As life passes by, sometimes I think about the opportunities I missed, the people who left this world too soon. I wonder what they would have told me, the moments we could have spent together. I long for a chance to see them one last time. But the past is the past, what is done is done, and instead of feeling heavy-hearted, I choose to celebrate the person he was. For me, one such person is my grandfather, Pierre Salinger.
Pierre Salinger was born in San Francisco in 1925. As he grew up, he realized that he was fascinated by journalism, and he pursued his dream, joining the San Francisco Chronicle in 1941. However, World War II broke out, and he joined the United States Navy in 1943 at 18 years old, where he was deployed in the Pacific.
During this time, he was promoted to Commanding Officer of the boat he sailed on (he was only 19 years old, younger than everyone of his crew). He was later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for saving the lives of American sailors who were shipwrecked in the middle of a typhoon. After the war ended, Pierre went back to work for the Chronicle.
He joined John F. Kennedy’s senatorial staff in 1957. He became very close to the Kennedys, both professionally and personally. Salinger was JFK’s press secretary for the 1960 presidential campaign, and when Kennedy was elected (in 1961), Pierre was appointed as the White House press secretary.
In 1963, John Kennedy was assassinated. The Kennedys, along with Salinger, were devastated, but Pierre chose to stay as press secretary under the new president, Lyndon Johnson. After Johnson’s term came to an end in 1964, Salinger was appointed as a U.S. Senator from California, replacing the previous Senator who had died. When his term came to an end, Pierre Salinger ran for a full term, but lost the election.
After the loss of his senatorial seat, Pierre went to work with Robert Kennedy who was seeking the Democratic Presidential nomination of 1968. Kennedy won the nomination, but was assassinated. This was another terrible blow for Salinger, who went to live in France.
He returned to journalism and became a reporter for the French newspaper L’Express. In 1978, he joined ABC, which named him chief of the Paris bureau, and in 1983, Salinger was moved to London as the network’s chief foreign correspondent.
During this time, he was a very popular figure in journalism, especially in France. He obtained “exclusives” with world figures, including Fidel Castro, Grace Kelly, President Francois Mitterrand and the Egyptian business magnate Mohamed Al-Fayed, and served on a Cannes Festival jury.
He also explained American matters such as the Watergate scandal on French TV. Pierre was nicknamed “the most French of Americans.” In 1978, he was awarded France’s highest civilian honour, the Légion d’Honneur.
Pierre Salinger is also known for some of the greatest wartime stories of the late 20th Century. He earned a George Polk award in 1981 for his scoop, in which he reported that the United States was secretly negotiating for the release of the American hostages held by Iran.
In 1990, when the Gulf War broke out, ABC sent Pierre to the Middle East. There he obtained a transcript in Arabic between Saddam Hussein and the American ambassador in Iraq, in which the ambassador told Hussein “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts.” Saddam interpreted this as an indication that the U.S. would not intervene if Saddam invaded Kuwait, which he did days later, leading to the first Gulf War.
Pierre Salinger left ABC in the mid-1990s, but continued appearing on French media, especially television. He said that “If Bush wins, I’m going to leave the country and spend the rest of my life in France”, which he did after Al Gore’s defeat in 2001. He died in 2004 near Avignon, France.
I was only 5 years old when my grandfather died. I wish that I could ask him about his life, his adventures, his successes, his failures. I wish I could talk to him about his incredibly rich life. I wish all these things, but I’m incredibly grateful to remember him.
I’m grateful that I remember his kindness, his love. I’m grateful that I remember him playing the piano. I’m grateful that I remember his face, his imposing eyebrows, his broad smile, the cigar that had become a part of him. I’m grateful that I remember my grandfather, not only for what he did, but also for who he was.