Up at 6:45. Made some headway clipping articles saved over weekend. A messy, rainy morning. Didn't reach my booth at the White House until 9:15. Started lining people up for lunch next week when I'll have "Today" show responsibilities instead of the evening news.
Today South Korean President Chun is paying a state visit. At 10 a.m. the White House releases an addition to the Chun schedule: the arrival of Mrs. Chun at the North Portico at 11:40. I decide we can handle it with the two crews we normally have.
At 10:40 the press is sorted to the South Lawn in the rain to wait for Mr. Chun. We wait 15 minutes. All we see is the short walk by Vice President Bush and the president (under a canopy) out to the driveway to greet Chun when he steps out of his limousine. No words are spoken. Just a brief posing for photographs. I am less frustrated about such seemingly fruitless adventures than I was during my first year or two covering the White House -- I have learned that missing the "actual event" may mean missing some gesture, or facial expression, or knowing which White House aides were involved, any of which may enhance the story. If that sounds like I'm trying to justify it because it's what the competition does, I'll deny it.
In the 30 minutes or so before the first briefing of the day by Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes, I finished skimming the newspapers. I reread clips I've collected on Chun. At 11:30 Speakes begins to brief, and miraculously, the questions keep flowing for half an hour. Shortly after 12, I rush to a luncheon date with a top White House aide. Somewhat revealing lunch: Rivalries on White House staff already beginning to surface.
I return to the White House, just late enough to miss the last escort to the South Lawn to watch Mr. Chun's departure. I hear the toasts by Reagan and Chun piped in to the press briefing room, then hear the departure statements.
Normally there is only one Nightly News story from the White House per day, but today the Federal Election Commission releases a report showing the Reagan campaign spent more than the legal limit in the New Hampshire primary. My colleague John Palmer is asked to prepare a story. Nightly only expects me to handle the South Korea story. The FEC story is later dropped.
At 3 a briefing by "a senior State Department official" begins. Reporters are in for 45 minutes of the new Reagan administration hard line: no more bother with human rights (despite their deal with Chun to have the Kim Dae Jung sentence commuted), and overriding concern with holding back the Communist onslaught.
For some reason I have trouble writing the script. I've been given a minute and 40 seconds, and there is plenty of film, but despite the good quotes from the briefing, I make it too complex. I don't send my script in for approval (on a telecopier) until after 4:30, and don't do my narration (on what we call the loudmouth microphone in the radio booth, connected directly to the video tape editing rooms at NBC's bureau on Nebraska Avenue) until about 5:15. The producer has already told me what pictures work well and which ones don't. He knows which sound "bites" I want. I finish the end of the script a little after 5:30. It shouldn't have taken this long. After a conversation with the Washington producer of Nightly News in New York, I go outdoors to do the "standup close." The camera crew is set up on the grass of the north lawn of the White House. The camera is pointed in the direction of the main building. I stand about four or five feet in front of the camera, so the White House is clearly visible behind me. It is cold and windy -- I worry that blowing hair will distract from what I'm saying -- but see later when I watch the 7 p.m. show that it was not so bad. The camera crews work wonders.
Later, my husand Al, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, and I have a lovely dinner at a Mexican restaurant on Capitol Hill. Our guest is Chris Dodd, newly elected senator from Connecticut. It's after midnight when we get home. I skim Newsweek and The Baron Report, go to bed thinking I'll read them more carefully sitting under the hair dryer in the morning. TUESDAY, FEB. 3
Rumor spreads at 10:30 that Press Secretary Jim Brady will give a briefing any minute. Rumor continues right up to 11:45 when the pool forms in to witness a photo opportunity of the president's meeting with 12 mayors. I wait until 11:55, still no photo op, so I rush to a luncheon appointment with an ex-Reagan campaign worker. I hear more interesting observations about the evolving White House power structure. Some contradict what I heard yesterday. Half walk, half run back to the White House, thinking I've missed a question-and-answer session with the mayors. But by 1:45 they've still not emerged from the family dining room. At 2 a White House-selected group of five mayors appears in the briefing room to face the press. They are all remarkably resigned to the fact that federal aid to the cities may be gutted.
Start work on my script at 3:30, placing two phone calls to a White House aide who was in the meetings with the mayors. He is someone I need to get to know better. It's frustrating not knowing most of the staff here yet.
My script is finished on time; I am the lead story. I am ready to do my standup at 5:30, but the camera crew asks me to wait until the lights are turned on outside the White House to make a better background. I wait till 6. It is dark and very cold. I listen to CBS' Baltimore station at 6:30, then to NBC at 7. CBS gave Lesley Stahl 2 1/2 minutes for her spot; I had 1 1/2. WEDNESDAY, FEB. 4
Brady won't tell us much about what happened in today's cabinet meeting. Later, NBC documentary executive producer Les Crystal drops by after a meeting with a senior White House official. He says the White House is willing to cooperate with a request to do "A Day in the Life Of" Reagan. Crystal gets busy on the phone in our little NBC booth, talking to execs in New York. He hopes to have it ready for air by the following Friday. That will mean around-the-clock work on a full day of tape.
I work on stories by phone, including Reagan's address to the nation tomorrow night. Each network is permitted to send one reporter in for a private session with Reagan tomorrow afternoon. I must do my homework tonight.
I stay at the White House until 8:30, drafting responses to some viewer mail.
I leave for home feeling a little down, because I didn't do a story. But before I leave I have a brief chat with a reporter colleague who shares my nagging feeling that the Reagan team is perhaps too sophisiticated in handling the press. I sense we are a strange beast in their eyes, to be stroked and accommodated but always on their terms. We are given access, interviews with the president, all with a smile. But the lottery system at the next news conference rankles badly, so does limiting the number of network reporters in each photo op, so does the move of the deputy press secretary yesterday to cut questions off before the press is finished talking with the group of mayors. I sense they are determined not to let bad press "take over." It's early for them to be so worried about the media. Whatever happened to the honeymoon? THURSDAY, FEB. 5
Arrive at the White House about 10:30. There are two photo ops, one in the Oval Office, where the president poses with some Boy Scouts who make him an honarary member. The second is in the Rose Garden. There, Reagan tells high school students interning on Capitol Hill that he always thought the Rose Garden was full of roses, till he saw it a couple of weeks ago and realized it was mostly grass. "I won't mention it to Nancy, though," he said, "or she'll be out here with a spade."
Most of the rest of the afternoon is spent preparing for the interview with Reagan. No cameras. I must also prepare a tentative script for the Nightly News, a curtain-raiser on tonight's Reagan speech.
At 4, after sending one script in to the show producer, I leave with my colleagues from ABC and CBS for the White House, accompanied by Press Secretary Jim Brady. We sit in the library on the ground floor and wait for Reagan. He is disarming, easy to like. Just the right dose of self-effacement. He says little new about the economy -- what's interesting is that he feels his schedule has been so packed these first two weeks that he "hasn't had time to be president." Being in the White House is like being a bird in a gilded cage.
Back in the booth I frantically digest 40 minutes of the interview and write a new script, which is finished at 5. The bureau chief calls to ask that we stay in closer touch these early days of the administration. He feels trips are being planned and ligistical decisions made that he doesn't learn about soon enough.
After I talk to the New York "Washington" producer, Bill Wheatley, I quickly put makeup on in the small, poorly lighted women's restroom in the press area, do a radio narration to run at 6, then at 5:35 dash outside to do my standup and voiceover.
After several "takes," because I wanted to get the narration just right, I return to the booth and listen to my tape recording of the Reagan interview and prepare a second hourly radio spot. Radio has failed to use my first spot for the 6 o'clock show. I call to ask why and am told the Washington editor doesn't know; she says New York had it in plenty of time to write it into the show. Oh well, I hear CBS at 6:30, see NBC at 7, and switch to ABC for a minute: all three network correspondents did about the same thing.
I buy dinner at a grocery store on the way home, then watch the Reagan speech. FRIDAY, FEB. 6
Up at 7. At home I talk by phone to a health and welfare legislation expert about the impact of the budget cuts.
I don't reach the White House till after 9:30. The place is already a flurry of rumors about "surprise" photo ops for Reagan's 70th birthday.
Later I am told by a press aide to move quietly to the Oval Office. There, standing around a five-foot-tall cake, are House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Sen. Paul Laxalt, House Majority Leader Jim Wright, House Republican leader Bob Michel and Congressman Tom Evans, with Nancy Reagan. Reporters and photographers wait for Reagan to enter the room. A cute scene when Wright picks up Mrs. Reagan so she can reach the candle on top of the cake. The president looks surprised when he comes in, receives a few gifts and does some joking. It's hard to imagine Carter having done this.
Al and I talk by phone to make sure we have our plans straight for tonight: We're invited to a dinner party for a cabinet secretary at 7:30, but I can't leave the White House until after 7 when I will turn over to correspondent Emory King the task of watching arrivals at 7:30 for a Reagan party. Al must do a show for public television, which means he can't be at the party until 8:45. I pledge to get there by 8.
Talk at the party is about how successful Reagan's speech was last night. MONDAY, FEB. 9
My script is finished. After discussions with New York at 5, I fix my make-up. Go to the north lawn where the crew jokes with me, as usual. The sound man hands me a microphone, says he likes the color of the bow on my blouse. I ask the cameraman if he thinks there is enough light on me and if the camera is high enough so I won't look squatty. He assures me both are fine and I see later he was right, as usual.
Several more calls come in, on the budget, but nothing is better than what I already have. I hold my breath to see if CBS or ABC has the same information. As it turns out, they don't. Hooray. TUESDAY, FEB. 10
Up at 6:30 so I can head to the grocery store to buy food needed for our dinner party tonight. At the White House there is an 8:15 photo op in the small formal dining room: Reagan having breakfast with four labor leaders who endorsed him during the campaign.
It is becoming apparent how worried the Reagan people are that the economic package is coming across as anti-poor. At lunch a White House aide says, "We don't want a class battle, the rich pitted against the poor." They hope to dispel that impression by reducing tax benefits for the wealthy and by stressing cuts in subsidies that help big business.
The evening news producers tell me around 2:30 that they want what won't be cut from the budget. I start to write a script a little after 3, knowing there'll be many visuals, and that it will require some fancy graphics and editing.
I opt for simplicity. Too many programs confuses the audience, and I've been given only 1:45 air time.
After much working and reworking, I decide to list the still-vulnerable areas of the budget briefly, and add a scene with Doug Fraser of the UAW saying he'll fight the cuts if they amount to a dismantling of much of the Great Society and New Deal. I close with my explanation that the list of non-cuts was released because of growing worry at the White House about appearing anti-poor. I add that they're also worried enough to be considering ways to balance the package by reducing benefits to the rich -- benefits such as tax deductions on mortgage interest on second and third homes. That line is cut by the New York producer over my strong objections.
Today was a good day for visuals, something I'm always worried about, at least about visuals that match my words. There is always pressure in television to make the story as visually interesting as possible, but sometimes this cannot be done. There are days when the news develops so late or when there are no applicable pictures that the entire story consists of a standup on the White House lawn. It is always a challenge to make a story come alive on the screen, a "little movie" every day.
Our strength in television is that we have the emotional, visual impact of pictures. I sometimes chafe at the need to think up some clever line to close a piece with. Sometimes I believe these are superfluous and it is better to end simply with another line of information or an interesting quote. It is true, though, that the audience expects each piece to be a self-contained story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
I hear the CBS program at 6:30. I watch only the beginning of the NBC news. I must pick up Al and rush home to cook dinner. The guests arrive in less than an hour. THURSDAY, FEB. 12
This is John Palmer's day (he is my NBC colleague covering the White House) to prepare a piece for the evening news, so I must pick up other threads.
There is a last-minute surprise. A loudspeaker in the press area announces that the Italian foreign minister, who has been in for a short meeting with Reagan, will be available in front of the West Wing lobby. I have to pull a camera crew off of its lunch break, literally in mid-hamburger, to cover the ambassador and Secretary of State Haig. No news, like so many of these impromptu interviews.
During the Carter administration, people who had been in to meet with the president, or with members of his senior staff, often would stop in the circular driveway, in front of the West Wing Lobby, to talk with reporters. Members of Congress were the easiest to grab: They almost always want publicity. Others, such as business people, are more bashful and sometimes downright hostile, because, apparently, they expect us to "distort" what they say.
Other constituency groups -- environmentalists, women's rights advocates, farmers, Hispanics -- have a message and want whatever press coverage they can get. During the Reagan administration, these constituency groups have been invited to send their top few spokesmen into the press briefing room. The few who are selected by the White House to act as spokesmen seem reluctant to criticize. The extra White House control apparently dampens any urges to state their disagreements with the president. It's an effective technique. Apparently the Reagan people saw many instances on the evening newscasts of people emerging from meetings with President Carter only to slice him up.
Tonight it is my turn to work, and it is also NBC's turn to be travel pool.
The president and Mrs. Reagan are going to the vice president's house for dinner. The 10 members of the pool are escorted at about 6:45 out to the south grounds of the White House to sit in two vans and await the departure of the Reagans. We are part of a motorcade that includes the presidential limousine. As we approach the vice president's home at the Naval Observatory, the NBC camera crew in the first van opens up the sun roof and stands up through it to take pictures of the limousine pulling onto the grounds. Once inside, however, only the Reagan limousine and a single Secret Service follow-up car are permitted to enter the driveway in front of the house. The rest of us must run up to the house. I run up as the Bushes and Reagans are disappearing inside and do not get close enough to ask a question.
Rather than sitting in the press vans for two and a half hours, while the president enjoys his dinner, the pool is driven to a nearby restaurant and returns just before 9. About 30 minutes later, reporters shout a question at Reagan as he emerges from the house. It is about the budget. He answers, but tries to keep it light and short, saying, "It's cold."
We run back to the vans: the president's limousine waits for no one. These events I would just as soon miss. MONDAY, FEB. 16
For what seems like the 15th day in a row, I try to dream up a new angle on the "economic plan." The producer in Washington doesn't seem interested in more material on how the administration plans to sell the package, so I focus on the nuts and bolts. I learn the cuts will be closer to $40 billion than the $50 billion budget director David Stockman and others have been saying. No earth-shattering development elsewhere today, so my piece leads the evening news.
Our booth is located in a corner at the back of the press lobby, with a straight view of the main lobby area. The booth is enclosed with glass and a sliding door, which is slammed back and forth several times -- no, many times -- a day for privacy. Inside there are a seven-foot counter, two typewriters, three chairs -- where Bill Lynch, John Palmer and I sit when we're all here -- and immediately adjacent is a glassed-in soundproof booth where radio spots are narrated or voiceovers for television done. The radio booth also serves as the only place around to have a truly private phone conversation.
It gets rather stuffy. What makes it nerve-wracking on many days is the frequent use of the noisy telecopier. Whatever happened to the good old days when we dictated our scripts? (Radio requires many scripts a day for hourly broadcasts.) There are two small TV sets crammed into the booth, plus radio equipment, tape recorders and items that probably don't need to be there.
It is not quite the glamarous scene most television viewers have in mind when they see me doing a standup on the northwest grounds of the White House. By the way, if people wonder why they see only that one angle in our standups, it's because the White House has traditionally restricted network correspondents to that area of the lawn. The north, northeast and south grounds are off-limits.
Although I know viewers think this is a glamarous job in many ways, I don't really spend much time thinking about my celebrity status. I do get recognized on the street, and in airports, and drug stores from time to time. But whenever I start to get an inflated idea of my own importance, something will happen, as it often did during last year's presidential campaign:
I would arrive at a rally with the rest of the press corps and have a few admirers run up to me and say they see me on television, and really enjoy my work. Then they ask, "Could I have your autograph, Jessica?" Or, "Could I have my picture taken with you Lesley?" Jessica Savitch is with NBC and Lesley Stahl is with CBS. Neither is brunet. TUESDAY, FEB. 17
Today I learn that the deficit Reagan will project for his 1982 budget will be considerably larger than the deficit projected by Carter. This is surprising because of Reagan's emphasis on cutbacks in government spending. The Carter projected deficit was $28.5 billion; the Reagan deficit is $45 billion. This is a story I report exclusively tonight. My competitor at ABC says the 1982 deficit will be $17.5 billion. My Washington producer calls me at 7 to bring the ABC report to my attention. I tell him not to worry -- I'm sure my figures are right.
There is always a temptation to gloat in this business, when one turns up a good story, but I keep quiet. There may come a day when my facts aren't quite right. WEDNESDAY, FEB. 18
This is one of those days when a reporter wonders if she should just let the story tell itself. The Reagan economic recovery package is finally being unveiled. There are 8 a.m. briefings by the treasury secretary, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and by the budget director. There are two-inch-thick documents plus reams of other fact sheets and charts and analyses, not to mention printed summaries of "key points." We are bombarded with paper, but find little startling news because so much of the story has leaked out over the past few weeks. Worse, all this material is "embargoed" until 9 p.m. when the president will deliver his speech.
So I must construct a story for the evening news that includes none of the "specifics" in the material I've read. It seems a silly pretense.
We use pictures taken during the day of Reagan meeting with congressional leaders and working on his speech, building a story around the rudiments of the plan.
Before listening to Reagan's speech at 9, I must prepare an "11th-hour," our nickname for the stories based on events that occur after the 6:30 or 7 p.m. newscast. These normally run about a minute and 15 seconds, and they are fed electronically by the network to all NBC affiliates for their use in their 11 p.m. local newscasts. THURSDAY, FEB. 19
I marvel at how the Reagan staff has managed to keep the economic crisis the center of attention. But there's been luck involved. If the Soviets had invaded Poland, Reagan would have had a big mess on his hands, one he could not ignore no matter how much he wanted to focus on the domestic economy. How long will it be before the press begins to pick him apart? He seems largely oblivious to criticism. It's as if he's been called a "kook" for so long by liberals that criticism doesn't matter.
So far the White House seems to accommodate the press as much as possible on the nonsticky issues, and don't answer the sticky questions. No, that's not fair. They are answering most questions, but not in an in-depth manner. I suppose that if they spelled out their policy toward Poland to the ninth degree, we would have a big story that would take attention away from the economic package.
Heaven forbid. FRIDAY, FEB. 20
The quietest day since the Reagan inauguration. The only bit of news we are offered are some personnel announcements we're told will be released after 1, and some meetings Vice President Bush is having. When Carter left town early in his administration, Vice President Mondale would invite reporters and photographers in for "newsy" meetings. It was his only chance to get the press to pay much attention to him.
But Press Secretary Pete Teeley insists that the three major networks "pool" the pictures, that only one network camera crew go to the meetings. He wants us to redistribute cassettes to the other two major networks, several independent networks -- such as the Cable News Network, Independent Network News, Independent Television News -- and perhaps still others. The NBC desk has refused it; it would entail a great deal of time and many cassettes for a story of marginal value. The other two major networks refuse too. Later, Teeley's office calls the three networks and offers to let them all go in to take pictures of Bush meeting with the Saudi foreign minister and Haig. MONDAY, FEB. 23
There is seldom, if ever, enough time to tell a story adequately. I'm not sure I've ever grown entirely accustomed to leaving out material I think is important. But I have learned to grit my teeth and limit the piece to a minute and 15 or 30 seconds. We have less time for stories than the other networks because of our special segment features -- as long as five minutes each. They add depth that other stories cannot provide. I resent the time they take, but I realize their value and boast about them when people say network television does "shallow" news reporting. TUESDAY, FEB. 24
Before I must cover the dinner Reagan hosts for the 47 visiting governors, I sneak away for dinner with Al and a member of the cabinet, and his wife and three of his staff members. The cabinet member is someone Al knows better than I, but we both enjoy the two of them. The cabinet secretary talks candidly about his relations with the White House and his great admiration for Reagan. It isn't unqualified admiration, but it's real. I didn't expect him to say anything different, I suppose, but the fact that he acknowledged the shortcomings and still predicts success is something I note.
Questions have been raised about how well reporters can do their jobs if they become friendly with the people they cover. I think reporters must avoid developing close friendships with the people they cover. But some social contact between the press and the politicians is a helpful way of gaining a better understanding of the people and institutions.
Maintaining objectivity is more of a potential problem in Washington than any other city in the country. Only here are reporters elevated to a position of influence almost equal with the politicians and lobbyists they cover. That bothers me. One can only be aware of it and not take advantage of it, but, obviously, some do.
When I've been asked about the fact that I may earn more money than some of the people I cover, I respond honestly that it's not something I think about. What the people I cover earn in goverment is often much less than what they earned in private life, and in many cases not indicative of their net worth. I have no sense that viewers think about the money I make -- not one has ever mentioned it in my mail. THURSDAY, FEB. 26
The first formal state arrival ceremony for a visiting head of state. Margaret Thatcher's limousine pulls up a 10 sharp, amid pomp and circumstance the White House is uniquely capable of exhibiting -- the diplomatic corps, the White House staff, cabinet members, the press corps, the honor guards from each branch of the military and a crowd of several hundred.
ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson's voice cracks through the air: "Bring her on out!"
All heads turn -- including that of Counselor to the President Edwin Meese. We hear later that Meese is so outraged by Sam's remark that he has a staff member telephone the top brass at ABC to complain. Rumor has it that Meese relays a warning: Either Sam restrains himself or his White House press pass will be taken away.
There is much chuckling over the incident. Sam is frequently the subject of humorous, actions. It's all the more funny because he normally gets away with it. It occurs to me that his behavior is simply indicative of what many of us who cover the White House feel: the desire to let loose after being confined to close quarters, spending an entire day in the West Wing waiting for phone calls to be returned, or for the next photo opportunity which we cannot miss because the competition is there.
There is no question that we occassionally thrash out in frustration over the rules and restraints we're told to observe.
The White House staff wants order, predictablity, no surprises. That makes it easier to make a president look good. But the press yearns for a little confusion, disorder, surprise -- even a healthy shock once in a while. The unexpected is news, the expected is not. MONDAY, MARCH 30
This morning it was NBC's turn to be the pool network covering the president's early afternoon trip to the Washington Hilton Hotel to make a speech to the AFL-CIO Building Trades Conference. Normally, a travel pool is not particularly interesting except to be the reporter who asks the president a question.
At about 1:45 the pool leaves with the motorcade to wind their way north on Connecticut Avenue to the Hilton. The speech is uneventful, another pitch for the economic package. Afterwards, the pool is rushed back out the same doors we came in, while the president uses a private door.
When I run out the doors facing T Street and cross the motorcade, it is just about 2:25 p.m. I wonder whether to run up to the president's limousine to ask him a question. I realize my travel pool camera crew is not close enough to pick up the sound, so I stay where I am, about 20 feet from the limousine.
Suddenly, the bang-bang-bang-bang. I see smoke and everyone crouching, so I crouch too, looking for the president. By this time, he is down below the level of the car roof and I can't see him clearly, but all around me people are shouting -- Secret Service agents are waving machine guns and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deavers runs to the staff car next to me and jumps in, shouting, "Let's go, let's go!" The press pool vans are beginning to follow the president's motorcade. I don't have time to jump inside one of them, so I run to where police are subduing the gunman. We don't know at this point if he was the only one shooting, so there is still panic. I hear screams and shouts and orders being barked by police and Secret Service agents. A squad car takes the gunman away.
Seconds later ambulances arrive to take the three wounded men away. One of them I am told is Jim Brady. I had seen a man with a balding head lying on his stomach and writhing in pain. The blood lying in a pool under his head raised my worst fears before I ever glimpsed the wound over his eye. I felt sick to my stomach. Brady is someone I have come to like over the past few months -- the contrast between his jovial personality and the agony he's going through now is indescribable. I run across the street to a telephone to call NBC radio first, then the television news desk. Bureau chief Sid Davis tells me to go straight to the White House.
I am back at the White House a little after 3 p.m. after what seems like an interminable taxi drive. For the next two hours I stand in front of a camera doing periodic reports on developments at the White House, on the president's condition, on Secretary of State Haig's extradionary statement that he was "in control" while Bush was flying to Washington.
It was an unforgettable day, shocking and searing. Learning that the president had, after all, been hit made me realize how close he had come to death. Seeing Brady lying on the ground, where just a few seconds earlier he'd been walking reminded me what a hazardous position the presidency is.
When I reach home a little after midnight, what happened only begins to sink in. Later in the week, I am asked how I could appear calm on camera after witnessing an assassination attempt. It's not because it doesn't affect me -- it certainly does. But reporters rarely have the luxury of wearing their emotions on their sleeves. There is an unpretentious need to convey an assurance that what you're saying is accurate and sober, above all not to inject a sense of panic among viewers. This is done without calculation -- it is how reporters are expected to respond, and we do so without quite realizing how we managed to do it.