The adrenalin is up. The briefing will be at 11:30. The mood is -- feisty. The trip to Guadeloupe had hardly been a big news story. People are feeling deprived. They need a hit. Jody Powell will be the target.
The door to the White House press room swings open and closed letting in the icy winter air; reporters rush in, fling off their coats, check the bulletin boards, greet each other and stake out their places on the brown leathe tuffed sofas and chairs for the briefing -- the wires, the networks, the news magazines and the legions of daily newspapers.
As the time nears for the briefing, people pace back and forth near the coffee machine and the wire machine, talking, laughing, joking, mostly joking about the White House, the president, the staff.
Noon comes and goes. Still no briefing. The grousing begins. Excitement is high, the room has the air of a heavyweight championship fight about to begin. There would be blood today.
The announcement on the loudspeaker tells everyone to gather. Jody is ready.
Soon the press room is filld, reporters sitting on sofas, perched on the arms of chairs, sitting crosslegged on the floor, leaning against the wall. Tension mounts. Jody Powell steps out of the back office door, onto th eplatform and up to the rostrum in front of the blue curtains.
He reaches for his first Salems of the briefing. He has no matches. Rex Granum, his assistant, pushes some towards him. He lights his cigarette.
"Except to say that we will have a summary schedule for this afternoon on the visit to Atlanta, I don't have any announcements this afternoon. I will be glad to take your questions," sayd Powell.
He shifts backward, expectantly, as a prize fighter would, waiting to see where the first blow would come from.
Shouting ensues as everyone tries to get in his or her question.
And so begins the daily version of the longest-running permanent Theater of the Absurd in Washington, the daily White House briefing of the press, improvisational Ionesco at its best.
They ask about Congressman Diggs, about a South African boxer, about F-15s being sent to Saudi Arabia. Powell fends off the questions with "I don't knows."
They ask about American Policy on Iran, Jody responds: "... We are not going to be involved in a daily temperature-taking on American policy in that part of the world...."
"This is not a daily temperature-taking," replies a reporter. "This is a direct question."
It is a implied the president is keeping the press in the dark. A question about Cambodia comes in, then back to Iran. A question about leaks on Iran being plugged up. Shouts of "Nixon" and "Plumbers" are heard. The president is accused of hiding from the American people.
Jody Powell keeps his cool, though his constant lighting of cigarettes belies the calm voice, the mocking grin. The "I don't knows," the "I can't comments," the "I can't answer thats" roll off his tongue like gentle feints. He is asked about the budget, a tax rebate, the State of the Union. Again, no answers.
"Jesus, why did the briefing slip for half an hour? So you could think up all these answers?" asks someone. "Let's finish one subject and then we will go on."
Jody is asked about the U.N., then China, the Taiwan, he is asked to give statements of policy. He won't do it. He refers questions to State, to Defense. He is asked again about China, bout Cambodia, about foreign agent, about Martin Luther King, about Namibia, about Mexican gas, about Armand Hammer, about a lunch Carter held, about the administration policy on lying. Jody Powell stonewalls, fences, jousts, jabs, blocks. He is clearly enjoying himself. So far he has said nothing stupid, has protected his flanks, has incriminated nobody. The briefing is winding down.He is looking like a winner.
He is asked if he saw the president today. Yes, he replies. "Did he have as many non-answers as you?" Laughter. Jody is asked about Billy Carter's insulting remarks in Penthouse magazine about Charles Kirbo and Hamilton Jordan, and particularly about himself -- Billy Carter suggests Jody should go back to south Georgia and a be a farmer.
Powell refuses to say how the president feels and adds, "I think I have said on several occasions regarding the comment that I would be better off running a farm in south Georgia is something to which I can hardly take exception, particularly in situations such as I find myself today."
Another question on Iran another on Jerry Brown, both neatly fended off.
They weren't going to let him off without a scratch though. They still hadn't seen a drop of blood and the rancor was oozing out of pores. Just one quick blow would do it.
"Jody, one final question."
Anticipation. This would be it. Here it comes. They'd get the little bastard yet.
"If you do go back to south Georgia to be a farmer, will you do a good job at it? As well as you have in briefing us with all of this information?"
Pause. Laughter. All eyes on Jody.
He shifts, then smirks. Lets them wait for a moment, takes a drag on his cigarette, clutches the rostrum and says with deliberate certainty: "I don't know."
"Thank you Jody."
They haven't laid a glove on him.
Everyone who covers the White House will tell you right off that the briefings are worthless, well, maybe not totally but almost. What they tell you is that if you really want to know anything you'll wander back through. the press office, up the corridor, past the guard at the desk and into the anteroom to Jody Powell's office. There you will stand, annoying his infinitely patient secretary Carolyn Shields until Powell sees fit to open the door and talk to you or even let you in and answer some real questions. These sessions, unlike the briefings, are almost always on background or even deep, or deep deep background. That means you don't quote Jody Powell.
For instance, last week Powell refused to comment on Billy Carter's bad behavior on the record in the press briefing. But toward the end of the affternoon, bugged to death by a small group of diligent and news-hungry reporters, he finally, in the privacy of his office and on background, admitted to them that Billy's behavior was an embarassment to the president. That's how it works.
Powell's office is one of the nicest. Floor-length windows overlook the lawn, faded red-white-and-blue curtains and plump sofas and chairs give it a cozy look and there is always a fire crackling in the fireplace, or at least Powell is poking and cussing at wet logs as he talk. There is a framed copy of the First Amendment on the wall behind his desk, a warped, unframed picture of the president propped up behind a lamp on the end table, a brass shoe with a hole in the sole on the mantle. Over in the corner is a bar that he keeps well stocked with soft drinks, Tabs for Hamilton Jordon and Scotch for himself that he will break out around 7:30 after a long day. On his desk is a sign that reads "Believe it or not I took this job for all the romance and adventure."
It is two years ago this week that Jody Powell became the White House Press Secretary and gave his first briefing, at the time a great comedy hit.
That was before the Bert Lance affair, the Chuck Percy affair (where he admitted to passing off a bad story on the Illinois senator). It was also before Camp David.
Now, though there are still flashes of acrimony, Powell sees himself as having surmounted his darkest hours and he has emerged in the eyes of many of the White House press corps as the best presidential press secretary since Eisenhower's Hagerty.
Yet whit it all he remains a complex person whose true feelings are masked.
Despite being the most public person in the Carter administration, almost constantly on display, Jody Powell remains an enigman both to his colleagues and his friends.
Powell spends a lot of time on the telephone, a multi-buttoned affair, usually in his shirt sleeves with loosened tie, often with his feet on his desk. He is comfortable in his office, pleased to be there. Easier, friendlier. More relaxed, The guard falls a little.
Jody Powell likes his job. "Yeah," he'll say, almost embarrassed to admit it.
He even, he admits, likes the briefings.
He talls a story.
At the Air Force Academy, he says, freshmen were required to take boxing and judo in their PE course. At the end of the year, to pass the course, they had to have three fights, with opponents assigned by weight rather than skill or experience. Powell drew the runner-up in the Ohio Golden Gloves Championship. "He beat the hell out of me," says Powell. "But he didn't knock me out. He never even knocked me down. So I decided to box. Because I knew then that I would never get beat that bad in my whole life. And it wasn't that bad. I figured if you can get through that, you can get through anything. Having gone through that period with the Bert Lance thing," he says, "that was the beginning of a long, dark journey and coming our the other side, at least to a certain extent, you have some satisfaction of living through it."
And, he allows witha wry chuckle, if you can live throught that, you can live through the briefings.
"I came here with the attitude that the briefings were probably a waste of time, that there probably outht to be some other way of dealing with them on a daily basis. Since then I've changed my mind. Not because I think they are always productive for the White House or the press.
"But to cove the White House seems to be a frustrating experience in many ways, sitting there waiting for something to happen. I think the press almost needs, even deserves a chance to get a crack at somebody speaking for the administration. If for no other reason than to satisfy themselves that nothing is going on. And there is a psychological benefit. It's just sort of an encounter.
"But I'm not so sure some of that isn't healthy in an emotional sense. Most people who are in the White House and who cover the White House are competitive by nature. I don't mind the sparring, it satisfies an instinct on my part. You just shouldn't get carried away.
"But," says Powell, "there's another side to this too. To me there's something quite positive about a White House press corps that includes somebody like Naomi Nover [of Nover News Service], bless her soul, this little gray-haired lady with a bag full of grapefrutis and a tape recorder... "
He seems a bit wistful here, the brave Jody Powell, on the one hand claiming he enjoys the daily bouts with the vicious press, particularly ABC's gadfly Sam Donaldson, on the other perhaps secretly wishing for an enormous press corps made up of sweet little ladies.
The private reveries of a White House press secretary.
"The briefings," he says finally, "provide something I need and the press needs. I wish there were a way to make them more productive."
"The briefings," says Curtis Wilkie of the Boston Globe, "are a disaster. You rarely get anything out of them. It's a game, some of them try to extract something out of Jody. Yet he does a very good job in the briefings. He's a master of the put-down, very quick on his feet, a very sarcastic funny guy. He has an almost Don Rickles type of humor. He's insulting, but most of us don't feel insulted by it. We enjoy it."
ABC's Sam Donaldson agrees with Wilkie, but UPI's Helen Thomas and CBS' Bob Schieffer feel the briefings are important.
"The briefings," says Schieffer, "are useless. But I would not want them to stop. It's good thing for the government to open itself to questions."
"I could not do what Jody does," says Jerry Rafshoon, who occasionally watches the briefing on closed-circuit television in his office and says he's appalled. "I couldn't keep my cool. I'm too old."
"Hell," says Hamilton Jordan, "there are good days and there are bad days. Days you feel like it's all for nothing. But when I get depressed, I'm alone. Jody has to deal with it in a public sense. I don't see how he does it. I don't have the emotional control to do it....He's always vulnerable to something. He's got the worst job here. Worse than the president's. And he loves it.... He thrives on it."
Jody Powell has always been known to have a temper, but this year on the president's raft trip out West, those who traveled with the White House press corps felt that the press secretary had gone beyond the bounds. They felt he had become bitter and acrimonious and to the point where he could almost not function in his capacity as spokesman for the president.
But Powell is a fast learner, maybe the fastest learner on Carter's staff. And he will tell this story on himself. He says that on that trip "that was the low point, I had the feeling I couldn't do anything right. No matter what I did I'd get my brains beat out."
One night, he says he was sitting up late with a group of reporters and one of them began to lecture him.
"Her thesis was that I was becoming bitter and antagonistic and whether or not I was justified, I wasn't serving my president. I basically reacted by arguing. But after I got back I got to thinking that a lot of what she said made sense.... I think now I'm more realistic about what's possible. I don't get angry as often as I used to and things that appear as outrageous I accept as being the way things are. That's not altogether good. I'm sure I'm more cynical than I was. You almost have to be a little bit to get by. If you take everything to heart you will personally go berserk. You have to develop a little scar tissue. I hope that now I am less inclined to get sucked into a no-win confrontation over things that either don't matter or I can't do anything about."
There are those who see Powell's temper as a sign of self-centeredness, even a sign of lack of control, some even suggest, instability. Powell laughs at that, though he does agree that his temper could be curbed.
"But I don't want to lose every honest emotion and just have emotions that are calculated. If you spend your whole life that way then your whole life is controlled by other people and not by yourself."
Still, regardless of Powell's occasional flares of temper, there is hardly anyone in the White House press corps who doesn't like Jody Powell, although some admit it more reluctantly than others. They will tell you that Jody Powell is nice, funny, witty, a great guy to go out drinking with. They will also tell you that his temper rises and falls almost on a monthly cycle, that he can be stubborn and contemptuous.
They will also tell you that they don't know him really know him.
For a long time, for instance, there has been a big mystery about Jody Powell's work habits.
It seems that every so often, every month or so, he will just call in sick. He will either have a stomach sche or a headache or just be plain out "sick." These illnesses never last longer than a day, but sometimes these sick days occur on important news days and sometimes the press can be very frustrated when they are unable to reach Jody. When the president had his first press conference in over a month last week, Jody called in "sick."
Everybody who covers the White House has theories about his "sick" days. The most common being that he has terrible hangovers and can't function. One person even proposed that Jody had a terrible disease and collapsed every so often.
"When Jody doesn't dome in, it's a standard line we use," explains Jordan. "Oh, Jody's had an all-nighter. Usually things kind of build up and he just lays out a day."
Jody says that they say he is "sick" because "that's the way we deal with it."
"I go at things until I just can't stand it any more, then I try to find a way. You can pace yourself, which is logical and the best way, or you can do it in short sprints and then pause and catch your breath. I never decide the day before, for sure. It's not until you get up the next morning and can view that day with real perspective and can make a rational judgement about whether you can afford to be gone." On those days, he says, "I read, I always have an obligation to do some work, usually something totally unrelated to the press. And I usually cook supper. I do enjoy cooking. I make a big production of it."
The truth is that Jody Powell is volatile. In fact, he is all of the things they say he is. He knows it too.
"Sometimes," he says, "I get mad just because I haven't been mad in a while."
Every day of every briefing, Jody Powell is different. One day he will wear a dark three piece suit and white shirt, striped tie.
Another day he'll wear a sleeveless V-neck sweater, loosened tie, rolled-up sleeves. One day he'll be loose and funny, another day as serious as a preacher, another day biting and vitriolic. He's never the same person two days running.
In private he is always easier but still cangeable in his moods.He knows how to be charming, but he is wary. He has a kind of animal instinct about people - he can almost tell by the scent whether the person is a friend or an enemy. He rarely lets down his defenses and when he does, one thinks they can detect a flash of vulnerability of gentleness or insecurity. Then it disappears.
The story one cannot help remembering while talking to him is the story of his father in Vienna (pronounced Vye-enna), Ga., who, upon discovering he had terminal cancer, went out to the barn and shot himself to death.
With Jody Powell there is the sense that he too understands, that finally one is alone. And he operates that way.
"I don't feel like I'm a loner that much," he says. "I've always felt like you ought to be careful about inflicting your problems on people. It seems to be that the whole society went through a period where it was almost the thing to do with any passing acquaintance was to spiel out all the problems and the hangups you had. That struck me as extreme self-centeredness."
The phone rings. It is Hamilton Jordan. It rings again. It is Carolyn Shields, Powell's secretary. It rings again. It is Brzezinski, then Jordan again, then Jack Watson comes into his office, then Judge Griffin Bell is announced, then he is asked to call the president. He calls. Then Stu Eizenstat, then Brzezinski again. Jordan pops his head in, then Rafshoon wanders by. The interview continues in spurts as Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times calls, then columnists Evans and Novak. Then the president calls again.
Powell's wife, Nan, appears at the door, having been to a meeting of her favorite project, the Capital Children's Museum. She is a tall, dark, elegant-looking person witha slightly resigned air about her when it comes to her husband's job. She askes him what time he thinks he will be home.
He sighs, looks at his watch guesses it might be about 9.
"Tell you what," he says brightening. "I'll take..."
"That would be great," she says with a pleased smile.
"What?" he asks, puzzled.
"I thought you were going to say you'd take Emily and me out to dinner."
"Oh," he says a bit glumly. "I was going to say I'll take a goose out of the freezer and cook it."
Disappointment registers in her face. A weak "Oh."
"Well, maybe..." he says.
"It would be nice," she perks up. "We could talk to Emily about her marks. I know she's love it."
"Ok," he says, giving in. "You decide where wi'll go."
The phone rings. Nan Powell disappears.
There is one thing that Jody Powell has absolutely no sense of humor about and that is anything that might cast aspersions on her personal life or hurt his wife Nan or their daughter Emily.
Nan Powell is a schoolteacher from Vienna, Ga. She is universally regarded as a graceful, decent, intelligent woman, "Jody's better half," as they say.
During the campaign the Powells were separated as much as the Carters were, and that kind of life puts a strain on any relationship. Jody Powell has spent the last two years in Washington, not only dueling daily with the national press corps, but in his private time, making a major effort to mend the frayed edges of his marriage.
He is, above all, a southern gentleman and he treats his wife publicly with a respect rarely seen by the press corps.
This southern-gentleman side of him is generally regarded as a detriment, as a real problem for professional women who have to deal with Powell, or for that matter any male White House staffers. Both men and women feel that he is more polite to women journalists but less helpful in the little backgrounders in his office, that he feels uncomfortable around women.
Powell does not totally disavow this theory.
"I'm sure," he says, "in the perfect world of things that in some cases I might not be as sensitive as I should be to feelings and so forth... I hope I'm better at that than I might once have been. I don't believe there is any uneasiness or discomfort on my part. Certainly not any attitudes I can recognize."
The problem really is, he explains, "that aspect where business and social run together. That's where we have to learn. And it's not the Georgians who created this. For instance, if there was a woman who occupied Rex Granum's or Jerry Schecter's job [Schecter is press secretary to the National Security Council] and I spent as much time with them as I do, going out for beers and discussing things, it would create rpoblems in Washington. If a woman does occupy a position, you've got to figure out a way to deal with it differently."
Throughout the interview the phone rings constantly. In Virtually every conversation, unless it is totally political, Powell ends up talking about his trip to Texas the weekend before with Griffin Bell to go bird shooting, his favorite sport. His whole posture changes when he talks about it, his voice becomes softer, his laugh warmer. There is a hint of masculine comraderie there, talking about bird shooting, even with someone as unlikely as Zbigniew Brzezinski.
The phone rings again, Powell answers it, chatrs about his bird shooting, laughs almost lasciviously and hangs up. "That was Bob Strauss," he says, still chuckling.
"Jody's a fellow who hasn't really lost his basic set of values," says Strauss. He still has the sbility to laugh at himself. He knows what he is."
There is a shriek from outside the door of Powell's office, some growling, the sound of thundering footsteps, a crashing of fists against his door, a torrent of giggles.
It is the exalted National White House Press Corps.
'Joooooooeeeeeeee," comes a muffled whine.
"Joooooooooooeeeeeeeeee," -- more giggles, thumping, the clearly recognizable voice of the corps gadfly, ABC's Sam Donaldson.
Powell bursts into a wide grin, jumps out of his chair and peeks out the side door of his office, making enough noise to tip them off that he is willing to play. He quickly slams the door before they have time to thunder around the hall.
"Ah ha," sounds the roar of Donaldson, "we know you're in there...." Even more giggles.
Powell's dimples pucker in mischievous delight.
"Joooooooooddeeeeee, aren't you going to come out and say goodbye to Bob Schieffer? It's his last day."
(Schieffer is leaving to take over the CBS Morning News in New York.)
Powell quickly opens the door and sticks his head out once more, having foiled them once by opening the wrong door.
"Goodbye Jooooodeeeeee," comes a plaintive voice from beyond, then the sound of the herd moving back down the hall toward the press room.
Once again, for the last time, Powell gingerly cracks open the door and very softly murmurs, "Goooooodbyyeeeeeee."
"I think," says a vey close observer of Jody Powell, "that in a very important part of his body psyche he has a great contempt for the press."
This person, not a journalist himself, and someone who likes Powell a great deal personally, who calls him a "hell of a good guy to be around," says that Powell's attitude toward the press is similar to that once-famous attitude toward the Germans: "They are either at your feet or at your throat." And he feels that it is the "inevitable consequence of someone who has been a press secretary too long, that you begin to worry about the warts on the face of the press rather than the face itself."
"I think," says this person, "that he really feels that he is essentially dealing with a negative force, something to be contained, diverted, used, but never trusted."
John Osborne, veteran Shite House correspondent for the New Republic, says that Powell "shares with Carter a basic distrust of the media. He is very thin-skinned and it resurfaces now and then."
"I think," says Powell carefully, "I understand the press a little better. It's remarkable that reports are as accurate as they are and on the other hand it's pitiful looking at it from the standpoint of the public process that it doesn't work better than it does. I don't respect or disrespect the institution. I have varying amounts of respect for individuals... and not necessarily to what proportion of their stories are favorable."
The more he deals with the press, says Powell, "the more complicated it becomes. It would make life easier to say some evil forces were at work."
Most members of the White House press corps feel a certain lack of respect, even occasional contempt from Powell. "He attacks the press as an institution and us as individuals," says one. "Sometimes he's suggested we're all a bunch of drunks and he'er do wells."
Still, they feel he is good, even brilliant, in his job.
Their reason is simple. Jody Powell has access to the president. He is closer to the president than anyone in Washington except for Rosalynn Carter and he talks to the president every day. He understands Carter and how his mind works. He can predict Carter's reactions and he can influence Carter's decisions. On the occasions when Jody Powell does speak out, the press corps can be assured he speaks with knowledge and authority, that he is not being used as a pawn, that he is the last word. To a journalist, that is invaluable. Both White House reporters and Powell's colleagues also agree that one of Powell's major talents is that he is a good generalist, and has a keen and quick grasp of issues at a gut level. They also say that he never lies and does his best to convey an accurate version of his impression of Carter. On the down side, from a journalist's point of view, he is felt to be too loyal and too much of a press agent.
Jody Powell still feels he has problems.
"We have had one problem just learning the players," he says, "political information about people... who they are for, who they are close to, who plays tennis with whom...."
Or, "who has a history of this journalism or that, who did they used to be press secretary to, who's married to whom..." He laughs and interjects that it would take another whole administration to learn who was having affairs with whom. Then goes on, "... whose word is good, are they going to live by the ground rules, are they going to tell everybody they see about a backgrounder, who you can say something in front of and not have them run around town with it...."
Another problem, less easy to pinpoint, says Powell, is the aftermath of Watergate. "We expected it to be a problem, but I didn't expect it to be as big. It's getting better, but not quickly. You can tell the difference between the people who have been in government in those days and those who haven't. They've got a little place inside them that hurts when the weather gets bad. You can tell it with the press. They have an institutional memory. Yet there's no way the White House press corps could have uncovered Watergate. They couldn't have done that and covered the While House."
Still, Powell despairs that there is such difficulty in getting the press to believe anything the administration says. "How can we get people to believe we are telling the truth?" he says at one point, almost shouting, his hands waving in the air in frustration. "What bothers me is that some day we might have something really important. And if the president says something's not accurate, that's different from me playing the game of everybody putting their spin on something."
Powell says his biggest problem as press secretary is "that different from me playing the game of everybody putting their spin on something."
Powell says his biggest problem as press secretary is "that there is so much happening and all of it si so damn complicated and it happens so fast. I am continually trying to explain things I don't know enough about and the press is trying to write things they don't know enough about."
Powell thinks Carter's media image is better than it was. "Things got better a couple of weeks before Camp David. I detected a swing of the pendulum upwards.
"Now I detect a little bit of a swing the other way. I obviously don't think the president has gotten the sort of press he deserves, but I don't think any press secretary ever did. It may come with the turf."
If Jody Powell had to find the perfect successor for himself, he says he would try, first of all, to find somebody who could get along really well with the president. Secondly, it would be somebody with journalistic experience, but not someone from the Washington press corps. "It tends to be more personalized if they come from their closest friends and drinking buddies, and there can be a problem with that ugly ol' word, loyalty. There are always times when you feel you're being doen wrong by friends and it really hurts."
Jody Powell likes his job as press secretary to Jimmy Carter a lot. "Yeah, well, it's never boring," he says. "And that's not altogether facetious. Most people canht honestly say that. I'm trying to figure out a way to say this without sounding too schmaltzy. You have an obligation, a duty to do something in some part of your life that is specifically designed to do something larger or beyond yourself.
"Obviously a chance to work in the White House is a chance to do that. It's hard to separate cultural values interwoven with religious values and I don't want you to get the idea that I've had some calling to be a press secretary. I think everybody has some idea of what they think people's obligations are as a human being. You could say it's part of your moral code."