Journalist Terence Smith reflects on decades of reporting on American presidents, wars

On our bookshelf tonight, NewsHour's old friend and former longtime media correspondent Terence Smith's memoir: "Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter's Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House." Smith spoke with Judy Woodruff about the book.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, on our Bookshelf tonight, Judy Woodruff's special conversation with "NewsHour"'s old friend and former longtime media correspondent, Terence Smith. His memoir, "Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter's Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House," is out this week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Terry Smith, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Terence Smith, Author, "Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter's Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House": Well, thank you. I like the way you're keeping up the place.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Terence Smith:

    It looks fine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We do too. We do too.

    So, the title says it all. And it's easier to name the stories that you didn't cover over the 50 years you were a reporter than it is to name what you did.

    New York City politics. The Middle East. You were in Vietnam, Washington for many years. What was it about this life of yours that made it the — what it was?

  • Terence Smith:

    You know, it's an interesting question.

    I — one, my desire to go overseas to be a foreign correspondent started early, when my parents took me to Europe when I was, I don't know, 11 or 12 years old. And I looked around, and I became fascinated by how people — the different ways people work out their lives, solve their problems, do different things.

    And it just — it gave me a wanderlust that has never gone away.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you were the son of a famous sportswriter, Red Smith. So, you came from a family of newspaper people.

    Some — we see some people turn away from whatever their parents did.

  • Terence Smith:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you embraced it. There are so many great stories in this book.

    And I'm thinking back to when you were just a cub reporter. You were in New York City…

  • Terence Smith:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … and covered — there was a meeting about who was going to run for mayor.

  • Terence Smith:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you were listening through a vent…

  • Terence Smith:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … in a hotel.

  • Terence Smith:

    That's called journalism, Judy.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Terence Smith:

    Now, that's hard-hitting journalism.

    No, they insisted that I had bugged the room, when, in fact, by happenstance, it was in a hotel room, a hotel conference room. I was in the next room. And I heard — my lord, it's coming through the vent.

    And those voices, Nelson Rockefeller's raspy voice, John Lindsay's very patrician Yale accent. You couldn't miss. You knew who was saying what. I was taking notes furiously.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, then, a few years later, you're in the Middle East already, still a young man.

  • Terence Smith:

    Of course.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Back in the United States, Robert Kennedy is assassinated, and you get the word. You're in Jerusalem.

  • Terence Smith:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you're told that the person who they believe has done this is Sirhan Sirhan, who has family there in the West Bank.

  • Terence Smith:

    His father.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you go and find his father.

  • Terence Smith:

    So, I go to the — his father's house at 10:00 at night. It's dark. I knock on the door. I go in. I explain who I am, a reporter for The New York Times.

    And I ask him if he's heard about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. He said, oh, yes, I heard about it. Terrible. Terrible story. And I said, did you hear the name of the assassin? And he said, no. I went to bed. I didn't hear a name. So I said, you have five sons, right?

    Write down on my reporter's notebook the fourth name, Sirhan Sirhan Jr. So I put my finger on that name. And I said, that's the assassin. He switched, like a metronome. He went over and he said, if he did it, he should hang. He should hang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of your many overseas assignments, of course, was to be in Asia, in Southeast Asia.

    At one point, you were — you had a trip to Cambodia. Later, you were in Vietnam during the war, and a moment that truly changed American history.

  • Terence Smith:

    Well, it certainly did.

    I spent two years as The New York Times bureau chief in Saigon. But before that, just a month or two before that, I was in Cambodia in November of 1968. And I went and I interviewed Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the head of state. And he told me word for word exactly what was going to happen in Vietnam, that we would have to go, that the Vietnamese would not give up, that it was their country and not ours, and we'd be wise to pack up and go home.

    This is 1968, Judy. This is tens of thousands of lives short of what happened by 1975. And yet he predicted it on the money. I put it in The New York Times.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You reported that.

  • Terence Smith:

    And no doubt it was read in the White House and Washington, paid no attention.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You and I met during the Jimmy Carter campaign.

  • Terence Smith:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You covered his administration.

    Anything about covering presidents or people at that level that has left you thinking there's something good about our democratic system, or not?

  • Terence Smith:

    Oh, it's a mixed bag. You know that, Judy.

    I mean, it's — but yes and no, I'm afraid it's the right answer. The five presidents in the title, beginning with Richard Nixon, and then Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, and then Clinton, and — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, W. Bush, not H.W.

    And those are the ones I covered, three Republicans, two Democrats, all interesting, all different, very different. And the presidency evolved at the — in those years as well, as you well know. And so it's extraordinary.

    And then, of course, comes Donald Trump, and rewrites the whole book. Totally different.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    After 20 years at The New York Times, you then spent, what, 20 years in broadcast television news? You were at CBS covering the White House again, among other things.

  • Terence Smith:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then you ended up being interviewed…

  • Terence Smith:

    Guess where?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … by Jim Lehrer…

  • Terence Smith:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … of course, our beloved co-founder here at the "NewsHour."

    Best job you ever had?

  • Terence Smith:

    Absolutely.

    Jim had gotten a terrific grant to create a media unit inside this broadcast, the "NewsHour," to cover the news like news.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is your assessment today, in 2021?

  • Terence Smith:

    Absolutely more vital, absolutely more troubled.

    The blending of opinion and fact in reporting that's supposed to be straight is a problem. The news literacy in this country, the burden of knowing whether what you hear is true has shifted to the reader or the viewer to decide.

    And so I think that's a tremendous change. That's a function that editors once performed. And then, of course, the Internet and the absolute spread of information. So, in one sense, it's the best of worlds, right? We have every — we have all this information at our fingertips.

    But in another sense, it's hard to discern truth from fiction. And that's been especially true in the last five years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing that's changed, Terry, is — and you know this as a foreign correspondent, because, back in the day, it was all white men who were overseas covering…

  • Terence Smith:

    Overwhelmingly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … other countries, covering wars. Today, there are so many extraordinary women…

  • Terence Smith:

    Doing the best work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … correspondents, Jane Ferguson, Marcia Biggs, Monica Villamizar, to name just a few.

  • Terence Smith:

    Clarissa Ward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why do you think it's taken so long?

  • Terence Smith:

    Now, the people you just mentioned did the most — to me, the most courageous and outstanding reporting coming out of Kabul as Afghanistan fell and as the United States pulled out.

    I mean, look who was doing it. And they were doing it in a world that is not very accommodating to women.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Terry Smith, thank you so much.

    The book is "Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter's Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House."

    Very good to have you back with us.

  • Terence Smith:

    Judy, a great pleasure for me to see you're keeping the lights on and making it all go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you.

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