On the White House
Well, to coin a cliché, you really do cover history every day. We are writing the first draft of history, and what we write today will be in the history books tomorrow. So in that respect, I think you have a tremendous burden of truth, of accuracy and so forth. It's a great privilege to be able to watch history in the making, and that's what you have. We go into the Oval Office, the president can make a major announcement. Even war and peace, as we saw in the last year. Or else something you may think is relatively trivial. But almost everything that affects this country, everything that affects the world, comes to the White House. So it's a terrific beat.
Ordinarily, on a briefing day it would be like 75 reporters would come. But on a big news day, they hang from the rafters.
News never breaks on your time. During the Gulf war, I was coming in and still do in fact, come in at 5:30 in the morning, because half the day was over in the Gulf. It was playing catch-up for the hours you'd been sleeping. And you would never, as a reporter, you would never leave at a time when you think that a story is breaking. Just even if you had a hint that a story might break, you wouldn't leave. But many times, I'd just gotten home after a long day, and I go right back to the White House.
Well, you have to do it because that's where the story is, that's right. I think your job comes first as a reporter. It really does. It's a very harsh indictment in a way, especially for people who have family ties, and children and so forth, but at the same time, you can't say no. That's not a prerogative at all.
Well, there's PR here every day. They have a press spokesman, is a spokesman for the president of the United States, and spokesman, he is the press secretary at the White House, is spokesman for the president of the United States. Spokesman for the United States. Spokesperson for the federal government. And it can only be with pure intrepidness...at the same time, you know that they're very circumscribed in what they can say, what they do, they walk a tight line, and a tight rope, really.
Well, I think that they have to have as much credibility as we do. I think one, they should believe in what they're selling, and if they don't, it comes through. One way or another. You know, you have to have a certain sincerity about whatever you're trying to peddle. And I think that it can be a profession of high integrity and ethics. But it doesn't have that reputation and I think that you have to overcome that immediately by establishing real confidence, and public relations people can be very good sources if they tell you the truth.
I love my beat. I love covering the White House, I think I'm extremely privileged, honored, really. So covering all presidents, they have an automatic syndrome, they obviously hate the press. And, well, you can't blame them, there we are intruding, watching, they would love to blow a whistle, or snap a finger and have us come running when they need us. But that isn't the way this game is played. So for sheer excitement of never knowing what he was going to do next in his paranoid state, was LBJ. I went to Texas several times without even a toothbrush simply because the man was so secretive. But on the other hand, he was a great do-er. He did things, he cared, and there were lots of great contributions. Of course, Kennedy was terrific in the sense that there was this give and take, a very intellectual level, and wit, warmth. So every president had something interesting, and certainly were as interesting to cover.
I think that Bush is definitely a media president, he loves having press conferences, whereas Reagan was best at delivering the fixed speech, the text oral in front of him, the scripted and scenario down to the beginning and the end, and so forth. Bush really enjoys the give and take of a news conference, he drops in the press room here, it's very impromptu, and he feels he is on top of the news. He wants to show us he's not afraid of us and so forth, and he does very well.
THE KENNEDY YEARS
Well, the Kennedy years were hop, skip, and jump, we were constantly on the go. At the same time they were very uplifting because you really felt that there was a president who did have that vision thing, who really knew where he wanted the world to go, and who had some sense of the difference between war and peace. I suppose the classic story for me was that I had been covering Kennedy's baby, the delivery of John-John, at Georgetown Hospital. And day after day we would ambush President Kennedy when he would come to the hospital and when he'd leave, and he was doing it twice a day, going to see Jackie, and this was big stuff in this country, I mean, everybody was focused on it. It was almost like British royalty. So one day I was assigned to go to the Kennedy home on N Street in Georgetown, because Kennedy was going to see President Eisenhower to learn how to be president in two hours or something, this was all during the transition period before the inauguration. Kennedy came out his door, and he looked at me, and he had seen me so often at the hospital, he said, "You've deserted my child!" This is one of the classics. And once I walked into the Oval Office, and President Johnson said, "Helen, I'm looking for a woman ambassador" and I said, "I accept, Mr. President." He said, "That smart-alecky woman, she never knows when to stop!" (laughs) Well, I think that presidents should be challenged, they should be treated respectfully, but always with a certain amount of, I mean, you see them going up, and you see how hard they work to become president, and I've always believed that every little girl could be president, so....
Well, you know, you're really kind of limited in the White House, there's just usually a small group at the top who really know what's going on. You try to get to know them better and everything. Some reporters have real good sources. I can't put myself in that class, regrettably. Pick up the newspaper the next day and you say, "Why didn't I know this?" and so forth. But I think the Washington Post and the New York Times have tremendous clout. They can call someone and, especially if they wanna leak a story here, they know the New York Times, the Washington Post, they want Washington people, the top strata to see it. So they've got a lot going for them in that respect.
ASKING THE PRESIDENT QUESTIONS
...We have a golden opportunity. First place, the press, the press conference is the only forum in our society where a president can be questioned. And it's not in the Constitution, but it's an absolute necessity for democracy. And I think what's phenomenal was during the Gulf war, you saw kings submitting for the first time to interrogation. Prime ministers, everybody wanted to get in the act, and everybody was willing, wanted to be on television, wanted to be questioned. But that's absolutely necessary in a democracy, is to question a president, or anyone in power, since that's a question of accountability. Otherwise they wouldn't have to explain anything. And it's, this is the one point where you really should, a president could rule by edict, he could be a king, he could be a dictator, if he wasn't questioned, "Why did you do this" and so forth. I think many times, when you pass up that opportunity, then you've really lost the ball. And I think that we should always ask questions, burning questions of presidents. "Why did you do this, what are we going to do?" and so forth. And a lot of times I think we miss the boat.
...People in power have to be accountable. And they have to be accountable to us. "Us" meaning the American people, and we are but a transmission belt, literally. And we default when we don't ask the questions that the people want to know, 'cause they don't have any chance to do that. Except in public forums, sometimes, a president would have a, what shall I say, a "town hall" affair or something. So we have a big responsibility, a real burden to ask. You have to do it politely, you're not being disrespectful, they know, they're big boys when they get to be president, they have coveted the job, they shouldn't be afraid to answer the question. They can say, "No comment," they can say, "I can't answer that now but I'll try to get back at some point" but nevertheless, they should be asked.
I think that reporters have to ask questions. And I think they should ask the important questions, the questions the people wanna know, they should ask that impinge on public policy. They really are kind of the representative of the people in a way.
PREPARATION FOR A PRESS CONFERENCE
If you know a press conference is going to be held within a few hours or the next day, then you think about what is it that he usually it's a he, it has been a he in our history, but it may not always be that way, it may be someday she but anyway, the president, what has he been doing, where is, what is his policy, where is he headed, and I think it behooves a reporter to try to amplify this to get to the bottom of it, to make the president explain, or the city council president, or the mayor, or the governor, to explain what they're doing. And why.
Well, if someone asked a question you want to ask, you listen to the answer. There's always a loophole, there's always a follow-up. Main thing is, don't be so focused on what you were going to ask, don't be so self-inverted, you have to listen. You must listen to what they're saying. I think that it's very, very important you pick up the ball. No matter what. And say, "Do you mean this, or are you saying that, or what else?" and so forth. But you have to listen. A reporter has to listen to ask questions.
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