Foreign correspondents have always outpaced other reporters at attracting the sort of adjectives that make up for long hours, lean wallets and editors.
If you have to be wrapped in a stereotype, words like "dashing," "headstrong," "shrewd," "courageous," "romantic," and "dynamic" make pretty nice wrapping. As Harold Jackson, Washington correspondent of The Guardian can assure you, the first casualty of becoming a foreign correspondent is not a reporter's self-esteem.
"There's a deep-seated belief that we're all Humphrey Bogarts," says Jackson with a mildly amused sneer.
Jackson knows better. Seated near his "bloody telex" in the modern wellkept office he shares with another correspondent at 1750 Pennsylvania Avenue, Jackson marshalls the full force of 30 years at the typewriter keys and 88 countries visited behind the civilized but forceful kick in the pants he gladly delivers to the trade's romantic image.
He recalls, for instance, the first day of the Six-Day War, which correspondents spent "stumbling up and down the Gaza Strip looking for the war." In Washington, he admits news events are under slightly better control, but the demands of the job, if somewhat tamer, still keep the romantic wolf from the door.
"Your time for nymphomaniac blonds is extremely limited," he asserts.
So it goes. Everyone seems to agree that the job of a foreign correspondent in Washington has its ups and downs, with the ups holding a comfortable edge.
The creeping doubt makes sense. Stumblings aside, assignment to a riskier corner of the globe has its attractions. Compared to trudging through the African bush to forge links with a band of guerillas, or dialing 10,000 numbers in Prague to find a working connection to use to file during the Soviet invasion -- an effort Jackson predictably remembers with mixed emotions -- there's something pedestrian about squeezing into the National Press Building elevators with 10 other foreign correspondents. Dash and dynamism can give way pretty quickly to deskwork and daiquiris.
No matter. The number of foreign journalists in Washington keeps swelling at a time when the number of American correspondents overseas is shrinking Back in 1956, the foreign press corps in the United States consisted of 275 journalists stationed mostly in Washington and New York. Now, according to a recent study of the foreign press called "How Others Report Us," by Barry Rubin of Georgetown University, there are more than 350 correspondents stationed in Washington alone. They're here for the same reason bees swarm around honey.
"It's the one capital in the World where your access in as large as your initiative," claims Marino de Medici, 45-year old correspondent for Il Tempo of Rome and a 19-year veteran here. "The most important thing in this profession is finding people who are committed to information, and Washington of full of them."
Threatening to smother him in his cluttered office at the National Press Building, where scores of foreign reporters sharpen and snap their pencils, are the accumulated flotsam and treasures of two decades on the job -- piles of yellowing newspapers, stacks of political journals, out-of-date almanacs and Teletype machines. Watching over him over him above is his ancestor Giuliano de Medici -- courtesy of Botticelli.
"Americans think of a man in a trench coat who runs around with beautiful women and barely makes his deadline," says Medici, echoing Jackson. bHis chin juts out and his fluttering hands take a rest in upturned bemusement. h
"I haven't met anyone like that."
Thinking only of a male in the role can be the first mistake.
Kari-Grete Mekjan of the Norwegian Broadcasting Company joined the growing number of female foreign correspondents in Washington about two years ago. Her husband takes care of the household chores -- they agreeded on the arrangement when NBC offered Mekjan the Washington opportunity. Neither idea has sunk in deep enough in Washington to spare Mekjan occasional slights in the field and on the social circuit.
"A lot of Americans think it's strange," she says of her husband's agreement to put aside his career as an engineer for the duration of her assignment: "He hates that part of it."
As for on-the-job follies: "Sometimes -- more than sometimes -- people turn to my cameraman and speak to him. He has to say, 'You ought to speak to her. She's the boss.'"
One of Mekjan's dubious perks as boss is a dailey wake-up call -- Oslo buzzs her at home every morning at about 7:45 a.m. "We discuss what I'm going to do for the day." Not all correspondents, however, maintain regular phone contact with the home office. Jackson says the number of calls he gets requesting him to do a specific story are "very few," and Peter Coetzer, the 32-year-old correspondent for Peskor, South Africa's largest Afrikaner newspaper, says that "sometimes two weeks will pass without my calling the office."
Mekjan's not alone, though, in starting to relax around the time most American reporters hit the coffee hard. Noon for the Tokyo morning edition is a daily deadline for Yoshio Murakami of Japan's Asahi , whose touch of home in his NPB office is a bamboo tree that has seen better days. Some Indian correspondents file their copy at 8 a.m. And while writers for West European periodicals are not as badly displayed as some, they're still not watching the Washington clock as earnestly as they are the one back home.
"Midday," says Jackson, "is a crisis point in my life."
Given such scattered deadlines, foreign reporters can't compete with the domestic press for scoops. Most don't care to.
"My first responsibility is not reporting," says Medici, who concedes that Italian newspapers stir in more opinion with the news than most. "It's helping my readers understand what is coming.Ex post facto analysis is very easy.
Carole Kaps, econimic correspondent of Germany's prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung agrees. "I don't have much ambition to be faster than the wire services."
The obligation to be part commentator and part seer for their readers and watchers cuts into their reportorial duties, and domestic journalism far from providing a rival, tends to be their chief tool in fulfilling that obligation. Reading through the major papers and magazines, checking up on specialized journals and keeping abrest of the latest television news guarantees that the foreign correspondent in Washington will not miss anything big -- and suffer the consequences -- as did one unfortunate foreign correspondent in who decided to skip town with his girl friend just about the time rebels overthrew King Farouk and, indirectly, him. It also guarantees that sleep will become a luxury.
"I think you have the best official secrets act of all," quips Jackson. "You simply pour it all out. No one could possibly keep up with it."
On the other hand, no self-respecting member of the foreign press would rely on it entirely. Jackson pursued his own investigation in interpreting the DC-10 crisis to his readers because he felt coverage by the major media here was inadequate. Mekjan says that it's impossible for her to go out and dig up everything she needs to use herself, but tries to stake out stories that others haven't done -- she recently visited Washington state for a story on nuclear wastes there. In-depth projects are difficult, adds Mekjan, because as a news organization's main eyes and ears here, "you're really pressed by routine coverage."
On issues relating to their home countries members of the foreign press corps often squeak past their American colleagues, thanks to strong ties with, and sometimes preferential treatment from, their home embassies.
"We're generally ahead of the American press on political issues relating to the Middle East," says Wolf Blitzer of the Jerusalem Post and Al Hamishmar of Tel Aviv, one of the handful of American Journalist who works here for foreign publications.
Ahmed Nasr Said, a yound correspondent for Rose El Youssef , the "Time magazine of Egypt," isn't inclined to dispute Blitzer's claim. While he denies getting much help from the Egyptian delegation at the Camp David talks -- despite, the playfully observes, his nt inconsequential degree of fame among yound politically sophisticated Egyptians -- he noted that the Israeli journalists had "an open line" to their delegation.
Says Blitzer: "The Israeli Embassy has a reputation for leaking. And the Israeli press here is very competitive."
Open lines to the White House are another matter for foreign correspondents. Mostly there are just lines, and the foreign corresponent is supposed to keep to the back of them.
Medici says that he and his colleagues had a big discussion back in the 60's over whether foreign correspondents should have a chance to ask questions of the president. The consensus was that they should not infringe on the limited time that American reporters have to question the president.
Seating arrangements at Carter press conferences encourage that consensus. Most of the foreign correspondents must peer past American reporters who get the choice seats.
"It's very difficult for someone who sits past the first three rows to get recognized," says Medici. "I know correspondents who have tried it," comments Mekjan. "The american reporters made it clear that this was not the right thing to do."
For a brief time this summer, it looked as though things might change. After Carter's Augest Cabinet firings, and subsequent musings in the foreign press about the stability of the adminstration. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Jody Powell called in a group of foreign correspondents to assure them that the administration would be as strong as ever. As one correspondent remarked with a smile, "It was so good to hear that from the horse's mouth."
Since then, the foreign press has slipped back into the press bleachers. Says Medici: "The Carter adminstration doesn't care about the foreign press the way previous administrations did." Murakami however, thinks access here has to be seen in perspective:
"The Japanese government is not as accessible to foreign journalists as the White House."
Getting interviews with top officials who are in demand also reminds foreign correspondents here of the pecking order in the press. How many votes, an votes, an official is likely to ask himself, do the readers of that unpronounceable paper have anyway? Fortune varies from reporter to reporter.
"You have to wait a while," explains Kaps, "but I can see anybody I want." Mekjan, on the other hand to get "the really top people. But we can easily get the assistant secretaries and aides."
Low priority on one front breeds low priority on others, and with the early deadlines shared by many of the correspondents the last-item-of-the-day attitude they run into among some officials can be frustrating. "They ring you back at five in the afternoon when it's useless," complains Jackson.
So common problems accompany the common task they share trying to interpret the inscrutable ways of Americans. One would expect the foreign press to share the kind of camaraderie students of different nationalities ofter strike up when stuck together in a foreign, academic outpost. On the whole, they don't.
"There's no such thing, as far as we're concerned, as the foreign press," says Jackson. "There's the English press, the French press, the Italian press and so on."
With the exception of trips sponsored by the International Communications Agency, which helps the foreign press to do its job in a variety of ways -- such as piping State Department briefing into the NPB -- contracts between foreign correspondents from different countries are largely haphazard, occasional and unorganized.
Colleagues from the same country, on the other hand, frequently pool their information. They tend to run into one another at embassy parties and special briefing given by embassies for their own jounalists. They also serve as a pool of another kind -- a pool of information for the domestic press when breaking news involves their countries.
Ever since Vice President Mondale's election, for instance, reporters have called Mekjan every so ofter to inquire about his ancestry and roots in the old country. "Also a lot of questions about North Sea oil." Whenever a head of state visits Washington, or anews story concerning a certain country breaks suddenly, calls from American colleagues will jam the consoles of the foreign journalists.
The special role that a foreign correspondent plays here as a symbol, it not a representative, of his country can cut both ways. On the bright side, Jackson attributes much of his success here to the swooning delight Americans take in his accent: "The sound of a British accent puts a warm rosy glow over Americans." But for Coetzer, who has been in Washington a bit less than half a year, the ties with home can become a kind of straitjacket.
"Whenever you go," he says softly, "the conversation tends to turn toward South African policy. It gets so that after a while you start to go to its defense almost as a matter of instinct."
Indeed, each country provides its correspondent with a special problem of his own. For Yuri Levchencko of Tass it's not so much the restriction on his travel as that "every one considers reporters for Tass, Pravda and the rest to be agents. It's something you get used to."
One thing you don't find in Washington," says Blitzer, who learned to speak Hebrew fluently as a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, "is foreign correspondents who don't speak English. They may not speak it well, but they speak it. Yet you'll find American correspondents in Paris who don't speak French and in Israel who don't speak Hebrew."
The American's reply typically is that he doesn't have to, and few of the correspondents here dispute that view, though they wince at the pride with which it is offered.Jackson notes wryly that the international language today is not English but "broken English." Mekjan says that no one in Norway "really expects an American reporter there to speak Norwegian. We're very impressed if he can speak a few sentences."
Murakami once again thinks it's important to look at both sides of the issue. He notes that speaking the native language overseas doesn't always help an American correspondent. In Bangkok, he says, any American reporter who could speak fluent Thai was immediately written off as a CIA man.
What foreign correspondents here probably share most consistently with their American colleagues is a bracing appreciation of the job. Barber's axiom -- offered by Stephan Barber of The London Daily Telegraph -- elicits wide-spread approval: "happiness is in direct proportion to one's distance from the home office."
Certainly no one complains about it the way yound city reporters exchange snooze stories about covering sewer commission hearings and traffic light demonstrations. As Jackson says, "it's a plum job" where "nobody bugs you."
"I lobbied for the job," admits Coetzer. "I wanted the broader experience." Despite the long hours, he agrees with the judgement of his colleagues back in South Africa that he has in a sense been sent on a "four-year vacation" from normal newspaper life:
"You're more left to your own initiative. You can develop your own style."
As for Medici, the joys of the job are rooted in the challenge of grasping an entire society and making it intelligible to his readers: "The foreign correspondent is really the last of the pure generalists. I'm like a sponge. I won't ever want to specialize."
Their reasons vary, but all finally add up to the same conclusion -- there may not be much romance in being a foreign correspondent in Washington, but that doesn't mean you can't love the job. CAPTION: Picture 1, Correspondents Marino de Medici of Italy; Picture 2, Peter Coetzer of South Africa; Picture 3, and KariGrete Mekjan of Norway; Picture 4, wolf Blitzer of The Jerusalem Post, By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post,; Picture 5 Japan's Yoshio Murakami; Picture 6, Egypt's Ahmed Nasr Said, photo by Fred Sweets; above by Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post