Frances Lewine; Pioneering Journalist With Associated Press

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

Frances Lewine, 86, White House correspondent for the Associated Press during the administrations of six presidents who led the fight against discrimination in the journalism profession, died Jan. 19 after an apparent stroke at her home in Washington.

Ms. Lewine, who since 1981 has been an assignment editor and field producer for Cable News Network, was one of seven women who filed a class-action lawsuit against the AP in 1978. It resulted in a $2 million settlement and forced changes in the wire service's policies on salaries, assignments, promotions, pensions and hiring.

"She was a largely unsung pioneer for women in journalism and role model for myself and thousands of other women who tried to follow in her footsteps," said Edie Lederer, the AP's chief correspondent at the United Nations.

Ms. Lewine, who would have been 87 on Jan. 20, was recovering from an operation for a blocked carotid artery two weeks ago but was about to return to her full-time CNN job.

A stickler for accuracy, she taught many young journalists the ropes and was known for staking out the Sunday morning talk-show sets to query newsmakers as they left.

"All the politicians who wouldn't stop for anyone else would stop for her, because they knew her," said Linda Deutsch, AP's legal affairs reporter. "She would ask the toughest questions, but with a smile on her face."

For years, Ms. Lewine and Helen Thomas, then of the rival United Press International, competed head-to-head on major Washington stories. The two wire services provided news to virtually every newspaper, radio and television station in the nation. Worried about being scooped by the other one, the two reporters kept each other in sight at all times.

"We were inseparable, very competitive," Thomas said. "At the end of the day, we always went out to dinner and were friends. But if either of us had an exclusive, it stayed an exclusive."

A woman who competed at the highest level of the profession when women weren't easily accepted as full-fledged news reporters, Ms. Lewine became the first woman to be a full-time White House reporter for the AP. But that position didn't come easily.

She came to Washington in 1956 to cover the activities of first ladies and the Washington social scene, and her "working attire was often an evening dress," she said. She found an apartment near downtown, and when big news broke, she'd be among the first to the scene.

"Say it's a Saturday and President Nixon has an Oval Office press conference, and you're there. You'd get kudos for what you did, but they'd never consider that you could do it again," she told author Kay Mills for "A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page" (1988).

She was one of the leaders of women's efforts to gain admission to the National Press Club's luncheons, where newsmakers often gave speeches that resulted in stories. Women were relegated to the balcony, toting their own brown-bag lunches, while men dined in comfort below. "The slow drip drip method," as Ms. Lewine called it, took until 1971 to wear down the tradition.

A similar campaign was founded around the Gridiron Club, the exclusive group of journalists and politicians that excluded women from its annual event. Ms. Lewine founded the "Counter-Gridiron," a blue-jeaned, hot-dog-and-beer party held in a gym. After three such parties, the Gridiron relented, accepting women as guests and then admitting Thomas as its first female member and Lewine as its second.

Ms. Lewine left the AP in 1977 to join the Carter administration as deputy director of public affairs in the Department of Transportation, until Carter left office in 1981.

"When President Reagan was shot, I walked over to CNN that day and asked to help," Ms. Lewine said in a 2005 article in a newsletter for Time Warner, CNN's parent company. "My claim to fame was, I found out what type of gun was used. They paid me $80 for my work."

She was born Jan. 20, 1921, in New York City and grew up in the Far Rockaway section in an extended family household that included her first cousin, Richard Feynman, who later won the Nobel Prize in physics.

Ms. Lewine graduated from Hunter College in New York and worked for the Plainfield (N.J.) Courier-News and then the Newark bureau of the AP.

From Washington, she traveled with the presidential and vice presidential press corps on overseas trips and quickly displayed the derring-do of journalistic legend.

When Jacqueline Kennedy's staff tried to keep reporters away during a trip to Athens, Ms. Lewine rented a 54-foot yacht with several other reporters and followed her from island to island, keeping track of her activities by listening in on ship-to-shore radio.

Thomas said she was "fearless" and "had great integrity. She had tremendous institutional knowledge about the White House, and her questions were always great."

At a televised news conference in the 1970s, Ms. Lewine asked President Gerald Ford if he agreed with his administration's advice urging federal officials not to patronize segregated facilities. He said he did. Then she asked why he played golf every week at Burning Tree Country Club, which refused to admit women.

She was a member of Executive Women in Government, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Journalism and Women Symposium. She was elected to the Washington Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Fame and to the Hunter College Hall of Fame.

Ms. Lewine had a memorable work ethic.

"I don't understand people who quit," she said in the Time Warner newsletter article. "We have the best jobs in the world. I have a front-row seat to history. What are you going to do that's possibly better than this?"

In October, she was awarded the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism from the University of Missouri's School of Journalism.

"In times like these, when the credibility of our nation and our president often comes into question, it is the reporter on the scene that can raise issues and put the spotlight on problems so the nation can address them," she said in her acceptance speech.

"Reporters should understand that they have an obligation to search for the truth and to stand in the front line in holding governments and officials accountable for their actions."

She had no immediate survivors.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company