The Secret Pleasures of the White House Press

Randolph, Eleanor

The Secret Pleasures of the White House Press by Eleanor Randolph Years ago, when I told my mother that I intended to become a newspaper reporter in my hometown, she showed a sign of distress...

...The Early Evening Hours These are the moments that do not become part of the daily public news but headline the early evening hours when reporters meet at their favorite bar, The Class Reunion...
...I want to explain why all of us find ourselves over at the White House occasionally, feeling strangely proud while writing some of the lowest dog-easy copy that journalism has ever known...
...I would miss knowing that Jimmy Carter has fired Arthur Bums a few minutes before anybody who owns a working radio would know it...
...It was one of those occasions in President Carterís recent history as chief of state when he was still trying to get close to ďthe people...
...I learned later that I was the only one who wasnít quick enough to remember that if you go to church with the President on Easter Sunday morning, it means you have to get out of bed...
...Wilkie: You just fired the translator...
...She thought what 1 had been trying to resist thinking-that if 1 had that pass, 1 had to be important...
...I prefer to live under the When I left the White House 45 illusion that I write about it, not run minutes later, after my appointment it...
...Then, on the way home, as always on trips with the President, there was Shannon Airport...
...It says Trip of the President in huge letters, below which there is a presidential seal, below which there is my name, in perfect letters...
...It is a long, rectangular room decorated in the kind of furniture that people usually buy shortly after giving birth to their fifth son...
...It can be seductive over there past the wroughtiron gates, even if journalistically it would be a lot more fun covering a 32 nice, old-fashioned bank robbery...
...I would not be in on the private feuds, like the recent one when CBS refused to televise Jimmy Carterís speech on the Panama Canal...
...I can say with the authority that comes only from personal observation that Helmut Schmidt sometimes wears a dark, pinstriped suit...
...She doesnít know I drink...
...This does not happen because of the quality of the Irish fuel...
...Wilkie: My mother may read it [laughter...
...He closed the door of the booth and looked through a sheaf of papers...
...They are often too busy reporting simply that itís happening...
...The White I-b~se ConesPondentís life is full of ingratiating little touches like that...
...There are other reasons for doing this kind of work besides the fact that itís easy...
...There are those who went on the trip who will tell their grandchildren about the feast the Shah of Iran provided for the White House press corps on New Yearís Eve...
...reporters are part of the court, and many of them know it-if not beforehand, certainly by the time they get abroad...
...Then the CBS executives might think it was entertainment and cover it...
...Reporting on the President of the United States (especially this President) is, as far as I can see, not much different from covering city hall...
...Of course, I sometimes worry about this position and whether it allows some of us to understand the larger trends...
...It can be a breathtaking brush with war and peace and other forms of history...
...Iíve never been invited to one-either because 1 donít cover the White House full time, because Iím not in very a brief, unremarkable session except that after it was Over I knew do as press secretary than all the people who read the N~~ york l-irnes good Odor with the President, Or because they havenít gotten around to entertained a number of reporters at state dinners, including Jack Germond about how Ron Nessen was going to me- Recently, the White House has or the Washington Post stories about of The Washington Star, Sam Donaldhis appointment...
...Powell: I had a lot, but I didnít file...
...However, there were signs of action and my official laminated White House pass and achieve a kind of instant governmental acceptance...
...Indeed, itís true that there are newsmen and women, who will go unnamed because I have to see them again, who derive their careers from those daily briefings...
...The coffee tables important, and if I was in on what was are made of some kind of stainless going on in there, I was important steel and have been worn over the too...
...Traveling with the President is more than just covering a moving head of state...
...It doesnít hurt that sometimes reporters can get tickets to White House tours for their children or personalized photos of the President signed by several staff members who are government-approved experts at forging their chief executiveís signature...
...I wanted to come back because members of the White House press for the long, dreary hours spent in that dark pressroom...
...I was around last year, for example, when Helmut Schmidt came over to visit Jimmy Carter...
...Some of them explain that the White House beat is the highest you can go in the news business without opting out to become a flack or, worse, an editor...
...It also doesnít hurt that the White House press corps is full of funny, odd people who play tricks on each other or turn a good phrase now and then or privately make fun of some of our former world leaders (one news magazine writer who covers the White House does a very good imitation of the late Generalissimo Franco, who apparently walked the way Charlie Chaplin would have walked if his legs had been bound at the knees...
...possible since then...
...Powell: I certainly regret any personal discomfort that my comments may have caused...
...This has been called the desire to have a front-row seat in the theater of history, which is a good position because it is far enough away that you donít get blamed for anything but still close enough to write a book about it...
...The Secret Pleasures of the White House Press by Eleanor Randolph Years ago, when I told my mother that I intended to become a newspaper reporter in my hometown, she showed a sign of distress that I had come to know well over the years: she put her head in her hands and quietly lamented the loss of the $10,000 she and my father had borrowed to send me to college...
...One editor had married the town stripper, who occasionally locked the house on him, which forced him to keep his clothes in the bottom drawer of the city desk...
...I saw Schmidt through several rows of elbows, a web of television microphones, and a brigade of Secret Service agents...
...CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer asked Jody Powell what the President would be wearing for that speech-a business suit, or slacks and a cardigan sweater...
...It was the most successful job of flacking by the American press under the influence of vodka that I have seen for some time.í Are you serious...
...State dinners, for example...
...On the other hand, most of the truly good reporters I know at the White House, like Charles Mohr and James Wooten, former New York Times White House correspondents, or Curtis Wilkie of The Boston Globe or Sam Donaldson of ABC, spend their days tracking down elaborations of the dayís news...
...An Ominous Moment My first trip to the White House was in 1974...
...Powell: Once again, I was somewhat misquoted in the Boston Globe [laughter], I did indicate, as I have to several of you before that I thought that was a right interesting party that they had over there and I did convey what was a misimpression that there was a fair amount of vodka being consumed and a fair amount of flacking going on...
...The chairs are sturdy...
...For the healthy, a gym bag in Riyadh...
...We in the White House press corps do whatís sometimes a not-sointeresting job partly because it impresses practically everybody we come into contact with-friends, family, colleagues...
...There were also salads and some unusual-looking vegetables...
...I would tell you the brand and the year, but unfortunately I drank several large glasses of it and can only remember that it was red...
...Little Treats But foreign trips are another thing altogether...
...and it was not air-conditioned...
...Petersburg, Florida, I witnessed a beauty contest where the winner of the talent competition styled seven wigs...
...Now, when I approach the northSigns of Impending Action west gate, there are people standing in the rain the way I stood four years That afternoon, as I walked in, the ago, but Iím not one of them...
...I recall an occasion when I had to rush over to the White House because our correspondent was on assignment that day...
...In fairbecause after I had told the Ron ness, I must say that presidential trips Nessen story a few times it would get are considered a kind of reward to old...
...Finally, one guard picked up the phone and called inside...
...So my mother had come by her view of newspaper people as ďdifferentĒ and ďunpredictableĒ honestly...
...I would also miss the little things that are seldom written about until the books by all my friends with more permanent seats on the front row of history start coming out...
...It may also be the closest I will ever get to convincing Eastern Airlines to stop abusing my luggage...
...And back in the States, thereís no trouble with customs, because the press plane has its own customs official aboard...
...These stories are difficult, but they are the kind of work that many White House correspondents would prefer to do...
...Wilkie: As opposed to being a mother [laughter.] Ē It is being able to tell little stories like that that helps lure me back, long after I have complained to everyone I know about how dismal and dreary and demeaning it is over there...
...Itís also a good way to get on the front page or on the nightly news...
...I stood at the glass-lined booth at the northeast gate and gave my name and driverís license to a guard...
...Once in Chicago I had to cover a fire in February...
...One reporter who was unaccustomed to such expensive welcomes figures the hotel spent about $40 per journalist...
...Howwithin a few minutes the room was ever, 1 do recall on one occasion being filled with one of the strangest assort- unable to control a small quiver of emotion when a tourist saw my press merits of People I have ever seen* pass and took a picture of me...
...with Mrs...
...My favorite recent one concerns my friend Curtis Wilkie of the Boston Globe who was incensed a few weeks ago when Jody Powell told a Boston audience that the press had made such a big deal of the bloopers of President Carterís interpreter in Poland because of all the iced vodka the reporters had been drinking that evening...
...The first was to Calhoun, Georgia, where the President and I and about 20,000 other people spent Easter with his oldest son...
...For reasons of time, the limits of human energy, and, especially, the limits of understanding in the home office, most White House correspondents donít explain why something is happening at the White House...
...Powell: It is now confirmed that Wilkie has a mother [laughter...
...Into this menagerie strode President Gerald Ford...
...Why do top-notch reporters, and some not so top-notch reporters, spend so much time as presidential stenographers...
...The press room, then as now, is not a grand place...
...Still, the good as well as the bad must spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for the briefing, living through it, and then deciding whether itís worth writing about...
...Another time in St...
...I had been sent to interview Betty Ford as a kind of preview of a visit she planned to make to Chicago...
...I try, of course, not to do it pridefully...
...For the squeamish, bottled mineral water in India...
...I wanted to come back compared to presidential trips...
...Some people plot their careers according to what will sound most impressive at their college reunion...
...my old neighborhood...
...I was told that nothing would happen, but shortly after I arrived, President Ford appeared with a heavy heart and a prepared statement...
...In short, there are a lot of reasons for covering the White House besides the job...
...Sometimes it is the less heady feeling of knowing that Johnson talked dirty or Kennedy liked girls or Ford looks more like a monkey in person than on television and Carter looks shorter and older in the Rose Garden than he does on the nightly news...
...Perhaps because that is so easy and perhaps because most newspapers want their White House correspondents to follow these daily events, it is not often that one of the members of the White House press corps has the time to sit back and tell what itís really like, the way Jim Wooten did, for example, when he compared Jimmy Carterís work style to that of his mentor, Admiral Hyman Rickover...
...For her only daughter to be a newspaper reporter edged precariously close to being a family scandal...
...And for the drinkers (at least somebody knew what journalists are really like), native vodka in Poland...
...When the press corps went to London last year, the plane left London and stopped at Shannon a few hundred miles later to refuel...
...Here is the exchange between Wilkie and Powell, without elaboration, from the White House briefing records: ďWilkie: Jody, I rise on a point of personal privilege [laughter...
...There was booze and wine and champagne, and someone had provided silly hats...
...The statement said that he had just fired Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz for talking dirty...
...He had descended into the press room, which is about 60 feet from the oval Office, to announce fie appointment of his new press secretary-a smiling Ron Nessen, who had Once been a television newsman covering the White House...
...Because I have not spent much time there, due in some degree to the general level of humanity of my bosses, I have only taken two presidential trips...
...A lot of the people were there that night in Yazoo City...
...It was Same way I feel when I get my Christmas card from Jimmy and Rosalynn...
...Hotels that cater to the White House press corps traditionally leave little treats in these distinguished visitorsí rooms...
...it was summer...
...To the extent that I cover the White House, a task that my editors at The Chicago Tribune ask me to do occasionally, I am a success back in Eleanor Randolph is a reporter for The Chicago Tribune...
...Her reaction was understandable in the Southern town I came from, a place where the resident newspapermen left a wake of disrepute wherever they went...
...If they let boys in the press room would be a those folks in, I figure, Iím hostile one...
...I have had a lot worse jobs in the newspaper business...
...The temperature rose to 120 degrees, which sent most of the press scurrying into an air-conditioned back room to watch Carter on television just like the rest of America...
...Then he directed me to the White House press room...
...I flash room was fairly empty except for a large man who sitting on one of the couches and slowly flipping his Cigar ash on the mg...
...He then emerged with a pass that had to be clipped onto my suit, and he said the pass could never be out of sight...
...Shannon has for many years had whatís considered the best duty-free shop in Europe, with the best deal available on Wedgewood china, Waterford crystal, and so on...
...For them, the daily feeding is little more than a snack...
...The next morning my story dominated our front page...
...Some of the more candid correspondents admit they do it because it impresses people-sometimes even people in Washington...
...Some of the reasons, as I have mentioned, are not really as grandiose as we would like to believe-the desire for approval by my parents after all these years, the desire for a nice picture of me and Jimmy Carter for my bathroom wall, the realization that even if d donít have anything important in my life, I could at least watch something important...
...My second trip was to Yazoo City, Mississippi...
...I knew it because one of Of course, my reporterís intuitive his former colleagues in the television sense of ethics tells me that even if I industry was standing next to me got such an invitation I would refuse during that announcement, and every it...
...Shannon is the airport in Ireland where presidential press planes refuel on the way back to the U.S...
...the state...
...Also, 1 donít have a long dress...
...Still, I succumb...
...Covering the White House is better than those things, and sometimes it can even be enlightening, important, and educational...
...The sofas are made of industrialstrength naugahyde...
...He made it sound like an honor...
...The other advantage was a laminated tag that they gave me for my suitcase...
...Ford, I knew I wanted to But the state dinners are nothing come back...
...Now I donít want to appear to be complaining...
...It was a school gym...
...Someone made the mistake of carpeting the floor with a corn-yellow carpet that sometimes takes on the look of a cocker spaniel who has been what was going on in there seemed rolling in fresh mud...
...I have never been able to bring myself to remove 34 that tag from my suitcase, in part because it may be the closest 1 will ever come to the white-hot center of American power...
...As Washingtonís huge corps of press critics has repeatedly pointed out, news of the White House is usually fed to a complacent circle of reporters who dutifully swallow whatever the press secretary tells them...
...itís about why they do them at all...
...It came as some relief in my hometown, then, when I was awarded my White House press pass two years ago, and, shortly afterwards, the back of my head made its first appearance on national TV...
...I came very close to confessing that once I almost got arrested for picketing Richís department store in Atlanta...
...Wilkie: You had a lot...
...Being introduced at a state dinner time Nessen would complete a sen- somehow makes it appear that you are tence this man would whisper, not really a part of the administration of entirely to himself, ďyou horseís ass...
...But covering the White House can be a lot more fun to talk about with the people back home in Northwest Florida than it is to actually do...
...The Yazoo City trip did have two small seductions, however...
...Reporters arenít the only people in the world who are afflicted with this malady...
...Piled on a long table was lamb, roast beef, fish, shrimp, chicken, turkey, pork, and, of course, caviar...
...It was an ominous moment...
...We have suffered under the pieties of the President for some time, but I take exception to your piety last night in Boston where you are reported as saying that, in Poland, Ďthe verbal slips of Carterís American translator were overemphasized, Powell said, because most of the American press was drunk on well-chilled Polish vodka...
...First, the wine on the White House press plane is very good...
...Another, a constant smoker, fell asleep one night in a sleazy motel and nearly burned up the townís entire one-block red light district...
...But the most important reason for staying in the White House press room is the feeling that you are in the middle of things...
...Some people take grueling vacations so they can get the satisfaction of telling their friends about them later...
...I can speak with great expertise about the area of Helmut Schmidt between his collar and his right shoulder...
...The reasons include, for some, the easiness of the work-which requires a lot of energy, but not much of the vast journalistic talent that some of us like to think we possess...
...Then he called over another guard, who peered through the booth at me...
...There were towering cakes and puddings, fancy sauces, bowls of dark chocolate syrup and marshmallow cream...
...My stock in the family rose dramatically...
...The desire to live life for the stories you can tell is present in almost everybody...
...I would miss the one-liners, like the jokes last year about Prime Minister Desai of India, who drinks his own urine...
...My parents still call sometimes and ask me, with obvious pride, how the President is doing...
...Why They Do Them This isnít a story about how well White House reporters do their jobs...
...It was his way of telling me that this moment of trust had its limits...
...1 knew that the son of ABC, Judy WoodruffofNBC, relationship between Ron and the and stan Cloud of Time...
...The only major difference between them, in fact, is that the White House sounds better...
...Likewise, on the last trip, when the plane left Brussels, it stopped an hour later at Shannon, once again to refuel...
...In a profession that has no respect, the title White House Correspondent may be as close as some of us will ever come to ordinary dignity...
...Sometimes, it is the heady feeling that just down the hall the President of the United States is quietly changing the world by trying to talk the Israelis and the Arabsinto trying to talk or looking for a way not to be impeached or trying to end the Vietnam war or trying to start the Vietnam war or trying not to pass the buck or not to buck the militaryindustrial complex...
...When the President arrived they turned off the fans so the audience could hear, and they turned on the television lights so the rest of the nation could watch...
...On the latest jaunt-seven countries in nine days-there was some small gift at each stop along the way...
...Weíre thinking of dressing him in a dancing costume,Ē Powell replied...
...I could do without the Wedgewood and the Shahís New Yearís Eve party, but if my bosses decide to banish me from the White House I would miss it...
...It was not a great news weekend, as I recall, but the deputy press secretary, Rex Granum, called to wake me up one afternoon to inform me that I had been chosen as the Presidentís pool reporter for Easter Sunday...
...it was fdled to above capacity...
...I realized that I wanted to come years by so many journalistic feet back for all the wrong reasons, and I (and bottoms) that they look like have resisted the urge as often as small pieces of an old freighter...
...When Ford went to Paris in 1975, there was Pierre Cardin perfume, wine, brandy, and champagne...
...It reminds me of stories about Mayor Richard J. Daley, who never liked to tell reporters when his press conferences would be...
...He preferred that they wait in the press room for his call-a practice that had the added advantage of keeping newsmen from leaving the press office and perhaps stumbling on some tidbit Daley didnít want to get out...
...1 felt then the did not look like People write for 25 major newspapers and the three big networks* They looked like people who frequently write letters to the editor...
...it just takes different forms...
...It can also be a good way of getting free trips...

Vol. 10 • March 1978 • No. 1


 
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