Radio's George Putnam Dies At 94; The White House on Wall Street

George Putnam Dies at 94

“George mentioned you on his show today!” exclaimed television and film actress Jeanine Jackson, who had stopped at a payphone in Los Angeles to call me in Washington with the news. She was breathless because the venerable Southern California-based radio talk show host George Putnam had quoted an article I had written in HUMAN EVENTS. To fans like Jeanine, that was probably more important than had I been called on by the President at a news conference. (On her birthday one year, friends got Putnam to call Jeanine and deliver best wishes in his signature FM voice; upon learning she stepped out, Putnam instead showered her husband with the flattery he had intended for the celebrant and inquired about their two black cats, Lambchop and Bathsheba).

That was the George Putnam I remembered upon learning of his death Sunday at age 94. A star on radio who went big-time after substituting for Walter Winchell, Putnam went on to be nearly as big as Winchell himself. In his era, he was the highest-paid television anchor in America (reportedly drawing a $200,000 yearly salary at his height in the 1950’s) to one of the first major broadcasters to deliver daily commentary and opinion apart from his news-presenting on radio and TV. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are big today, but before them was George.

He interviewed every President from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush and portrayed a newscaster in movies such as I Want To Live! and Independence Day. Older moviegoers will remember him sharing the narrator’s role with Lowell Thomas for Fox Movietone News.

But in going from a 1,000-watt station in Minneapolis at age 20 to the big-time, Putnam never forgot fans like Jeanine, a registered Democrat who disagreed with the talk show host on several issues but nonetheless loved his program. Or like “Friday Freddy” (a listener who called Putnam religiously on Fridays and talked about nearly everything; George listened to Freddy patiently, inquiring about his family and work in a church group. And he always sounded as though he was interested).

Former KABC-TV (Los Angeles) commentator Bruce Herschensohn recalled that after his defeat in the California U.S. Senate race in 1992, “one would think that the media would stop calling you. George not only called me, but invited me to be on his program whenever I wanted and to discuss whatever topic I chose. He introduced me without a note in front of him and with background details I had forgotten.”

Putnam was a solid conservative and this faithful reader of HUMAN EVENTS had my longtime editor Allan Ryskind and later me as frequent guests on his radio program. He raised a few hackles by defending the Los Angeles Police Department throughout the Rodney King scandal of 1992 and by increasingly raising the issue of illegal immigration in recent, rather stormy broadcasts.

But long before John McCain made the word popular, George was a maverick. He was unpredictable. The horseman who rode in the Tournament of Roses Parade on his palomino was passionate about animals and provided a shelter for abandoned pets at his ranch in Chino. Dubbing himself a “lifelong conservative Democrat,” George jolted me as I co-hosted a program with him in 1995 when he encouraged moderate GOP’er Colin Powell to run for President. Recalling his friendship with John Kennedy, George told the audience: “We broke down one barrier with his election in 1960. It’s time we broke down another today. “

When the young broadcaster moved from Minnesota to New York in the 1930’s, Putnam’s voice — booming, resonant, but as soft as velvet — caught the attention of Winchell, the most-listened to radio personality in America. When we discussed Neil Gabler’s insightful biography of Winchell a few years ago, Putnam told me that his friend “was a lonely man and only one person loved him, his secretary Rose. But he also launched my career. He made me.”

After subbing for Winchell and a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II, Putnam went with television in its infancy. It was 1948 when the DuMont network hired him to do six television commentaries a week from New York. Three years later, he went west and anchored the evening news on KTTV in Los Angeles. A staple of his newscasts was the “One Reporter’s Opinion”, in which Putnam delivered a brief editorial commentary. Retiring from TV news in 1976, he threw himself into daily radio commentary and talk shows, broadcasting right up until his 94th birthday July 14th.

“George wants to die in the studio, right in front of the mike,” a colleague of his told me. Although he didn’t do that, he came close. George Putnam blazed trails, mobilized the airwaves for unpopular opinion, and kept going for 74 years. Like legions of fans and friends, I will miss him very much.

"Major Regulatory Changes?"

What struck me following the briefing Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson gave my fellow White House correspondents and me Monday was just how little he said about where the Administration is headed amid the latest chapter in the saga of failing markets on Wall Street and throughout the world.  In other words, Paulson did fine in explaining how we got there, but not where we need to go.

The briefing began when Press Secretary Dana Perino told us, "Obviously, one of the biggest stories of the day is what’s happening in our financial market.  Secretary Paulson has graciously given us some of his time today — he doesn’t have an endless supply of it, so please keep that in mind, and we’ll try to let him answer as many questions as he can before he needs to go."  And sure enough, he was gone in fifteen minutes.

Colleague Jim Axelrod of CBS News asked what a number of us had planned to ask: after the Bear-Stearns collapse and now Lehman Brothers, "what kind of regulation" is destined for the financial industry in the future?

"Well, I think there’s got to be a balance between regulation and market discipline," replied Paulson, "You can’t rely on one to solve the problem, but it’s going to have to be streamlined and more effective regulation.  And there’s major changes that we need, and we also need major authorities to wind down financial institutions that aren’t banks, aren’t deposit — aren’t federal institutions with deposit insurance.  We need resolutions and authorities to let us deal with situations like Lehman Brothers."

A little vague, but we get the point.  There is going to be fresh regulation of some kind in the near future.

Pressed for specifics by another reporter, the Treasury secretary went on say that, "in the intermediate and longer term, clearly we need a — we’re going to need major regulatory changes, and I’ve spoken a lot about that.  And we could use additional authorities to deal with non-bank financial institutions.  But again, that’s going to take longer for Congress to do.  And right now we’re working with the tools we have, and what you’re finding is that the Fed, the SEC, Treasury, the FDIC — we’re all working together and we’re going to do what’s necessary to protect this system with the tools we have."

Translated:  the regulatory changes are going to be significant and institutions that aren’t banks are going to be covered by new regulations.  But that’s up to Congress.  Details to follow.

On the same day, a number of Paulson’s colleagues at the Treasury Department were assuring investors and financiers that things were not as bad as the business reports make them out to be — that 91% of mortgages are being paid on time, that 6% more are at most two months overdue, that the Administration does not consider what is happening in the economy a recession unless there are two months of negative economic growth, and the housing crisis will probably ease next year and thus the bruises on the U.S. economy worldwide will go into a healing process.

If they truly believe that at Treasury, then Paulson’s talk of fresh regulation is a bit out of place.  Perhaps Sebastian Malaby summed it up more aptly than the official voices at Treasury when he wrote in the Washington Post: "The challenge over the next year or so is to preserve the good parts of the system whle embracing necessary change.  Paulson’s willingness to throw the dice has made the world holds its breath, but it shows that he knows what the stakes are."