Renee Poussaint is smiling. She is looking back on eight years as anchor of Channel 7's newscasts, and she's looking ahead to five more.
She has just signed a new contract with WJLA, a five-year agreement that sent a clear signal -- as if one was needed -- that she is the heart of the station's news team. It is also a contract with enough longevity to carry her from familiar-face status to Washington institution.
So it is a time to smile. And it is a time to take stock: What has Renee Poussaint learned in eight years in Washington, and where does she go from here?
What has she learned? To avoid cocktail and dinner parties.
Where does she go from here? Probably to a dog pound, a shack by the water and, ultimately, to Philadelphia.
If her new contract indicates that Channel 7 in particular and Washington in general feel good about having Renee Poussaint here, she's grown to feel good about being here, too.
"I think I have more of a home-town feeling about Washington now than I did," said Poussaint. "I know more faces, and I know the names of the players.
"I've decided what's important to me and what is unimportant." At the top of the unimportant list are parties and dinners. She would rather be out doing something for a favorite cause.
"Four years ago I was speaking at the State Department in connection with Black History Month," she recalled. "Afterward I sat down with a group of women who said they were inspired by what I had said -- to do more for others." What did they plan to do? They weren't sure just yet, but they were having a cocktail party next month to talk it over. "I said, 'Go on without me.' "
One day each week Poussaint tutors District children under the auspices of Operation Rescue. She can also be found making appearances at schools or before senior citizens clubs and women's groups.
Because of her high visibility and commitment, her endorsement of a cause or organization carries meaning and impact. But helping out personally -- which she prefers to do -- has not always been as easy as rolling up her sleeves.
A while back she and humorist Art Buchwald were co-chairing an event on behalf of So Others Might Eat. "I sought out the administrator of the program before dinner," Poussaint recalled. "I asked if I could help make sandwiches in the back or help serve them out front.
"They were uncomfortable with the idea. They said I'd be a distraction. People would come because I was an attraction rather than because hey were hungry.
"They thought the way I could serve best was to raise money. In many ways they were right. But I wanted to make sandwiches!"
So she tutors and talks to groups about four times a week. "But they won't let me make sandwiches!
"I went through the same thing with a rape crisis center. I called and said I wanted to be a counselor," she said. She was told that her hours would be an obstacle. Later they let her make a speech. But she still wanted to do something more tangible. "Do you have envelopes to be addressed?
"I have to learn to acquiesce to other people's ideas of how I might be used rather than my sense of self-indulgence."
Behind the desire to address envelopes and make sandwiches is a family tradition nurtured in places as diverse as a Baptist church in Tennessee, Spanish Harlem and Harvard.
"I believe you should give back to the community," she said simply. "My family has always been active and involved with others. My mother's a retired social worker in New York. She retired as deputy commissioner of welfare. My grandfather (on her mother's side) was a Baptist minister in Humboldt, Tenn. My other grandfather was a printer who raised eight kids and was involved in community work in Spanish Harlem. My uncle (Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, psychiatrist and educator) is at Harvard. I was raised in a tradition where you were supposed to be involved in the community, making lives better."
She was also raised in a tradition that said you couldn't get too much education. Originally from New York, she holds a bachelor's degree in comparative literature from Sarah Lawrence College and a master's in African studies from the University of California. She has also studied at Indiana and Columbia universities, Yale law school and The Sorbonne.
Before coming to Washington she worked as a CBS correspondent in the network's Midwest and Washington bureaus and as a reporter for WBBM in Chicago.
Her interest in African affairs recently took her to Uganda. "I was rejuvenated by going there," she said, but was disturbed by parallels she found between Third- World women and those in Washington.
In an isolated, tradition-oriented region, she found the women "responsible for feeding the family and growing crops. A woman doctor I spoke with talked about the problems of helping women to see themselves in different roles . . . The men sit around . . . I thought about the boys along 14th Street and Martin Luther King Avenue who sit around.
"Crime over there is becoming a problem, and the women normally got married at 13 or 14. If they had eight babies, six died by age one. I thought about the black women of D.C., walking around with their bellies stuck out and the high infant mortality rate . . .
"There's got to be some way to break the cycle. It would be a shame to think that with western technology we can't offer a better future to the kids. There has to be a way to break the cycle."
Her professional pursuit of stories with strong human undercurrents has long been a mark of Poussaint's work. In 1980 she was taken into police custody while trying to interview Haitian migrant workers at a labor camp on the Eastern Shore. The resulting three-part report, "Bitter Harvest," won her an Emmy, as did her account of the return of the American hostages from Iran.
She continues to report stories herself, despite her anchor status, an image she does not see as her own. So what's kept her at the anchor desk for eight years, going on 13?
"I haven't the vaguest idea," she said. "Maybe it's because I'm not the traditional anchor type -- at least in terms of women. I'm not a fluff type, which is what many women get into -- this cuddly type person who sits next to the guy. That's not me" -- and then with a laugh -- "not on the air, anyway."
The image and status of women on television is another topic that brings out concern and scrap in Poussaint. At a recent convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas she agreed to sit on a panel on women in broadcasting. She and the other panelists were stunned to find their session scheduled as part of the spouses' program.
"Right next to jazzercise and flower- arranging," she quipped. "We used the occasion to trash the NAB -- over the fact that we were not taken seriously . . . It (broadcasting) is not an environment that's warm and wonderful (for women). And it's worse for blacks. They didn't even have a panel on blacks."
Her concern over such matters has prompted Poussaint to turn out several magazine articles recently. And when she looks ahead she sees herself spending more time at that sort of thing. "I'm going back to struggle with the typewriter," she said. ". . . I want to write more. I used to do short stories and I've let that lapse.
Then, consulting her agenda for the future: "I'm going to get a dog, probably a mutt. I'm going to buy a shack somewhe. Not a vacation home -- a shack. With a view of the water, even if it's only a pond." The shack will be the writing-place, with the pooch as company, an alternative to her Northwest D.C. home.
She also keeps part-time company with Henry Richardson, her husband since 1977 and a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. They see each other on weekends. He has tenure there, making Philadelphia a likely settle-down-together place when the commuter phase of the marriage ends.
"We were both very independent people" when we married, she said. During the week, they can commit themselves to their jobs "without feeling guilty about having to work late. When we get together we have a lot to share.
"We give each other space," she said, "to be as eccentric as we want to be."