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The White House reporters who made presidents fume long before Jim Acosta

Before the CNN correspondent, there was Gannett’s May Craig, ABC’s Sam Donaldson and UPI’s Helen Thomas

President Kennedy talks with White House reporters in 1961. At center is May Craig, then the Washington correspondent for the Portland Press Herald. (Byron Rollins/AP)

“What have you done for women?” one persistent reporter pressed then-President John F. Kennedy.

“Well, I’m sure we haven’t done enough,” Kennedy responded with a laugh to Gannett’s May Craig in November 1961.

The exchange was much more friendly than the recent confrontation between President Trump and CNN’s Jim Acosta that prompted the administration to ban the reporter from the White House. On Monday, CNN dropped its lawsuit against the White House after officials told the network that they would restore Acosta’s press credentials as long as he followed a new set of rules. The move follows a federal judge’s order on Friday that the reporter’s credentials be restored.

Acosta isn’t the first White House reporter to make waves at presidential news conferences. Craig, wearing a hat with flowers, was one of the first attention-getting reporters. Sarah McClendon and Helen Thomas posed tough questions for decades. ABC’s Sam Donaldson also drew notice with his aggressive questioning of presidents. But none were banned from the White House.

CNN's Nov. 13 lawsuit is not the first time the office of the president and the media have clashed. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Reporter banishment is a new chapter in presidential news conferences, which began with Woodrow Wilson in 1913. President Eisenhower started the first televised news conferences in 1955, but these were recorded and selected clips that were released to the press later.

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Kennedy began live televised news conferences on Jan. 25, 1961. He often called on 72-year-old Craig, who was a seasoned war correspondent. On the woman question, Kennedy answered further: “I must say I am a strong believer in equal pay for equal work, and I think that we ought to do better than we’re doing. And I’m glad that you reminded me of it, Mrs. Craig.”

McClendon, who headed a group of small newspapers in Texas, brought what she called “a pushy and sometimes confrontational” style to news conferences. In 1958, she pressed Eisenhower on why his administration wasn’t doing more to combat the recession. The president’s face reddened, and he clenched his fist as he began his answer: “Now, look …”

McClendon’s tactics sometimes got results. At a news conference in early 1974 she complained to then-President Richard Nixon that some Vietnam veterans were running into delays getting government checks to pay for college. When Nixon said the problem had been addressed, McClendon retorted: “No, you’re just misinformed.”

The president later said in a radio broadcast that because of questions from “a very spirited reporter” he had ordered changes. “Sarah McClendon,” Nixon once said, “asks questions that no man would ever think of.”

Not everybody appreciated the “little lady with the big voice,” as McClendon described herself. President George H.W. Bush warned her, “The loudest voice won’t always get recognized because it isn’t fair to the others.” Eric Sevareid of CBS News said McClendon was a “lady who has been known to give rudeness a bad name at times.” McClendon died in 2003 at age 92.

Thomas started covering the Kennedy White House for United Press International in 1961. She immediately gained a reputation as a tough questioner. Kennedy said of her, “Helen would be a nice girl if she’d ever get rid of that pad and pencil.”

Thomas didn’t stop asking pesky questions. When President Clinton called on Thomas to ask the first question following revelations about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Thomas said, “You may not like it.” She then pressed Clinton about his previous denials of any involvement. When George H.W. Bush announced that the defense budget wouldn’t be cut after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Thomas asked him, “Who’s the enemy?” In 2006, she asked President George W. Bush, “Why did you really go to war” in Iraq?

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In 1975, Thomas became the first female president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. She quit UPI in 2000 and soon joined the Hearst newspapers. Her long career abruptly ended under a cloud of controversy in 2010 after Thomas, who was of Lebanese descent, said Jews should leave Palestinian territories. She died in 2013 at age 92.

ABC’s Donaldson became known for shouting questions at presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Donaldson was all business all the time. When Reagan talked to reporters about his meeting with Mother Teresa, Donaldson bellowed: “What about the tax bill?"

Some confrontations took place in the press briefing room that Nixon had installed over the White House swimming pool. Reagan’s press secretary James Brady joked the president planned to install a button on his podium that he could press to open a trap door under reporters “who got out of line.” The briefing room is now named after Brady, who was shot and badly wounded during the 1981 attempted assassination of Reagan. Brady died in 2014.

Donaldson’s bluster never led to his being banned. Indeed, Reagan seemed to enjoy the confrontations. Once when the TV newsman asked Reagan whether he took any blame for the lingering recession in the early 1980s, the president quipped, “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.” Donaldson, who retired in 2013, is supporting the CNN lawsuit challenging the White House ouster of Acosta after Trump called the reporter “a rude, terrible person.” Donaldson, now 84, said, “President Harry Truman summed up the necessary interplay between a president and the press corps when he advised government officials at every level: ‘If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.’”

Even some journalists say Acosta sometimes draws too much attention to himself, but that pushing for answers is the job of White House reporters. As Thomas once said, in the arena of presidential news conferences, “There are no rude questions.”

Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor for the Wall Street Journal.

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