Adding Punch to the Press Corps

By Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 1995; Page D01

Naomi G. Nover was one of the more venerable members of the White House press corps, but she was not a sweet old lady.

Once in the White House briefing room during the Carter administration, Nover, who died Saturday at 84, took offense at Carl Leubsdorf's snickering. So she swung her massive purse repeatedly at the then-Baltimore Sun correspondent while chasing him into the lower press office, where he barricaded himself.

On another occasion, during the Reagan years, she encountered Los Angeles Times photographer Bernie Boston crouching in front of her as Mother Teresa posed with the president. Stooped, white-haired and well under five feet tall -- some claimed she resembled George Washington -- Nover was having difficulty with her low-tech camera.

"So," Boston recounts, "she proceeded to beat me over the head with her umbrella as President Reagan and Mother Teresa looked on in total amazement. . . . Once the arrival ceremony was over I took Naomi aside in the press room and said, You may be a little old lady. But if you ever beat me again, I will deck you.' "

In 1984, Nover accompanied Ronald and Nancy Reagan to the People's Republic of China, where they visited an archaeological dig in Xian. As was her custom, she pushed her way to the front, dragging her ever-present luggage cart and wielding her umbrella, while the Reagans stood below inspecting life-size terra-cotta figures. When a Chinese guard blocked her path, she began making a fuss, bitterly complaining in her thin, bleating voice. The guard raised his rifle menacingly, and Gary Schuster of the Detroit News came to her aid. "Verrry important person in our country," Schuster told the guard, and held up a dollar bill to point first at Washington's portrait, then at Nover. The guard, eyes widening, dropped his rifle and let her through.

When she died, Nover left behind a rich legacy of anecdotes concerning her eccentric, irritating and just plain impossible ways among the journalistic elite: her habit of not taking notes at news conferences but instead demanding that colleagues tell her what was happening at the very moment something important was being said; her custom of declaiming into her small tape recorder such observations as "The president is moving to the front of the room, he is bending over, he is straightening up, he is wearing a blue suit"; and her penchant for cursing and sobbing madly, to say nothing of throwing her purse, at whoever was denying her access to whatever grand event she was desperate to attend.

Her demeanor veered suddenly from demure to lethal, and people still marvel at the time she loudly prayed to God that He strike dead her desk mate in the Senate press gallery, the Baltimore Sun's Nancy Schwerzler. (Schwerzler's hair was apparently bothering her.) She'd been a not-always-welcome presence there and at the White House since the Nixon years on behalf of her tiny, mysterious Nover News Service, which in the last decade had no known clients.

But she also left behind a coterie of fierce detractors and grudging admirers -- and the certainty that reporters in hotel bars will be trading stories about her for a long time to come.

"Thinking of Naomi is almost a class reunion' experience," says Marlin Fitzwater, White House press secretary under Reagan and George Bush. "The facts and the characters get all mixed up, but she's like a bookmark for those of us who've passed through the presidency over the last 40 years."

"I like to think I've lived a full life," says National Public Radio honcho Bruce Drake. "I covered the White House for seven years {for the New York Daily News}. And if I had to list, in order of importance, the two people who had the most impact, the first would be Ronald Reagan and the second would be Naomi Nover. When I'm regaling people about my White House years, most of my stories are about Naomi."

"I loved her never-give-up spirit," says the redoubtable Helen Thomas of United Press International. "She had a tremendous intellectual curiosity. . . . Maybe the younger generation didn't quite understand why she was still around. But people like me and Sarah McClendon liked her, we all did, because we were trying to stick around ourselves."

"I've spent 30 years as a working journalist in Washington," says Andrew Glass of Cox Newspapers, "and there was always in the White House press room a tolerance for the oddball, for people who were not in the mainstream but added to the flavor and put some spice into the stew. Naomi was such a person. The war stories and zany experiences that Naomi provided, particularly on the foreign trips, leavened the long periods of terrific boredom, when all these exalted and overpaid people in the White House press corps were just twiddling their thumbs. But toward the end the tolerance level fell -- to the detriment of the organization."

"She'd be furious to know we were talking about her," says Ann McFeatters of Scripps Howard News Service. "Just furious!"

In the end she was legendary -- even in death: She collapsed in the Dirksen Senate Office Building while attempting to renew her congressional press pass, dying a week later. President Clinton, the last of 10 presidents to know her personally or by reputation, issued a statement this week praising "Naomi's years of dedication to her craft" and calling her "a lesson to us all in hard work and the persistence of the human spirit."

"Persistence," yes -- she certainly had that. But "craft" seems far too poor a word for Nover's sheer genius at drawing attention to herself.

She was born Naomi Goll in Buffalo on Christmas Day, 1910, attended the University of Buffalo and New York State Teachers College, married Buffalo News columnist Barnet Nover in 1934, and two years later moved to Washington, where her husband joined The Washington Post as a foreign policy columnist. Barnet Nover, and by extension his wife, were figures of consequence in the Washington of the 1930s and 1940s. They counted among their friends presidents, senators and Supreme Court justices, as well as Post publisher-to-be Philip Graham and his young bride, Katharine.

"When Phil and I were first married, before the war," recalls Katharine Graham, "Naomi was so appalled at how little I knew about housekeeping that she used to take me to the market. She taught me how to market and how to plan meals and how to, well, not quite how to cook. She really taught me how to keep house. . . . She was sweet and kind of lovely."

In 1947 Barnet Nover left the Grahams' employ to become bureau chief of the Denver Post, a position he held for 24 years. On retiring in 1971 he started the Nover News Service but died two years later. His widow was keeper of the flame, changing the formal name of the company to the Barnet Nover News Service and trying to service her dwindling accounts of client newspapers.

She had little hard journalism experience, although she had tried her hand at column writing and even at music criticism. Her lengthy entry in Who's Who, which is largely taken up by an exhaustive itinerary of her trips around the world with various presidents, notes that she attended the Goethe Music Festival in Aspen, Colo. Nover had received a master of arts degree from George Washington University, but her principal job experience had been as a teacher in the Washington, D.C., public schools. A newspaper clipping from September 1960 reveals that she retired as a sixth grade teacher at the Murch Elementary School after a group of parents demanded that she be transferred "from any position of direct teaching contact with children." The parents complained that she had "injected a climate of suspicion, unrest and distrust into the classroom."

"She had the same effect upon the children in the White House press corps on occasion," says Jody Powell, who was President Carter's press secretary. "I always thought of Naomi as an only in America' kind of thing. Here is this woman whose whole life clearly revolved around the White House press room, and as far as I knew there wasn't much else to her life. Even the people who had to put up with the difficulties -- and she could be very difficult -- came to realize that too."

Because he thought it would kill her, Powell, along with every other White House press secretary who dealt with Nover, declined to revoke her credentials, despite various reporters' repeated attempts to eject her from the press room. But ABC's Sam Donaldson, among others, was one of her stout defenders.

"I always liked Naomi," says Donaldson, who covered the Carter and Reagan White Houses. So much so, say numerous witnesses, that on foreign trips -- for which Nover typically paid cash in advance -- Donaldson often flirted outrageously with her. "OH NAOMI, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR YOU FOR HOURS!" Donaldson would usually boom at her on the press plane during Carter trips. She would blush and giggle, which only encouraged Donaldson to plead: "Ah, Naomi, Naomi, show me your creamy white thighs!" At which Nover would shriek and attempt to escape. Once, Donaldson chased her up and down the aisles, until she locked herself in a bathroom. Former Carter press aide Paul Costello remembers hearing her plaintive question from behind the bathroom door: "Is Sam Donaldson still out there?"

As time went on, Nover's behavior grew increasingly, well, unusual. She always wore one of two dresses -- the first navy blue with white piping on a V-neck collar, the second royal blue, ditto. Afraid of catching a disease from foreign cuisine, she insisted on carrying her own food, usually grapefruits and cans of tuna fish. During a stopover in Honolulu on the Reagan trip to China, Bruce Drake recalls peering out his hotel window to see Nover by the swimming pool, her food-stuffed suitcases at her feet, taking a hula-dancing lesson.

"At my first White House Christmas party for the press in 1981," recalls former Reagan image-meister Mike Deaver, "I remember this woman grabbing me by the arm and telling me, Mr. Deaver, I was just hit by a car in front of the White House and dragged six blocks!' I didn't know what to say, except, How awful!' That was my introduction to the White House press corps."

© 1995 The Washington Post Company