As Obama Aide, Reporter Dons Flack Jacket
Monday, June 16, 2008
ST. LOUIS -- As Barack Obama started fielding questions at a hospital here last week, Linda Douglass stood off to the left, scribbling in a reporter's notebook, as she has in every presidential campaign since 1980.
It wasn't until 20 minutes later, when she shouted, "Last question!" that her former colleagues were reminded of her new role as a traveling spokeswoman who will be the public face -- a female face in this post-Hillary period -- of the campaign.
After three decades as a television correspondent, Douglass is now on the inside -- but still not getting all the answers. She recalls Obama telling her that he would not talk to her, let alone the outside world, about the vice-presidential selection process, saying: "We're locking it down, we're buttoning it up."
Which is fine with Douglass: "That was so the people who are trying to claw me every day won't get anything. I expect to be kept in the dark."
Douglass, 60, who did her share of clawing while working for ABC and CBS, may be the highest-profile TV reporter to jump into presidential politics since NBC's Ron Nessen became Gerald Ford's White House press secretary in 1974. In the modern era of sound-bite warfare, campaign spokesmen tend to be political operatives or, in a few cases, former media commentators, such as Tony Snow, President Bush's third press secretary.
Given her background, is Douglass, who covered John McCain's 2000 campaign, prepared to slam the presumed Republican nominee?
"I do like McCain and the people around him, and I consider him still to be a friend," she says. "But I have fundamental differences with John McCain on the issues and always have. I don't have any problem criticizing John McCain."
Describing her disagreements with the Arizona senator -- on the Iraq war, health care and the Bush tax cuts -- Douglass says: "It was no secret to the reporters around me that I have Democratic-leaning views. But they said I was always fair."
Douglass lives in Georgetown with her husband, lawyer John Phillips. He is an Obama donor, but it was she who was first intrigued by the freshman lawmaker in 2005, when she was covering the Senate for ABC. "I'd come home and say, 'This guy is really impressive. He's got an unusually calm demeanor. He's very smart and strikes me as someone with good judgment.' "
Douglass briefly offered Obama some debate advice in early 2007, while she was teaching at Harvard but before she joined National Journal. It wasn't until a 45-minute job interview with Obama last month that she decided to leave journalism for good.
"The thing that really made me feel at peace with the decision is this conversation we had about telling the truth," she says. "He wants me to tell the truth. Coming from a background in journalism as opposed to PR, that was really the thing I wanted to hear."
At first, "I was afraid I'd slip into on-one-hand/on-the-other-hand mode. I think reporters are constantly struggling with themselves to suppress their own opinions." Because she believes in Obama's message, Douglass says, "for me this is really liberating."