Karna Small is not the first woman to have the title of White House deputy press secretary, as reported in yesterday's editions of the Style section. Patricia Bario has held the title in the Carter White House since May 1979.
Right before Christmas -- in fact, the day after she was offered the job as Ronald Reagan's deputy press secretary -- Karna Small was emceeing a lunch at the National Press Club. Speculation about the Reagan press office dominated the discussions. Small was even asked if she would consider the job. Without missing a beat, she said, "I haven't been asked."
Small gleefully retells the story, confident that she passed the administration's first loyalty test. "There I was with Sam Donaldson and Bill Monroe, and the press set-up was all the talk. But I kept quiet. I didn't tell my parents or my brother. The morning of the announcement, I taped a show and had Benjamin Hooks, George Miller and Barber Conable, and I didn't say a word until the end."
Now that's it's official, Small, who is best known to Washingtonians as a former Channel 5 anchorwoman, is basking in everyone's surprise. "There were 58 phone calls yesterday," she says, ranging from the guy she sat next to in grammar school in Wilmette, Ill., to a staffer at "Good Morning America."
Sitting in her tiny office at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where she has spent the last two years moderating that business group's weekly television program, her booming voice lets her excitement escape just so much. Normally, she is a ginger vase of composure. "I just didn't expect all this," she says, her silver knit dress contrasting starkly with piles of paper scattered around her desk. "People are asking, are you the first woman to have this kind of responsibility?"
Indeed, it seems that Karma Small, 43, is the first woman to have the title, the duties and the fanfare. Though she didn't seek out the job, she was a logical candidate. She has had 13 years of broadcast experience, including high visibility television jobs in California and Washington. She is politically conservative, has known the Reagan Republicans for a dozen years and is self-professed political junkie who did some volunteer work on Reagan's 1976 campaign.
"When you would sit down and have even a casual conversation with Karma, seven out of 10 times, it was about politics," says Joe Barnes, the news director at KGO, the San Francisco station where she anchored the news for four years.
Another friend remembers going to the beach and Small tucking the National Review and Human Events into her beach bag. "She stood out like a sore thumb, she was so conservative," says David Owen, a California newsman. "She thought people were one-sided. When there was a strike at a bank, everyone else would interview the strikers, she would get the views of the bankers and managers."
In California, she got along well with the Reagan crowd. "I got to know his people, did one-on-ones with him and his people for the news," says Small.
She grew up in a Republican household, where the economy and politics enlivened the family's scholarly and heated debates. "I can remember my father talking about the diaster of going off the gold standard in 1933," she says laughing. Her father, a financial consultant, was also a member of a world-champion barbershop quartet. In 1952, she was a high-school partisan for Robert Taft, leading a march up Chicago's Michigan Avenue.
She shelved her psychology and political science degree from the University of Michigan to marry, raise two sons and stay at home. When the marriage soured, she started her broadcasting career in California, achieved celebrity status as a weather reporter and anchorwoman in San Francisco, then moved to Washington in 1976.
When she remarried, to Dann Stringer, the executive vice-president of an executive recruiting firm who had worked in the Nixon White House as deputy director of a presidential commission and an advance man, her circle of Republican acquaintances grew.
"Four years ago, when it was Ford and Reagan, we decided from philosophical standpoint we should work for Reagan, from a pragmatic standpoint, Ford," she recalls. Stringer volunteered to work for Reagan in both 1976 and 1980. In the 1976 campaign, when Small was unemployed, she also worked for Reagan, doing some advance work such as escorting Jimmy Stewart and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., around Texas.
On the last night of the 1976 convention, Small joined the box of Reagan advisers and intimates. "Reagan went to the platform and made his speech about his vision, America being the shinning city on the hill. It was very emotional," remembers Small. That evening, says her husband, was the first time he saw her cry.
In her office, Small's animation is sharply curtailed into a thoughtful reticence as she discusses her attraction to Reagan's brand of conservatism. "I think the main thing is his concept of individual responsibility and initiative . . . that the government should not be an intruder into our private lives, the government should be a helpmate," she says. Small politely sidesteps any questions about her personal views on the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion. "In this role my job is to reflect and carefully report the views of Ronald Reagan. I don't want to put myself at odds with anything the administration stands for."
In the broadcasting industry, she has a reputation as a tough, ambitious, smart and hard-working journalist. She began her career doing light features. "Weather reports, Don Rickles, the opening night of the opera," she says. Her impatience with those assignments left some bruised egos. "She was very competitive. She had a very sophisticated but cutting way of getting ahead. She would push," says David Owen.
If she was in any way calculating, Small feels now, she had a good reason. "I am a stickler for details. In a large corporation, if someone isn't working up to par, they can sit there for a while. Not in this business. When the hand approaches ten, the script has to be right, when the red light goes on, everything has to be right."
Her former colleagues at Channel 5 recall the quiet chemistry of Small, and her coanchor, Alan Smith, rather than any razzamatazz. "She's vivacious, quite articulate, outgoing," says Smith, now with WMAR in Baltimore. "We were both, as John Chancellor says, middle-of-the-road extremists. We wanted to tell it like it is, not take an advocacy or adversary position." The format trend at the time, however, was either blood and guts, happy talk -- or both. The Top-40 news approach wasn't her style. After two years both Smith and Allen left.
The Chamber's show -- "It's Your Business," which is aired in 130 markets -- and her Saturday afternoon show on WRC-radio, have strengthened her familiarity with the issues and the newsmakers. "I was finally ready to do the things I really cared about," she says, swinging around to her file cabinets, pulling out a dossier on trade agreements, pension funds. Her husband says her exposure often made her an informal adviser. Her guests ranged from George McGovern, Herb Stein, Pete McCloskey, Benjamin Hooks, to her new boss, James Brady, who says she will be "my alter ego."
Small is determined not to let her job supersede the needs of her family, the eternal crisis of the working parent. "In any job, you take stock of what's important to you. You have to maintain a sense of balance. The family is important." So far she has been able to keep her pledge. On one of her busiest days last week, she managed to get to her 16-year-old's basketball game -- in the third quarter.