An honored friend of France

Outspoken journalist and onetime JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger, who died Saturday in his adopted homeland, is remembered for "genius and judgment in the art of communication."

Published October 18, 2004 1:42PM (EDT)

Pierre Salinger, former press secretary to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and France's "most French of Americans," died of heart failure Saturday. He was 79.

He died in a hospital near his home of Le Thor, outside Avignon, France, after recent surgery to fit a pacemaker, his wife, Nicole, said. The couple moved to the Vaucluse to run a B&B when George W. Bush won the 2000 election. "He was very upset because he thought Bush was not fit to be president," Nicole Salinger told the Associated Press. "He said he would leave if Bush became president, and he did."

Salinger was outspoken but cultivated, and had a distinguished career with ABC News after serving two Democratic presidents. Born to a French mother in San Francisco in 1925, he had two years on the San Francisco Chronicle before joining the U.S. Navy in 1943. Salinger returned to the paper after the war, then moved to Collier's magazine, and joined Kennedy's senatorial staff in 1957.

A trusted member of the Kennedy clan's circle, Salinger was JFK's press secretary for the 1960 presidential campaign. He was White House press secretary from 1961 to 1964, ran the first live TV presidential news conference in 1961, and stayed on at the White House after Kennedy's 1963 assassination. After a brief spell as a senator, he returned to journalism in 1964.

Kennedy, Salinger once said, "was not a perfect man ... For all his loftiness of purpose, he did not take himself that seriously. He had no great vision of himself as a political or intellectual giant."

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, the late president's brother, told the A.P. Sunday: Salinger "was a steady presence in the best and most difficult of times, and many members of my family sought his counsel on all of the most important issues of the day.

"His skill, genius and judgment in the art of communication were legendary."

Horrified by the killing of Robert Kennedy, Salinger moved to France and worked for the newsweekly L'Express before becoming ABC's bureau chief in London and Paris and then the organization's chief foreign correspondent. He spent a total of 19 years in the French capital, and in 1978 was awarded France's highest civilian honor, the Légion d'Honneur.

The French prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, paid tribute to a "passionate journalist and writer ... [who] contributed unfailingly, through his action and his talent, to improving the ties of friendship which unite our two countries."

Salinger won several prizes, including a George Polk Award, for his 1981 scoop that the U.S. was secretly negotiating to free the Americans held hostage by Iran. In the 1990s he repeatedly questioned the official lines on two air crashes, claiming the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency operation that went wrong, and that TWA Flight 800 was shot down near Long Island, N.Y., by a stray U.S. Navy missile in 1996.

He was hugely popular in France, known for his near-perfect command of the language, strong American accent and love for the Gallic way of life. He quoted Thomas Jefferson's dictum: "Every man has two countries -- his own, and France." However, he always said the country would benefit from "the exigencies of American democracy." The outcome of Watergate, forcing Richard Nixon to resign in 1973, would be "unimaginable" in France, Salinger said.

He is survived by Nicole, his fourth wife, and sons Stephen and Gregory. He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.

By Jon Henley

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