Enough with taxes! Enough with arms control! The first questions at yesterday's daily White House briefing were about smoke and fire -- and Sam Donaldson.
What did the president think of the ABC White House correspondent's request that smoking be banned in the press room? Assistant press secretary Larry Speakes said he didn't know. Does the president smoke? Used to but no more. Was the president aware of Donaldson's proposal? Speakes didn't know the answer to that one either. Was North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms aware of the proposal? Speakes laughed.
Donaldson had warned the country Sunday that he would be making news. His platform was "This Week With David Brinkley," and the issue was banning smoking in public places.
"The next big fight is one I'm going to instigate," Donaldson promised. "We're going to go to the mat on whether you've a right to smoke in the press room."
Yesterday he took action, sending letters to Speakes and assistant buildings manager Peter Morris, asking that working areas of the press room be declared "nonsmoking."
Whether the somewhat bemused response by the press corps can be described as a fight is a matter of opinion. But even if Donaldson was the only one in the arena, he was as insistently feisty as ever yesterday.
"There are two or three -- I've got to tell you, there are two or three who just see it as a life-given perk," Donaldson, a former 1 1/2-pack-a-day smoker himself, said after sending off the letters. "Maybe it's the image -- the hard-boiled reporter with the glass of scotch and a cigarette. They seem to delight in it. I haven't looked into the legal aspect. I would hope it need not come to anything like that."
Copies of the Donaldson letters appeared on the press room bulletin board just before the 1 o'clock briefing began. "I hope I will have your support and the support of the President in this matter," read the letter to Speakes.
A knot of reporters gathered around and started doing what reporters do -- they pulled out notebooks and interviewed those concerned, in this case themselves. Quotes were culled. Wire stories rushed out. Although most seemed to agree with Donaldson that smoke is a problem, especially on the chartered press plane, the question failed to arouse strong emotions. As one correspondent put it, "I decided to do a story on this instead of Gramm-Rudman, which I'm really bored with."
"I'm afraid I'm fully against it," said Anne Leroux of EFE Spanish News Agency of the proposed ban, emphasizing her point by waving a newly lit cigarette. "I have to defend my interests."
Washington Times reporter Jeremiah O'Leary had already criticized Donaldson's remarks yesterday as so much hot air.
"I didn't mean to say that I think he is a holy zealot or speaking in tongues, but the sly suggestion he babbles a bit . . .," said O'Leary, a smoker, his voice fading and his smile growing.
On his way to Boston to give a speech, Donaldson missed the briefing and the White House's attempt to pass the butt:
"We're going to take that issue and ask that dynamic organization, the White House press correspondents' organization . . . to look into it and make a recommendation," said Speakes, drawing chuckles with the word "dynamic."
He got a round of laughter when he said he looks forward to hearing from the White House Correspondents Association on other pressing matters such as "press credential requirements, the invitation list to the press party, composition of pools, who rides in which press cars in the motorcades, the order in which pool members enter the Oval Office and Cabinet Room . . . We welcome your guidance on all of those."
But shunting the issue to the association will not be the equivalent of kissing it goodbye. CBS' Gary Schuster, association president, said the association will address it at a meeting later this week.
"We ought to be able to work this thing out," he said. "We ought to be able to clear the smoke, as they say."