Image: Pierre Salinger
AP file
White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger poses in his office at the executive mansion in Washington, D.C. in a 1961 file photo. Salinger served as President John F. Kennedy's press secretary and later had a long career with ABC News.
updated 10/17/2004 9:23:08 PM ET 2004-10-18T01:23:08

Pierre Salinger, who served as President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary and later had a long career with ABC News, has died at a hospital in southern France. He was 79.

Salinger died Saturday from heart failure following surgery last week at a hospital in Cavaillon to implant a pacemaker, his wife, Nicole “Poppy” Salinger, told The Associated Press Sunday in a telephone interview.

Mrs. Salinger, spoke from Le Thon, near Avignon in the Provence region, where the couple moved four years ago to run a bed-and-breakfast inn.

She said her husband decided to move to France because he was so deeply opposed to the presidency of George W. Bush.

“He was very upset because he thought Bush was not fit to be president. He said he would leave if Bush became president and he did,” Mrs. Salinger said.

He did the same in 1968 after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, she said. “He said, ‘They’re killing all the Kennedys, and he left,” she said.

The cultured and outspoken Salinger rose from the ranks of newspaper journalism to become press secretary to John F. Kennedy and eventually a trusted member of the family’s inner circle. He and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stayed in contact for many years following her husband’s assassination, Mrs. Salinger said.

Salinger, who also served as press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, said Kennedy was a “special man” who surrounded himself with advisers who “believed in each other” and in a common mission.

“There was no barrier on the president’s door,” Salinger wrote in McCall’s magazine in 1988. “Any of his dozen principal staffers could see him when they wanted to. They didn’t need permission from a chief of staff to gain access.”

Leap to TV
A longtime print journalist, Salinger switched to television reporting when he joined ABC in 1977. In the years following he worked as the network’s Paris bureau chief, chief foreign correspondent and senior editor in London.

Video: Pierre Salinger dead He had left the network by 1997, when he became a prominent backer of the theory that TWA Flight 800, which crashed off Long Island in 1996 on a flight to Paris, was accidentally brought down by a Navy missile.

Salinger had said at the time that a government document showed the Navy was testing missiles off the coast of New York and had been told planes would be flying higher than 21,000 feet. The Navy was unaware that Flight 800 was flying at 13,000 feet because another commercial plane was flying above it, he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board found no evidence of a missile strike. It concluded that Flight 800 was destroyed by a center fuel tank explosion, probably caused by a spark from a short-circuit in the wiring that ignited vapors in the tank.

Salinger’s oldest son, Stephen, said his father’s health had declined noticeably when he last saw him at his home in France four weeks ago.

Although his eyes twinkled at a gift of his favorite Punch Punch Cuban cigars, “his vocabulary was limited to only a few words,” Stephen Salinger said from his home in Los Angeles. “That was OK, because among the few words he could still remember and words every son wants to hear. He said ’I love you.”’

“It’s the first time in my life I wasn’t going to receive a prognosis on the upcoming election,” Stephen Salinger said.

Mrs. Salinger said her husband suffered from aphasia and was not able to speak, but otherwise was very aware of his surroundings and recognized and enjoyed the company of his friends and family.

Journalistic roots
Born on June 14, 1925, in San Francisco, Pierre Emil George Salinger first worked on the editorial staff of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1942 to 1943. He resigned from the newspaper to enlist in the Navy, where he commanded a sub chaser in the Pacific during World War II. He was honorably discharged with the rank of lieutenant in 1946.

Salinger, who graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1947, returned to the Chronicle after the war before leaving to join Collier’s Magazine as a contributing editor in 1955. Two years later, he joined Kennedy’s senatorial staff and served as his press officer in the 1960 presidential campaign.

Kennedy, Salinger 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.”

But Salinger said Kennedy learned from his mistakes, citing private correspondence between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev that he said showed “two leaders of confrontational powers groping toward understanding.”

Once while he was press secretary, a journalist asked him directly about Kennedy’s sex life, Salinger said in a 1993 Washingtonian interview.

“I gave him a 1960s answer, not a 1990s answer: ‘Look, he’s the president of the United States. He’s got to work 14 to 16 hours a day. He’s got to run foreign and domestic policy. If he’s got time for mistresses after all that, what the hell difference does it make?’ The reporter laughed and walked out. That was the end of the story. For sure, I couldn’t get away with that in the ’90s.”

After Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Salinger served under Johnson before being appointed to complete the term of Sen. Clair Engle, D-Calif., who died in office. But Salinger lost his 1964 bid to keep the job to one-time Hollywood song-and-dance man George Murphy.

After his political career, Salinger worked as a correspondent for the French news magazine L’Express and later for ABC.

Salinger, whose mother was French, lived some 19 years in Paris, although he later made his home in New York. In 1978, the French awarded him the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian honor, for increasing understanding between the two nations.

He is survived by his fourth wife, Nicole, and two sons, Stephen and Gregory. He had two other children who died, his wife said.

Salinger’s wish was to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery following Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., his wife said.

Associated Press writers Chaka Ferguson in New York and Chris T. Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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