The White House
by Eleanor Clift
I arrived in Washington in December of 1976, after covering Jimmy Carter’s campaign This meant I was now part of Mel Elfin’s bureau, twinned with Tom DeFrank in a team Mel dubbed Tomellie. Mel would joke he had two White House correspondents and neither had a college degree. I had dropped out of Hofstra and then Hunter College in New York while Tom, a proud graduate of Texas A&M, took Mel’s kidding in stride. Mel, like me, was born in Brooklyn; one of my older brothers was in his class at Brooklyn Tech, the competitive high school, though they didn’t know each other.
An early gesture Mel made in welcoming me to Washington was to take me to lunch at the upscale Sans Souci, where he had a regular table with his buddy Art Buchwald. I was star struck about Buchwald, whose humor columns I had read in Newsweek for years. I didn’t understand at first what he and Mel saw in this restaurant. As I remember it, being seated in the central dining area meant you were on display, and everyone at the surrounding tables stared. That was the point, I later learned, an early tutorial on the ways of Washington.
One of the many end-of-an-era moments I’ve experienced over my decades in Washington was the closing of the Sans Souci and the opening soon afterwards of the McDonalds that now stands in its place on 17th Street, a block from the White House.
My Eleanor: I had never been in the White House before being assigned there. In the early
spring of 1977, only months after Carter had taken office, I was in the pressroom when Jody Powell, the press secretary, tapped me on the shoulder and said the president wanted to see me. I figured this must be standard procedure if you’re a White House correspondent. For the record, it never happened again with Carter or any of his successors. “You’ve come to talk about my Eleanor,” Carter exclaimed as Jody ushered me into the Oval Office.
Newsweek was doing a cover on Rosalynn Carter because the president had apparently overstepped some imaginary line with regard to First Ladies by deciding to send his wife to Latin America as his representative. “Who elected her?” screamed certain portions of the electorate. Carter wasn’t going to back down (good for him), and his reference to “my Eleanor” of course conjured up Eleanor Roosevelt and her activism. It also turns out that Rosalynn’s first name is Eleanor. For a long time I thought maybe I dreamed that part, but when I visited the First Ladies museum in Canton, Ohio, there was Rosalynn’s portrait with the identification, Eleanor Rosalynn Carter.
Like most White House reporters then and now, I complained about the lack of access to the president and his advisors, but when I look back I realize how good Tomellie had it back in the day. We had weekly sit-downs with top aides and members of the inner circle during the Carter and Reagan administrations, which we covered together. They cared about what we reported in the files we wrote late into the night on Thursdays, and they anticipated our pleadings for anecdotes and giblets to sprinkle into our stories.
Take a Seat: Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, was chronically late for whatever appointment his loyal assistant made for him,
which meant that Tom and I got to spend long periods of time seatedjust outside Hamilton’s corner office where we could monitor the comings and goings of top aides, take the temperature of whatever crisis was consuming the day, and also watch the pile of Hamilton’s dirty tennis whites mount under the desk. Jordan had the reputation then of the bad boy of the Carter administration, and his disdain for the mores of Washington did get him in trouble. But he was immensely smart and decent, and as a source, always worth waiting for.
I have a White House pass to cover the Obama administration, and so does Tom DeFrank, who is there for the Daily News. I can’t imagine anyone in the Obama White House allowing reporters the kind of freewheeling access we enjoyed back then. Jim Baker, when he was Reagan’s chief of staff, used to laugh about my role on the McLaughlin Group when I [the designated liberal on the panel] defended him against the charge leveled by the Right that he wasn’t “letting Reagan be Reagan.”
That was an early example for me of mixing reporting with punditry. Once frowned upon in journalism as a line that shouldn’t be crossed, cable television and the blogosphere have blurred all those distinctions. A lot of the old rules are now obsolete, with one enduring exception. The best journalism comes from what we used to call shoe-leather reporting, and that’s what Newsweek did best.
Eleanor Clift joined Newsweek as a secretary in New York in 1963, moved to Atlanta as Girl Friday, then became a reporter in 1976, and came to Washington in 1977. She still writes for Newsweek’s Internet partner, the Daily Beast.