I think it's fair to say that many in our line of work believe that reporters are to politicians what the Boston Strangler was to door-to-door salesmen. -- Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.)
Politicians and journalists, two Washington camps long engaged in unarmed combat, met yesterday for a "Meet the Op-Pressed" match of wits and considerable ego. In front of about 400 members of the Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, the pols asked reporters questions about foreign policy, network politics and sex.
"No speeches. Prompt and clear responses. Repartee, objective comments only. No personal opinion," instructed Sen. Simpson, the moderator.
They were off.
"I've been dying to talk to you, Al," began Rep. Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat, who wore a hat and press tags for the occasion. "You don't mind if I set up, do you?" she asked, plopping down a giant travel bag in front of Wall Street Journal congressional reporter Al Hunt. She began pulling out some journalistic necessities.
"Oh, here's my latest entry in the Pulitzer Prizes," she said, "and here's my bathing suit from Cancun." Then she found a tape recorder, which she stuck up against Hunt's right cheek. "Now, this is off the record, Al," she said. "I'm a no-nonsense, get-to-the-point reporter. What I want to know from you is -- how does it feel to have a wife who's more famous than you?"
Hunt, who had a fuchsia face under his prematurely white hair (a recurring topic, of which more later), is married to NBC White House reporter Judy Woodruff. He replied evenly: "After lengthy consideration, she was very nice and allowed me to keep my maiden name."
The crowd in the Hyatt Regency ballroom laughed and guffawed as Mikulski returned triumphantly to her seat.
"That," said Simpson, watching her with just the right touch of amused disbelief, "was Barbara Mikulski."
Others on the panel were Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.), Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Brit Hume of ABC, Phil Jones of CBS and Carole Simpson of NBC.
One of the next questions came from Fenwick, who asked Jones if he had the freedom to operate under the rule of CBS Inc. chairman William S. Paley.
"Ah," said Jones, "that's a very good question." He pulled out a small compact of face powder. "You don't mind just a moment?" He applied the powder, then some hairspray. "Now," he said, "for my opening statement" (he pulled out a long roll of wire-copy paper), "yes, well, I'll have my aide pass that out in a minute. But I did want to pass out my news release. Thank you very much."
Each camp had the speech patterns and idiosyncracies of the other down to a fine satirical art, not unlike spouses in a bad marriage.
"I would like to ask this distinguished panel," said Fenwick to the journalists, "just how it is that you know our ways so well when you're never in the press gallery?"
"The reason the galleries are empty is because the Washington zoos are so often open," said Frank.
Soon after, the questions turned to sex.
"Do you think heterosexual monogamy is really where it's at in this country?" asked Mikulski. "Would you support hotlines for heterosexual monogamy? Would you support shelters for heterosexual monogamy?"
"All right, I admit it," said Hume. "I am a heterosexual monogamist. I apologize. I take full blame. I offer to resign."
"Was it drink that drove you to it?" asked Frank.
"I must admit, I have the twin compulsions," said Hume.
"I am personally opposed to heterosexual monogamy," said Hunt, "but I don't think it should be a political issue."
"I would like to see a study," said Carole Simpson.
"I'd like to differ on this issue," said Hume. "It seems to me that heterosexual monogamy is a matter we ought to leave to the states."
"Is there any subject on which you gutless bastards will give us a straight answer?" asked Frank.
"I have no comment," said Hume.
A short time later, Frank asked of Hunt: "Don't you think it's a little ridiculous for a 40-year-old man to be wearing a Tip O'Neill wig?"
"Whenever people ask about my hair," piped up Alan Simpson, who is almost entirely bald, "I say that everyone is only given a certain number of hormones, and if you want to waste yours growing hair, that's your business." He turned to Fenwick for the next question. "Millicent, are you ready?" he asked.
"I'm not ready, I'm thinking," she said.
"I think thinking would ruin this panel," he said.
"This program is like Reaganomics," observed Frank. "It's beginning to deteriorate from a position that was not too strong at the outset."
Finally, after an hour and a half, it was over. Fenwick grew serious, telling reporters to "keep clear and tough." Hunt admitted, a little sheepishly, that "I really like politicians."
And Alan Simpson summed up. "Good humor," he said, "is our salvation in this squirrel cage."