Carter & the Potomac Rule
By Tom DeFrank
The tone for the next quarter-century was established in the first few seconds of my Newsweek career. It was the morning of June 10, 1968. The incomparable Thelma McMahon [Washington bureau office manager] ushered me into the office of bureau chief Mel Elfin, who immediately walked me out onto that glorious 12th-floor balcony with sweeping views of the Capital City.
It was a long way from Arlington, Texas. From left to right the vista took in the Capitol dome, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin, Executive Office Building, the Pentagon, National Airport and the Potomac River.
Then Mel leaned over the edge of the railing and pointed to another landmark of sorts on G Street below. “That’s the Walter Jenkins Memorial YMCA,” he said, leaving me blank. I soon learned that Jenkins, a top LBJ aide, had been at a party at the bureau a few years earlier, then walked downstairs into a same-sex encounter at the Y that got him fired from the White House staff.
Fast Pace: Then Mel said: “I’m waiting for medical science to produce a pill that gives you the equivalent of eight hours of sleep.” I figured I wasn’t going to be sitting on my summer intern butt.
That was certainly true – then and in perpetuity. In the parlance of the Avis ad slogan at the time, “We’re Number Two – We Try Harder.” Time was Brand X – older, stuffier and more established. Newsweek was scrappier, more aggressive and infinitely more fun. Time opined, we reported. There was seldom a week when we felt beaten on anything by Brand X. That was a tribute to Mel, Henry Hubbard, Jim Bishop and a Murderer’s Row of writers in New York – Peter Goldman, Ed Kosner and Ken Auchincloss et al – who always mined our best reporting wherever we’d buried it in the files and made us all look good to our sources.
Peanuts: By 1974 I was covering Jerry Ford at the White House; two years later, Eleanor Clift joined me and the bureau as the magazine’s resident expert on Jimmy Carter – or “Goober,” as Mel loved to call the former peanut farmer as the Presidential Sikorsky helicoptered past our balcony.
Jody Powell [Carter’s press secretary] once described Eleanor and me as “Siamese twins joined at the notebook.” I consider that the highest of compliments. Any accolade you may hear about Eleanor grossly understates the truth. She was, and is, sui generis – the consummate professional and an extraordinarily nice human being. The real Newsweek was lucky to have her; the new Newsweek doesn’t deserve her.
One of my favorite memories involves Eleanor and an interview we had with Carter towards the end of his tenure. Predictably, the editors ordered up a skull session to ponder questions. One of them decreed that we must ask Carter about the role of religion in the conduct of his Presidency. Eleanor and I thought that was dopey – not because it was an unworthy question, but because Carter would filibuster it, leaving less time to squeeze any news out of him.
Food Pact: So Eleanor and I repaired to one of our many lunches at the elegant Le Lion D’Or on 18th Street (now, alas, a Sizzling Express) and swore an oath neither of us would ask the religion question.
A couple of days before the audience, the editors (or was it Mel in camera?) decided Mel should accompany us on the interview. The encounter itself was fairly unmemorable as I recall, and when the aide came in with the ubiquitous slip of paper reminding Carter it was time to throw us out, Eleanor and I were silently pleased THE question hadn’t been asked.
Mel thanked Carter for his time and announced: “Now Eleanor has a question for you on the role of religion in the conduct of your Presidency.”
Slow Pitch: We were screwed: Eleanor had no choice and, as we had known would happen, Carter stroked the softball halfway down Pennsylvania Avenue.
He did deliver one memorable line, however. The verbatim quote is in the magazine, but it was something like this: “Rosalynn and I have a religious experience every night before we go to sleep.”
As Carter escorted us out of the Oval, Jody Powell couldn’t resist muttering under his breath: “That’s not what we call it in Vienna, Georgia.”
That line didn’t make it into the mag – but Carter heard it. Jody carried the scars with him until his untimely death 30 years later.
Interludes like that are why they call them the Good Old Days.
Free Shots: A couple of random recollections:
There was my initial encounter with the reality of Presidential travel. Towards the end of my summer internship, Mel sent me off to cover an LBJ dam-dedication in Tennessee.
At 23 and an utter novice, I was relegated to the rear of the press plane. (I had thought EVERYBODY flew together on Air Force One!) Taking my seat, I noticed a veteran correspondent nuzzling the neck of an Eastern Air Lines flight attendant in the galley. I didn’t learn his name until later, but did notice the wedding band. It was 7:30 in the morning.
When I relayed this incident to one of my elders the next Monday, I was taken aside and quietly told it was time to learn what he called “the Potomac Rule.”
“Nothing that happens west of the Potomac is ever mentioned east of the Potomac,” he said.
TV Date: My fondest Newsweek moment, however, occurred east of the Hudson - dinner at the late, lamented Cafe des Artistes with a colleague in New York. Afterwards, as she loves to tell the story. we repaired to her apartment - where we spent the rest of the evening monitoring the Iowa caucus returns. It was Feb. 8, 1988, and Vice President George H.W. Bush had his clock cleaned by Bob Dole.
Four years earlier, while reporting on the 1984 election project [which produced a campaign book every four years], I got a call from the same colleague. She was a querulous researcher wanting to know where I had gotten information on a well-known Reagan story whose punch line was: "There's gotta be a pony in here somewhere."
I informed her that I just knew it. That wasn't good enough for this nitpicking New Yorker. She tried several approaches to make me talk. Finally, and uncharacteristically, I lost my temper and she backed down. I didn't hear from her again for the entire rest of the election project. She's now my beloved wife of 22 years, and I haven't lost my temper since.
Tom DeFrank reported from the Washington bureau from 1968 to 1995, mainly covering the White House.