of the IRS in granting exemptions.” So he hopes to work out a way of winning reimbursement from the broadcasters “as part of the cost of being regulated.”
A case in which the Texarkana station agreed to pay $15,000 in settling a challenge from the United Church of Christ is now pending in the courts. (Johnson has repeatedly urged setting up a Private Lawyers’ Fund, to support “private attorneys-general,” to let a thousand Naders bloom.)
Kramer’s latest triumph was a petition to deny transfer of the Triangle (Annenberg) stations, valued at $110 million, to Capital Cities Broadcasting. The bargain struck with Capcities was that they would commit $1 million over three years to develop minority programming.
Broadcasting, however, read the handwriting on the wall:
“. . . the process of challenge and concession is getting out of hand when Washington-based and Washington-wise lawyers start making careers of representing the challengers. The more broadcasters yield to the urgings of advisory councils, the less responsibility they themselves assume to program for the whole spectrum of their audience. If the trend persists in that direction, programming authority will become so diffuse that the system will be degraded.”
Actually, Kramer figures he could use four or five lawyers to help, although “what’s important is that groups start going it on their own. The process, if you want it to work, has to be atomistic. It can’t be directed from anywhere.
“If we started that, we’d just become another monolith. And that’s to be avoided. When this organization gets to be 500 people big, it’s time for somebody to bomb it.”
Tracy Westen, 29, was at Berkeley Law in the crucial years, ’64-’66, so he has first hand experience with the rock-drug-revolution culture. He is probably the individual most responsible for The Greening of the Commissioner.
By almost any standard of freakiness, Westen is not. His hair is slightly graying in a Dylan natural (at least he's not balding, like Nick and Kramer). And he always wears a tie, and his loafers are the conventional black-buckle.
But sensibility is what matters, and he is now doing his part for the Stern Community Law Firm, 2005 L. Street, around the corner from the FCC, which for a potentially big-time lawyer is the equivalent of becoming a hippie.
Westen is most interested in Speech (as protected by the First Amendment). He’d like to defend some station for playing dirty or drug rock (ROLLING STONE, February 18th.)
He has also filed against the ABC station that refused to carry a halftime show at the State University at Buffalo because the message was anti-war.
Last December he filed for the National Organization of Women to get the FCC to require “affirmative employment programs” from broadcasting, something to measure their efforts to eliminate discrimination by sex.
And so, if you recall that the 1967 petition that started the ball rolling toward anti-cigarette ads was typed by a guy just out of law school, John Banzhaf, in the purser’s office of the ocean liner he was working on . . . perhaps a thousand Naders have already begun to bloom. Even in communication.
The best time to attack a broadcaster is just before his license is up for renewal. Last year, Senator Pastore (D-R.I.) introduced a bill that would forbid the filing of competing applications until after the FCC had denied renewal.
But the FCC quickly came up with its own ruling—a challenger must first demonstrate that the licensee has failed to provide “substantial service” to his community . . . which is mighty tough.
Now the FCC has moved to require stations to make prime time announcements for six months before license expires, telling the public that it owns the airwaves and can play a part in judging the licensee’s performance.
In his book, Johnson conveniently provides a list of renewal dates:
April 1—Minn., N.D.,
S.D., Mont., Colo.
June 1—Kan., Okla., Neb.
Oct.1—Wyo., Nev., Ariz., Utah, N.M., Idaho
In early February, Nick made his first appearance in the Washington Post’s society pages—as one of 800 V.I.P.s who went to Ford’s Theater to see a TV-documentary, They’ve Killed President Lincoln. Johnson, noted the reporter, was “continually mistaken for the actor who plays John Wilkes Booth.”
Last December, he responded to a N. Y. Times’ invitation to nominate Ten Best Movies of the year (half of Johnson’s list were made before 1970). But he declined the Times’ $35 honorarium—as he does all fees, for lectures and his book as well—urging the sum be contributed to organizations working toward the betterment of television.
Actually, royalties on his book (67,000 copies in print in paper, not quite $3,000 earned by the hardcover) are allocated by Atlantic Monthly editor Robert Manning—to an organization of his choice (since Johnson perforce, cannot specify “his favorite charity”). Manning’s choice turns out to be the Citizens Communications Center, whose address Johnson suggested I print. Of course, Johnson has to be very careful not to aid and abet parties who appear before the FCC . . .
THIS IS YOUR LIFE
You have graying sideburns and a monkish bald spot on the top of your head—seldom noticed because you are 6’5”, although you slouch terribly, as if to make a good mother wince, as if not to tower too much, as if to acknowledge the burdens of achievement and honor you have always borne.
You carry, sometimes, a pocket comb in your shirt pocket, although evidence suggest you push your hair into bangs with your fingers.
You slice up all your food before beginning to eat, holding the fork between three fingers and pinky in a manner this reporter has never observed.
You wipe up your salad dressing with your roll and finally tell the waiter, as if joining the Clean Plate Club, “I have now finished. I have finished, I say. I have eaten all my food.”
And when one of his colleagues approaches for a match, you fish in, get one, light it and declare: “I do not smoke cigarettes. I do not approve of cigarette smoking. But if you want to smoke the goddam cigarette, I will light it for you.”
You don’t drink, either.
You do use the word “fucking” at times, although you don’t want me to quote you.
And you don’t have a TV in your office.
THE GOOD, GOOD SHOW
“For Whom Does Bell Toil?”
Johnson is good on the issues. That’s political slang for “I agree with the position he takes.”
Washington in general is skittish about expressing enthusiasm, so the usual way of responding to an exciting proposal is: “I have not problem [difficulty] with that.”
Johnson’s style is refreshing abandoned. He charges with the Light Brigade.
For instance, he loves to attack Ma Bell, which, is granted a near monopoly and guaranteed a 7-1/2 percent return by the FCC.
So obnoxious has Johnson become to Bell, that They recently insisted he be disqualified on all matters pertaining to The System.
Johnson’s Chicago speech last October, “Why I am a Conservative or For Whom Does Bell Toil?” gave The System much discomfort.
Playing Devil’s Advocate, Johnson claimed to be a much-abused conservative, “unsuccessfully preaching the doctrine of free private enterprise competition and less government regulation to reluctant American businessmen committed to socialized enterprise and government protection of monopoly.”
He continued: “I used to talk and write about the public interest in telephone matters a lot: lower rates, more flexible service, optional rates of technological growth and plant expansion, and so forth—you know the litany. Well, I’ve stopped. It’s kind of like falling in love by yourself. It’s a beautiful trip, but it’s kind of lonely.”
So Johnson made the case for Bell’s own self-interest pointing out costly errors in debt-financing, accounting and corporate policy.
In a raft of specific matters—off-peak pricing, “foreign” attachments, Public Broadcasting, cable, microwave, data transmission, electronic switching, satellites and even coin phones on which you can reach an operator without depositing a dime—“the common impression running throughout is that of a company not only failing to promote increased business brought its way, but a company that would actually rather fight through Commission and courts—with considerable vigor, expenditure, and occasional success—than switch.”
Privately, Johnson enjoys telling how he himself designed his office telephone system—at 50 percent below the cost first quoted by the Bell rep.
At the FCC's two day “oral argument” on microwave transmission, January 21st-22nd—Bell arguing against opening it up to competition—Johnson joked about reading EST a book on West Coast wisdom passed on by Mason Williams.
Actually, though he would often disappear from sight, leaning back in his blue leather arm chair behind the Commissioner’s table, he would bounce up again and again to confront a vague or misleading statement by an endlessly droning corporate lawyer.
And he was the only commissioner to do so, the others presumably content to settle the matter in the routine way, in consultation with Bell after the storm had subsided.
Don’t forget, down at the staff level, there are all those fellows wearing Ma Bell tie clips, using Western Union lighters on the cigars they pick up after touring Bell facilities. And dreaming about all those $20 lunches . . .
One shameless Bell employee who had played an innocent game of basketball with Thorpe early one week, called later to invite him to the National Symphony. Thorpe declined. He’s not much of a culture freak.
Three days after Agnew’s anti-rock lyrics speech in Vegas last September, Johnson was ready with a rebuttal. He had been so incensed by Agnew, he had immediately jotted down a reply in the journal he keeps.
The guys in the office loved it, and insisted on publishing. But Nick claimed there wasn’t time. The way to do it, given cost-effectiveness considerations as well, was to deliver it as a speech first, then reprint it.
And lo! a search of the calendar revealed a US Information Agency panel discussion on rock he had turned down, but could now accept:
“. . .the real issue, Mr. Vice President, is not the desirability of hard drugs. . . The question is whether you have done anything to alter the repressive, absurd and unjust forces in our society that drive people to drugs.
“. . . [you have] pointed with pride to what the Administration has done to crack down on ‘drugs.’ But what has it done to deal with our number one drug problem, alcoholism?
“. . . Or how about nicotine addiction? There are 300,000 deaths a year related to cigarette smoking. What is the Vice President doing to cut down on these pushers?
“. . . So who’s kidding whom? If we’re really serious about doing something to alter the drug culture in America, let’s get on with the work and stop worrying about the music.
“. . .above all, let us stop going for help to advertising executives who sit around, after their three-martini lunches, coming up with ad campaigns that preach the get-away-from-it-all qualities of caffeine, nicotine, aspirin and other pain killers, alcohol, stomach settlers, pep pills, tranquilizers and sleeping pills (plus the whole range of mouthwash, deodorant, cosmetics, etc.).
“How, in the midst of the chemical life they’ve glamorized, can they absolve their consciences by telling our kids that a 16th or 17th chemical will bring about the downfall of their lives and the Republic?
“They can run it up your flag pole, Mr. Vice President, but nobody’s going to salute it.”
The most dramatic example of ordinary people talking back to the video monster is ACT (Action for Children’s Television) which began as five upset Boston housewives and is now a full-scale FCC investigation.
ACT has proposed: 1) no commercials on children’s programs, 2) no pitches at kids by performers, 3) 14 hours a week of children’s programming on every station . . .
The proposals have a fat chance of getting accepted. After all, three commissioners voted against even starting the investigation. Indeed, for over a year the Commission tried desperately to ignore the situation.
Finally, Chairman Burch, who has a five-year-old daughter, lunched with the three network presidents (in New York; did you think they came to him?). He suggested they share responsibility for the 4:30 to 6PM slot on an alternating base. They were not amused.
In February, Burch spoke before the American Advertising Federation in praise of their plan for a National Advertising Review Board (shades of Hollywood). He reminded them of the basic premise behind regulating commercials aimed at kids: simply that they cannot, by themselves, tell what is “false and deceptive.”
Somebody must protect them, and Burch implied, if you don’t, we’ll have to.
There are other anti-commercial moves afoot. Johnson is hot for “Truth Spots” which would give the counter-story, like anti-smoking commercials.
The Federal Trade Commission is pushing hard on “affirmative disclosure”—forcing the advertiser himself to tell the negative story as well as the allegedly positive.
One of Nader’s Raiders told the AAF that “an advertiser should devote a certain amount of space to opinions other than his own.”
The audience laughed.
Johnson hates routine administrative procedures that make it easy to sweep dirt under the rug. Especially with regard to license renewals.
He loves to cite three outrageous renewals — the station that ran 33 minutes of commercials an hour, another that offered no public affairs and no news at all, another that defrauded advertisers of $41,000.
Johnson often dissents to insist that the question of public interest must be examined in a hearing and cannot be routinely passed over.
In the past, working with former Commissioner Kenneth Cox, Johnson surveyed stations in three different areas, and worked up a check list to evaluate individual performances. Nothing much came from that until late in February. Now the FCC has proposed requiring big-city stations to devote 15 percent of total programming to local shows and 15 percent to news and public affairs.
This winter Johnson dissented in two important challenges involving blacks.
In January the FCC routinely OKed a San Francisco radio station’s change in format—from black-oriented to “middle-of-the-road”—and change of call letters—from KSOL to KEST. Johnson questioned whether Bay Area blacks—10 percent of the population—could adequately be served by one out of 60 AM and FM stations in the area?
And did KSOL fire its six full-time black announcers without giving them a chance to learn the new format?
And is the new format already duplicated by five other stations as the FCC’s Broadcast Bureau maintains? Or a dozen, as one observer maintains? Or only one as the licensee maintains?
And, “could it be that the white owners of KSOL balked at the increasing social awareness of the black community [the Oakland Black Caucus had charged that “KSOL takes the black community as a joke”] and took what they saw as the easy way out, rather than face a possible license renewal challenge this year?”
In the matter of WMAL-TV in Washington, DC, the Commission rejected a charge that the station’s documentaries were insensitive to problems of black identity, passed the charge of job discrimination and etc.—and renewed the license. “I dissent,” wrote Johnson, demanding a hearing.
THE BAD NEWS
By the way, Kahn recently unloaded 5600 shares of TelePrompter, leaving him 24,000, valued at approximately $59 a share. And informed sources in the industry say bribes in return for franchises are common.
And that’s a little of the bad news.
“Government by Television”
In London last December, Johnson gave the keynote address to the third annual World Association of Political Consultants. He lambasted the Nixon-Agnew use/abuse of television.
“President Nixon,” Johnson charged, “surrounds himself with advisors whose principal experience is in advertising, public relations and broadcasting; his appointments to the FCC and related agencies are deigned to foster Administration control and industry orientation . . . Broadcasters are kept off-balance by the one-two punch of barely camouflaged intimidation and acts of censorship, together with the promise of an economic pay-off for those who cooperate.”
Johnson recalled the pressures before and after November, 1969, Mobilization Against the War, which successfully reduced it to a non-event and unleashed Agnew on the media; Nixon’s infrequent granting of press conferences, “a principle designed to guarantee discipline and control”; and Nixon’s “most cynical act,” vetoing the Political Broadcasting Bill, which would have limited campaign spending and repealed Equal Time requirements for Presidential and Vice Presidential races (which effectively prevented debates on free time).
“We need ground rules,” Johnson declared, “as to when the President can command television time, and when, if ever, he is entitled to all three networks rather than one.”
Johnson also urged that: 1) time be made available free to all candidates, 2) in segments of not less than five minutes, 3) and if propaganda or advertising techniques were used, these spots be followed by showing the candidate in some situation he did not control, such as a debate or interview.
The speech so upset Broadcasting magazine—“Nicholas Johnson, who craves a headline as a junkie craves a fix, now is openly challenging the administration. He defies President Nixon to remove him”—that it suggested restructuring the FCC to five members, thus phasing Johnson out.
“The only protest we can anticipate,” Broadcasting concluded, “would come from the radical fringe of politicians and the great unwashed.”
THE YOUNG LAW STUDENTS
Every Thursday in his office, Johnson gives a seminar in communications policy to six Georgetown law students. Plus one ravishing German girl (on some kind of fellowship) he let in after the course was filled, perhaps as a concession to his own humanity.
UNCLE HICK: Did
you hear about the guy back home who asked if he planned to have cable-TV
“Hell no,” he said, “Where I come from, we have the garbage hauled out, we don’t pay to have it hauled in!”
SPECIAL: THE MASON WILLIAMS’ FCC RAPPORT
Mason Williams is to Nick Johnson what Robert Lowell was to Gene McCarthy.
Don’t trouble yourself with that analogy.
Williams is not a first class mind gone crazy, but he has a few sense of humor and, by television standards, guts and talent. He’s won an Emmy and two Grammys and served as chief writer for the Smothers Brothers during the Gotterdammerung.
Still, his version of a revolutionary action is to hurl an eight-foot cream pie into the CBS eye-logo.
For the FCC and especially Nick Johnson, Mason was a vision. One fine summer day in 1969, after the FCC had been kicking around ways to limit network control of programming for almost five years, Mason delivered his Rapport.
In bells and a beard! With a guitar! And from a brief that was handwritten, “because my favorite Government documents are handwritten and they seem to work pretty good.”
He said: “The first television network that has/the courage to help this country/Instead of sell to it/will truly become a Champion of Justice/And will be loved and respected/By the people/Not just watched.”
And he laid a lot of other cute insights on the Commissioners, and Nick has been quoting Mason ever since. Incessantly.
And last fall Nick reviewed Mason’s book, Flavors, for the New Republic. . . not mentioning that Mason had taught him how to play the guitar (Nick composes his songs while biking every morning; no, he does not cradle his guitar on the handlebars. That would be over-doing cost-effectiveness, although Mason’s agent figures Nick could make it in show biz. . .)
And of course Nick keeps a journal like Mason and prepares a Nick Johnson Report every year (and showed the 1970 report to his publisher). And gets books like EST, from Mason, and stays with Mason when he’s on the Coast.
But when I asked about Mason, Nick referred me to his New Republic review (“98 percent of what I think I’ve written about somewhere”) and, when pressed, declared “the relationship is like any other between people in an age when everybody’s moving about and you never spend much time with anybody . . .”
PLAYBOY AFTER DARK
“One of the things that I really relish that I never really had before in my life is having a home where, when I come, I am not disturbed.
“There’s almost no mail, almost no phone calls, no people coming by.
“Most people try to divorce their business from their personal lives. But I just never did, really.
“And it’s really nice.
“I do my little cooking. And I can read.
“And I can work on my Yale speech. (I set up this little work room.)
“I write in my journal, practice my guitar, do whatever the hell I want to do. . .”
(rerun of March 7, 1970)
BUCKLEY: Well, the trouble with you is you sound like Huey Long sometimes.
JOHNSON: Huey Long? Really? I don’t have a southern accent.
BUCKLEY: When you said the government is “a government of the people, by the rich for the corporations.”
JOHNSON: Yeah, that’s right.
BUCKLEY: You know, straight populism. It’s no more greed than the politicians. The politicians are just as greedy as the businessmen. They go and they give a speech and they promise the whole bloody world, and they’re greedy for votes. In their own way they’re just a despicable . . .
THE LATE, BUT NOT TOO LATE SHOW
Nick Johnson at Yale.
Greenies are everywhere.
The week before Nick Johnson appeared at Yale to deliver his magnum opus, “The Careening of America or How to Talk Back to Your Corporate State,” the N. Y. Times interviewed a 40ish New York Matron, Judy Peabody, one of the Beautiful People during the mid-Sixties. In 1971, Mrs. Peabody makes news because she works with addicts from Harlem, mixing uptown and downtown friends in her 5th Avenue duplex. “I guess you could call us the first of the dropouts,” Mrs. Peabody told the Times.
The day of Johnson’s speech, March 8th, the Times printed the first of Charlie Reich’s two-part, post-Greening position paper, “Beyond Consciousness.” For Nick, this signified another crossing of the roads. “Uncanny,” He thought, still convinced that his Berkeley speech against the corporate state was finished simultaneously with The Greening of America. Another case of Leibnitz and Newton discovering the calculus.
At first it seemed as if Johnson would come to New Haven—and leave—without seeing Reich, who has become something of a recluse lately—refusing, as would befit a man who’s sold 200,000 hardcovers, to appear on TV—choosing instead to hole up at home (like Nero Wolf), tuned to his color TV (bought with the first of his royalties), struggling to get into his new book about the necessary new forms of interpersonal relationships.
It seemed that Johnson would dutifully serve his three-day, $600 term as Poynter Fellow (“Whatever that is”) chatting; chatting with students from Davenport College, with the Law School faculty, with local commentators on morning TV, without ever seeing good old Law School prof Charlie Reich.
But, suddenly there was Charlie, traipsing along in his brown cords and red mackinaw to pick up his mail at the office.
There was the requisite preliminary sparring, Charlie wanting to know what’s happening to Washington, why the sky is falling, how anybody could have lived through the last ten years. Isolation, according to Nick, all those guys coming to work in the limos, zipping up the elevators and never seeing the world.
OK. Then it was Nick’s turn to ask: What do you think I should be doing? And for Charlie to lay on the conventional “Be more radical, not a reformer.”
And after that charade was over, Charlie gradually loosened up into the idiot-savant, crazy violin teacher with theories that he is.
"I bet you don't even watch television," he said.
Nick fessed up that he didn't, that he didn't have time to.
So Charlie prescribed a good two hours a day in color, which Burke Marshall calculated would require a total of 1834 hours of watching before Johnson's term expired.
And that was what they talked about: TV.
They talked about TV, those greenies! But at least Charlie, plumping for a higher level of awareness, insisted that Watching TV was FUN--it was color to watch, and if you were stoned, you could see all sorts of strange things. But FUN, of course, is not something Nick knows much about.
The text for his speech was 121 pages long, half of them devoted to quotations from Mason Williams et al. With footnotes.
You could kill a man with that.
Although monitors for the Yale Political Union sat by the doors checking attendance against a computer printout ("the only way to god"), only 200 souls or so showed up. "Who's ever heard of Nick Johnson," said the guy behind me. "He's not very radical, only an FCC Commissioner."
And so behind the P.U.'s banner, Nick ran through his Greening yet once more.
Recommending the redemption of life-support activities: "I shave with a blade, not electricity. It's kind of bloody but it's kind of fun."
Another classroom lecture, none of that spontaneous intimacy of TV, that challenge and response of living room chit chat. Only those long shadows cast against the gothic paneling, while toward the back, male Yalies huddled with female Yalies like they were still in junior high and it was Saturday afternoon at the movies.
"I have a pineapple plant in my office and chives growing at home . . .."
THE ELEVENTH HOUR NEWS
During the recent Manhattan blackout, WNBC-TV let the Nielsen ratings, a feat possible because 10 percent of the sets monitored were still on after power had been cut for two hours.
According to NY Times TV critic Jack Gould, casualties of the blackout included Hogan’s Heroes, The World of Disney, Ed Sullivan Show, the F.B.I., Glen Cambell’s hour and Bonanza.
THE DICK CAVETT SHOW
(rerun of August 25th, 1969)
JOHNSON: . . . my thesis is that television really can’t stand the truth. It can’t stand reality. It has to sell. If that’s true it’s going to be very interesting to see just how long television can put up with Dick Cavett. I think you are inconsistent with the system. Why don’t we take a commercial break?
CAVETT: We might just as well. Let me just say that considering how feared you’re supposed to be we must admit that it’s nice of ABC to have had you on.
JOHNSON: I understand, it was an accident. Shall we tell them about that?
CAVETT: Well, I told them that Nicholas Johnson was Van Johnson’s real name. [Laughter] We’ll be back after this message.
A THOUGHT FOR TOMORROW
When Nick arrived at Maritime; when he went to pay his respects to Secretary of Commerce Luther Hodges and Hodges performed this laying on of hands:
“A lot of people come to this town and work for Government. And when they leave, things are just a helluva lot worse.
“A few people come and work really hard and they’re pretty able and by god when they leave things aren’t any worse. And that’s a real achievement.
“Then there are a handful of people who by dint of ability and good luck and a lot of other things—when they leave things are better, a little bit better.
“You may fall into that category.
“But the thing you need to remember to avoid getting frustrated and discouraged is how much a little bit better is. It’s that much [and Nick measures ¾ of an inch with forefinger and thumb].
And then he gives his
boyish but serious look and says: “So measured by that standard,
I think we’re doing all right.”