Columnist Jack Germond's word on the telephone. The word, he says, is a favorite with President Carter. We talk about it in connection with presidential leadership, the Carter style and the absence of vividness in that style. I wonder how to bring up the Vivid Question on Saturday, when I will sit in the Oval Office with the president, undertaking a two-hour, live broadcast in which he answers questions from callers around the country.
The word is with me today because of the weather -- a clear, crisp October day, a federal holiday blessed with sunshine, little traffic and time to tend to family business (changing the goldfish's water, strolling with my husband Lou to a neighborhood basketball court to watch our son, Josh, shoot some balls.)
At home I read through background material gathered for the presidential broadcast. Four months before the '76 election, in a National Journal interview, candidate Carter was saying how important it is for the president to be a strong leader. The statement catches my eye, and I copy it to take to the broadcast. The question of leadership may be pivotal on our program; it certainly will be pivotal in the coming campaign.
My mother asks what I will wear to the White House. She has a cold. I hope she doesn't notice that I'm keeping as far away from her as possible. Colds are radio broadcasters' nightmares. Break a leg, get shingles or appendicitis and we're the souls of compassion and sympathy. Catch a cold and we treat you like lepers. I'm always careful about colds, but his especially so. Tuesday
Monday radio news programs are rarely worth listening to. Like cars on the assembly line, news programs get better by Wednesday. Mondays, the staff is shaking off weekend lethargy, little has happened on Saturday or Sunday to provide grist for the reporting and analyzing mills, no one is geared up to the pace of the week and ideas are slow in coming.
By Wednesday the program is perking; Thursday tends to be the best broadcast day of the week (the words are flowing well, originality takes up reisdence in typewriters and behind microphones), and by Friday it's a happy tossup. Either the Friday program is fantastic because you see the light at the end of the tunnel and looseen up just that extra inch so something exciting and unpredictable happens, or it happens anyway, just because the momentum has been building all week, and Friday is you last shot at it for two days.
Since yesterday was a holiday, today is my Monday. The ideas come slowly and I grope for words.
For tonighths program I interview a New York Times corrspondent in Belegrade about a Czech playwright whose citzenship has been revoked. A colunmist for Linn's Stamp News tells me stamps can be a good hedge against inflation if you know what you're doing. (I don't and never have. When I was 9, my father bought me a plastic bag of stamps to start my collection. I cut off all the perforations because I thought they looked sloopy.)
At 3:30 I watch President Carter's news conference and notice that reporters want to talk about politics, Kennedy and leadership, but the president wants to talk about SALT, the Soviets and the accomplishments of his administration. I wonder if callers on Saturday will be as interested in politics, Kennedy and leadership as is the White House press corps. Wednesday
Snow? On the 10th of October? Seventeen years ago, when we moved here from Boston, Lou and I were delighted to be coming South, safe from snowstorms. He clings to the myth, oblivious to wather changes over the years, and refuses to turn on the heat until Thanksgiving, when it's appropriate (he says) for winter to begin. The house is freezing.
It's better at the office. No heat there either, but all the tape recorders and consoles and other equipment keep us comfortable.
Today's interviews are the usual pastiche. One conversation is about the 14.5 percent prime interest rate. New York's mayor wants to broadcast the names of menconvicted of patronizing prostitutes. An advocate for prostitutes' rights tell me Mayor Koch's move is a charade and harms prostitutes and the wives of the men.
(SECTION) outh African writer Nadine Gordimer speaks the words that resonate all day. Most days, from all the many interviews, one statement will emerge to become part of my permanent baggage, something I'll come back to weeks from now, to mull or process or use again, in another taped conversation. I ask how she can continue living and working in South Africa, writing as passionately as she does against apartheid.
"Well," Gordimer says, "I always think that for writers, wherever they are, the ideal way to write is as if you were already dead, as if it didn't matter what anybody said about what you write . . . You simply write what you want to write, what you know. Your job is to explore things as deeply as possible."
A listener sends a two-page typewritten question for President Carter, asking why he doesn't release classified information about UFOs. I'll send it upstairs, where it will be dropped into the big cartons of mail from citizens who want to be called on Saturday. Names will be drawn at random. We specifically asked listeners not to send their questions, to avoid the possibility of prescreening.
Home for dinner and the World Series. Huddled in sweaters, wrapped in blankets, Josh says he knows how ice cubes feel and he's sorry for them. Thursday
The White House wants Lou's and Josh's Social Security numbers. They will sit in the Cabinet Room during the Saturday broadcast to watch on closed-circuit television. I can comply with only half the request. Josh's 75-cent-a-week allowance doesn't qualify him for a Social Security card.
We leave NprY at 6:30 p.m. for a technical rehearsal in the Oval Office.
I'm surprised at how large the room is. And how antiseptic. It feels like a well-appointed hotel room unlived in, a place for ceremonies.
A member of Jody Powell's staff says the White House want to be sure we don't suppress any hostile questioners on Saturday.
I wander around the Oval Office, looking at "The Buck Stops Here" sign next to a bust of Harry Truman and bookcases filled with old bindings: Jefferson's Complete Works, nine volumes; Lincoln's Collected Works, eight volumes. On a bottom shelf, three fat, newly bound books: Jimmy Carter, 1977, I; Jimmy Carter, 1977, II; Jimmy Carter, 1978, I. The green leather is starlingly bright, the gold-leaf printing shines. For the first time I feel the presence of Jimmy Carter in this large room. I'm stuck by the immense personal effort it took to earn space for those three books on this shelf.
On the president's desk is a small bronze plaque given to him by Adm. Hyman Rickover. It bears the prayer of an anonymous British fisherman: "O God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small."
I walk aroudn for quite some time before I feel ready to sit in the wing chair in front of the fireplace, where I will broadcast.
The crew works quietly, setting up microphones, telephones, speakers and audio consoles. Lines of cable snake across the rug, hitching equipment together. These tools of our trade are reassuring in their obtrusiveness. They anchor us to new places and convert strange surroundings into the studios we're familiar with. The rehearsal goes well, and we leave at 10:30. Friday
yat tonight's rehearsal, "The Buck Stops Here" sign is missing. I wonder if it's stopping someplace else now. Something new has been added, however. On a coffee table in front of the chairs we'll use for the broadcast, there's a closed-circuit television monitor. On the screen will appear the names of the callers and the towns in which they live. Each caller's name will remain on the screen for the entire conversation, so the president may use the name as he answers the question.
I've brought something for the room, too. A sign I painted three years ago for a colleague who was nervous before a difficult broadcast. I've borrowed the sign, to prop at my feet on Saturday. It says, "It's Only a Radio Program."
The rehearsal is flawless and the tensions of the day before seem to have evaporated. Rehearsals help. Sitting in the chairs demystifies them.
Again we're not finished until 10:30. We pack to leave, but are detained near the Rose Garden. The president is jogging on the road at the back of the mansion. We cannot go until he has finished. We stand on the porch in the cold, damp air and look out into the night.
Every minute and a half he passes us, a ghost in his white T-shirt and shorts, jogging silently and alone, past the guardhouses and quiet broadcasters. He walks the last half lap and we can hear and see his breath in the sharp air.
Dark shadows of guards move to the steps of the mansion. A door opens and closes. The presient has come inside. We are free to go home. Saturday
There has to be a better way to reduce tension than sitting in a hairdresser's chair, which is what I'm doing at 8:30 this morning. Lou takes me to the White House and drives off with my corduroy bag of notes, but it's all right, he returns and the problem is solved.
It's 9:30. A full 2 1/2 hours to pace the floor of the Oval Office and reread the notes for the 400th time. At 11, the engineer want a voice level. Ten minutes before air time, the president arrives. We shake hands and I sense that he is even more aborbed than I am. We sit in our appointed places, adjust the microphones, the producer gives his cue and I hear my voice: "Good afternoon, President Carter."
"The mikes are out." Producer Frank Fitzmaurice's voice at 10 seconds past 2. We're off the air. I push away my microphone and President Carter stands up, smiling. Engineers Gary Henderson and Ed Jones break their trance-like stares at the audio console dials. Production assistant Deborah Amos caps the felt pen she's used to write down callers' names. We got out on time (every broadcaster's ultimate goal).
The Oval Office remain strangely quiet. The handshaking and congratulations are subdues. Each of us is playing back the broadcast in his head, testing for strengths, wondering about opportunities missed. Slowly the concentration defuses.
A photographer comes in, snapping souvenirs -- a shot of Josh and Lou with president. Carter chats with members of the crew, then goes into the Cabinet Room to visit with NPR and Corporation for Public Broadcasting officials who have listened to the program there. Moments later he has left and we begin tearing down the makeshift studio.
I put my notes and papers back into the big corduroy bag. There's just enough space left to wedge in the sign, "It's Only a Radio Program."