HUBRIS AND THE WHITE HOUSE

The telephone call was from a metropolitan desk reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle. He was inquiring about the Merchandise Mart that was to be built on Embarcadero at the foot of Fisherman's Wharf. He wanted to know how high and how large the building was going to be. Plans for the new building will be disclosed within two months before the city's Planning

Commission, I responded. That's not good enough, we want to know now, he said.

I had just started working for Marion Conrad Associates, a local San Francisco public relations firm. The year was 1969. I had been a journalist for a number of years in San Francisco. When Marion, a large beautiful woman with a high society upbringing, asked me to work for her I said no, that I preferred being a journalist. How much do you make, she asked. A little more than $5,000 a year, I had replied. I'll double it, she said. Two weeks later I joined her company as a senior associate.Her company did public relations for the Merchandise Mart. The proposed multimillion project was being financed by several of the more exclusive

families of San Francisco.

The call from the reporter did not surprise me. Scott Newhall, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, had taken well publicized positions against Manhattanizing San Francisco. He wanted The City, as those in the Bay Area call it, to keep its port city charm. Tall huge buildings, he felt would distract from the local beauty of the city. They would hide the hills, of which there are at least seven, and block views of the blue waters of the bay that surround the city on three sides.

I told the reporter that I would get back to him. But I assured him that the builders had the best interests of the city in mind including maintaining the aesthetics of San Francisco's Old World, European charm. He told me his deadline was 3 p.m.

Marion quickly found a chair to sit down in when I told her about the call. We had better tell him something or Scott will make up a story, she said shaking her head. Make up a story? I replied, incredulously. Marion had a lot of experience with Scott Newhall. She had represented many of the major rebuilding programs in the city.

Mr. Newhall had a habit, according to Marion, of flushing out information about new building programs by having his reporters write stories that alleged the worst possible scenario. Quoting unnamed sources, the stories, according to Marion, would tell of conspiracies by money-grabbing Easterners (a.k.a. New Yorkers) to build 50-story high monstrosities that hid the view of the city

from the poor, wage-earning San Franciscan.

Though I did not know Mr. Newhall personally, I knew him by reputation. He had nearly single-handedly made the Chronicle into the most important newspaper in the Bay Area. He was loved and respected by most journalists. He is not the type of editor who would permit a reporter to make up a story, I said with a tone of indignation.

Marion just rolled her eyes at me and began calling up the principals financing the Merchandise Mart to get permission to give the Chronicle reporter information about the building. Negotiations with land owners in the area were still under way and the principals were afraid that any preliminary information would end up costing them more money. If the existing land owners knew exactly where the building was going up and how large it would be, they could hold out for more money. We can't tell the Chronicle anything, Marion told me.

I relayed that information to the reporter. You'll be sorry, he said roughly.

The next day the Chronicle printed a front page story on how informed sources had told the paper that the Merchandise Mart would be so tall that it would hide the view of the Bay from homeowners living up around Coit Tower, one of the higher points of the downtown area.

The story was not true. Later that evening Scott Newhall came over to Marion's Pacific Heights house, her office was in the basement of the house, and she briefed him on the true facts about the Mart. My job was to go to the liquor store and obtain the bottle of scotch that Mr. Newhall favored. He'll only drink that label, Marion said.

The true story followed some days later, diffusing to some degree the group that had already rallied to fight the building project, which they had been led to believe would Manhattanize their beloved city.

This story came to mind when I thought about the recent disclosures concerning the Reagan administration's selling of arms to Iran and funneling the money to the Nicaraguan rebels.

I am certain Mr. Newhall was right. The charm of San Francisco needs to be protected. I am also certain that many knowledgeable people in America sincerely believe with Mr. Reagan that the Nicaraguan rebels should be supported by the United States. But in no way does that justify creating inaccurate stories to flush out the truth or lying to the American people.

There are always those who think they know what is best for the rest of us. And in many cases they are right in thinking that. The more talented people are more right than not. But that in no way morally justifies their lying to the rest of us. Also, I will guarantee you that people who operate on the I- know-what's-best-for-you attitude always will end up doing something stupid. The Greeks had a word for it. It's called hubris. And it gets you every time.

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