Lesley Stahl's job offer from CBS came with an ultimatum "if you can't start tomorrow, forget it." The year was 1972, and opportunities for women in network television were rare. With the same determination that would define her career, she promptly departed Boston, went to Washington, and began her ascent to the top of broadcast journalism. In a male-dominated world, Stahl established herself as a "scoopster" and a "door kicker," breaking some of the most important stories in Washington, including Watergate. She would cover the next three presidents, witnessing the disintegration of Jimmy Carter's presidency, the rise and fall and rise again of Ronald Reagan's, and the unpretentious, regular-guy quality of George Bush's.
In telling her story, Stahl touches on themes that have defined the later part of this century: the changing role of the press in politics, television's coming of age, and the dilemma of the professional woman. With witty anecdotes, wise observations, and never a hair out of place, Stahl provides an insightful and entertaining look at her world and ours from behind the reporter's microphone.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Lesley Stahl has been a reporter for CBS News for more than twenty-five years. She was White House correspondent for the CBS Evening News during the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations; the host of Face the Nation from 1983 to 1991; and has been a correspondent for 60 Minutes for the last eight years. She lives in New York City with her husband, Aaron Latham.
Read an Excerpt
From Part Two: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter
I spent several more days at the White House as an observer, trying many times to get together with Jody Powell, but he avoided me. I did catch a glimpse of the president jogging around the Rose Garden in his white shorts and red jacket. Sam, alone, was monitoring. I sat in a briefing for the State of the Union Address, the theme of which was "New Foundations." Sam ran around trumpeting, "Carter's speech is about underwear!"
I went home in a state of apprehension, sure I would never catch on to the intricacies of covering the White House. It seemed impenetrable. I could feel the weight of the responsibility I was taking on. And I ached about not having enough time with Taylor. She usually fell asleep at 7:30. On a normal night, I'd just be walking in the door.
I finally got in to see Powell. I'd been warned by the other women covering the White House that he had trouble dealing with us. Until the mid-1970s, like every other power center in the country, the White House press corps had been a white man's brotherhood. I was the ninth woman in that first wave to cover the president's side of the White House for mainstream magazines and networks. Most of us were in our 30s, the same age as the Carter aides. Actually, I was three years older than Jody.
Powell sat behind that famous press secretary's desk, crescent-shaped so reporters could crowd around in a semicircle. He drank several iced teas, snorted nose spray, and smoked incessantly, smashing out his butts in a large, overflowing ashtray. I liked him -- his open, doughy face, his fidgeting, his machine-gun wit, and the se riousness with which he took his duties. I wanted him to like me, but he made it clear that the rumors I'd heard were true.
I asked if I'd have any trouble at the White House, said I'd heard I would, and wanted to find out why and clear the air.
He stared at me for a while, then, stuttering as he often did, he said, "Look, Lesley, er -- uh -- we know you're against us. We know what you think about us and that you're, um, on the other side." Other side of what? I wondered until he mentioned, "We know you're from Massachusetts." Ah. Ted Kennedy. He accused me of being unfair to the president on the Morning News. "You seem to delight in zinging him."
I was dumbfounded. I barely knew Ted Kennedy and was not antagonistic to Jimmy Carter. Like most everyone I knew, I thought he was not the most effective president we'd ever had, but on the other hand, I respected his diligence and his integrity. Either Jody was trying to chill me or he really did see me, as he seemed to be saying, as an enemy.
I said I hoped he would be fair with me. He said he would.
As I thought about it that night, I decided that part of my problem was that I wasn't southern. When the president or his Georgia inner circle were criticized as incompetent (Hamilton Jordan was widely known as Hannibal Jerkin), they'd circle the wagons and blame it on "southern-hating northerners," which to them included the media. The Georgians succumbed to a tyranny of trivial resentments against the Washington establishment and the press.
I met Representative Les Aspin of Wisconsin for lunch in the congressional dining room on January 25, 1979. I had met him in 196 8, when he was running Lyndon Johnson's reelection campaign for the Wisconsin primary and I, then a researcher with NBC News, was writing a handbook on Wisconsin for the Election Unit.
Les slurped the Hill's famous navy bean soup and I ate a grilled cheese sandwich as he told me how inept the White House staff was. And then he leaned in and passed on a knockdown delicious story: The task force at the State Department charged with planning Deng Xiaoping's state visit had been given two mandates by the White House: first, Deng could not go to California; second, he could not go to Massachusetts. The reason: there were to be no pictures of him with either Jerry Brown or Ted Kennedy, both potential Carter rivals in the upcoming 1980 campaign.
"There's more," said Les. Carter was refusing to invite Ted Kennedy to the state dinner for Deng. Kennedy, one of the first senators to call for recognition of China, had met Deng on a recent trip to Peking. He belonged at the dinner and had specifically asked to be included. When he wasn't, he'd gotten Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to intercede. Les explained that Vance himself had called Hamilton Jordan to say "This is ridiculous and counterproductive," but to no avail.
Les shrugged. Why were the Georgians deliberately antagonizing Teddy? "Sure," he said, "there are loads of liberals out there who want Kennedy to run against Carter, but this White House seems to be begging him to run. Doesn't make any sense."
After lunch I pitched the story to Cronkite's producers in New York and they liked it, so I set about trying to get it confirmed. A press aide at the State Department called me back: no comment. Kennedy's press secretary, Tom Southwick, said it was true that the senator had not been invited to the state dinner and urged me to pursue the story.
Jody was unavailable, so I told the story to his assistant, Rex Granum, and asked for a comment. Within an hour Southwick called. "Thanks," he said. "You got Kennedy invited!"
A few minutes later Jody came by the CBS booth and confirmed the Kennedy invitation part of the story, saying, "We finally decided to invite him 'cause otherwise it might look petty."
The Cronkite show said it wasn't interested after all, and I told Jody so. But then at 6:15 the Cronkites changed their minds. I rushed to comb my hair, slap on lipstick, and dash out into the cold to do my first stand-up on the White House lawn.
STAHL: It was easier for the White House to invite former President Richard Nixon to attend the state dinner for Deng Xiaoping than it was to invite Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.
The wind was blowing so hard, my hair stood straight up like a whale's spout, meaning I had to redo the stand-up. I finally succeeded on take six and ran inside to watch. I had decided to take off my glasses -- a new me. After all those years, Dolly won.
It seemed like a good day of reporting, but that was deceiving for two reasons. First, I had broken a cardinal rule: never blindside the press secretary. The last Jody had heard from me, I was not in our broadcast. Second, this story would solidify the notion that I was in Kennedy's pocket.
The next Monday was my first official day as CBS's chief White House correspondent, and my first official story was historic: the first visit of a chairman of the Chinese Communist Party to the United States. When Deng arrived, I stood up on some scaffolding to watch. Unlike the other reporters, who had seen the full-honors welcoming ceremony before, I was electrified by the pageantry, especially the fife-and-drum corps in their red Revolutionary greatcoats, white overalls, black tricorn hats, and white wigs, marching and tootling "Yankee Doodle Dandy." There was an unexpected tumult when two protesters who had managed to sneak into the press section began shouting and heckling. They were hauled away by the Secret Service as Deng was enchanting the audience, even in Chinese.
I worked hard on my script, in which I included a paragraph about Deng's foreign policy. My producer, Lane Venardos, excised that part, explaining that that was Marvin Kalb's bailiwick -- a turf war on my first day.
STAHL: The journey from Ping-Pong diplomacy to full normalization of relations between China and the U.S. was climaxed at the White House this morning with this handshake beween President Carter and Deng Xiaoping.
I went on to say that the anti-Deng protesters "threw the president off his stride," causing him to stutter through his remarks: "Mister Prim -- Pri-Mister Pr -- Vice Premier."
After the broadcast I went in to the CBS bureau. "Call for Stahl," someone blared out. It was Jody Powell. "Hey," I said. But instead of a friendly response, I was hit with a tirade: "The president wasn't sputtering and stuttering and stumbling!" He yelled at full throttle for a good ten minutes, calling me names: "The most irresponsible, unfair, over the to p -- "
"Well, Jody, it's always nice to have your views on my work," I said, praying that he wouldn't hear my choking up.
I had already been warned that Jody tended to overreact to even mild criticism of Carter. I'd been told that he saw Carter as a father figure and therefore took any negative slant in a story personally, as if reporters were attacking his dad. I confided in Bob Pierpoint, who told me that after one of his pieces Jody had called him at a dinner party and blasted him for twenty minutes. Bob said he had just listened until Jody tuckered out.
The next day, Tuesday, I woke up sicker than I'd ever been. I had laryngitis and diarrhea and stayed out the rest of the week, wondering if everyone thought it was psychosomatic.
Jimmy Carter had a thin, unintimidating voice and an unimposing stature. He was not magisterial like FDR, nor did he inspire fear as LBJ had. In fact, the key to Carter was the word "small." His mind tended to fix on the small parts of issues, and as his first secretary of health, education, and welfare, Joseph Califano, once told me, "He didn't trust anything large like labor, business, big education; he didn't trust them enough to use them to get things done." And he especially disliked big shots. I had seen this myself when I had been one of his questioners on Face the Nation in 1975. He had hung around after the show for the cocktail party, where the guest and reporters usually talked informally. But Carter had spent his time chatting up the bartender.
After covering the Carter White House for a short time, I began to focus on Jody's word, petty. I was curious how a man so steeped in the tur n-the-other-cheek New Testament as Jimmy Garter could cold-shoulder a Senate powerhouse or leave Senator Kennedy off a dinner-party guest list. Penny-ante stuff, unbecoming a man of power. It reminded me of how teenage girls get back at one another, and I thought that maybe I could cover the place with a special understanding after all.
February 12, 1979. I was edgy. It was my first news conference as White House correspondent. The bosses would be watching, so I spent all morning thinking up questions. I had questions on the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and on double-digit inflation at home in case the president called on me early, and a second tier about the CIA and health policy for later in the news conference. I had 20 in all, just in case other reporters asked my questions before the president called on me, which he surely would since he always called on the three network correspondents. I sat in the front row, jumped up, pointed, and shouted, "Mr. President, Mr. President!" like everyone else. While Carter turned icy eyes on me several times, he rebuffed me.
I kept thinking that the White House would be so much smarter if it wooed me. More than 40 million people watched the Cronkite show every night. I had been cautioned that beat reporters often got too chummy with their "jailers." That was one problem I was not going to have to confront. I was not even given the usual private introduction to the president that was a routine formality for new correspondents with major news organizations.
In his news conference Carter held out the hand of friendship to Iran and its new rulers, especially Khomeini. An hour later Jody held one of his shirtsleeve, catch-as-catch-can briefings in a hallway, refining the president's remarks. One of the treacheries of covering Jody Powell was that he often held ad hoc, impromptu sessions and if you happened not to get wind of them, you were in trouble. Well, I didn't get wind -- I suspected because Jody didn't want me to. Ralph Harris, the Reuters correspondent, was kind enough to fill me in. When I rewrote my script to reflect Jody's revisions about Iran, Sandy Socolow, who was now the executive producer of the Cronkite show, called: "I'm sick and tired of Jody Powell editing this show every night. I've had it with him explaining after the fact what the president meant to say. If Jimmy Carter said something, he said it, period."
The next day, I got my first leak. I was trying to find out the state of U.S. intelligence in Iran and reached someone on the National Security Council staff who was willing to tell me it didn't exist. We used to rely solely on the shah's police, SAVAK, he told me. "Now our intelligence is almost nonexistent."
I was slow writing my script and had to ask Lane Venardos, my producer, for help. He was a large man with a stand-up comic's sense of humor. This was not the last time he would come to my rescue. I already had a reputation at CBS for being late. I raced out to the microwave position on the snowy lawn to do the stand-up. The wind was biting. It was 6:25, and I muffed it. It was Judy Woodruff's turn; in those days only one transmission at a time was possible, so those of us at the three networks had to go in shifts. She recorded her stand-up at 6:29; then it was my turn again at 6:31, after the show had begun. That's late.
Aaron called from Los Angeles: "You shouldn't wear your beaver coat. You should go out and get a simple cloth one." I was too cold out there, I thought, to give up my fur.
In these early weeks I was overwhelmed by the number of issues I had to be up on and was often lost in the briefings. I felt swamped. The White House was more than just another stakeout. I watched my boothmate Pierpoint handle the job with ease (we often did two pieces from the White House) and thought: I'll never get there.
I found that the deadline pressures meant there was no time for polite discourse. There were no amenities about my scripts. I never heard "Gee, we love it, especially the way you said that thing about Carter's slumping entrance." I never heard "Lesley, we have a little problem with time in the broadcast tonight, so we'd really appreciate it if you could find ten seconds to cut." It was just "Cut ten seconds. Do it."
I had to get up early to read three papers from front to back, clipping and underlining obsessively, and to wash my hair and spray it into a cap of cement so I wouldn't have to think about it again all day. During the day I phoned smart people constantly and checked the wires, huge tubes of paper that I'd unfurl as I read. I lived in perpetual vigilance.
Which didn't help on my first presidential trip abroad. I sat with Judy Woodruff on the "writers' plane" to Mexico on Valentine's Day. The camera crews and radio techs had their own, which we called the "zoo plane" or "Visigoth country." They were boys without their Ritalin.
All the events on foreign trips were covered by assigned "pools, " small groups of reporters who went to events on a rotating system. Except that television was so powerful and important -- we were such gorillas -- that three network correspondents got into every pool. The responsibility of the magazine and newspaper reporters in the pool was to write up reports for all their colleagues who were left behind in the newsroom, usually set up in the ballroom of the press hotel. It was possible for a reporter to go on a presidential trip and never once leave the hotel.
Carter's first event in Mexico City was a luncheon, but it ran so late I had to leave the pool and go to our jerry-built edit room, where Venardos and a videotape editor were screening tapes and getting ready to record my script about how even the president of Mexico lectured this president of the United States. Everyone, it seemed, pushed him around.
If I had seen the pool report of the lunch written by Eleanor Clift of Newsweek, I would surely have included what Jimmy Carter said in his toast about diarrhea. According to Eleanor, Rosalynn had "covered her face with her hands in embarrassment" as the president told his "tale of Montezuma's Revenge" on his earlier visit to Mexico. Audience reaction, she wrote, consisted of "several people rolling their eyes in disgust."
None of this was in my script because I never saw Eleanor's report. No one had told me there was any such thing as a pool report. And Pierpoint, who was supposed to be my safety net, was not on the trip. I offered no excuses when New York called to complain after they watched Sam's piece. I just suffered inside. I'd messed up.
I wrote several pieces about the battering th e president was taking, including one about "those critics on all sides now who say his foreign policy is impotent and ill defined." The perception of Carter as weak and ineffectual was hardening. Tom Shales, in The Washington Post, said he came across as a combination Mr. Rogers and John the Baptist.
The criticism wasn't confined to foreign issues. On February 28, 1979, half of the Congressional Black Caucus refused Carter's invitation to the White House; those who did go came out to the stakeout position and blasted his proposed budget cuts. Several said they wouldn't support him for reelection.
Here were key players in the Democratic Party at odds with their own president not only because he rejected their liberal policies but also because they felt they didn't owe him. The outsider president was now being punished for running against the insiders. But for Carter, playing the outsider game was more than a political miscalculation; it was an imperative. Perhaps it came from a southerner's insecurity, but he just had to prove he could do the job on his own. He seemed compelled to demonstrate that he and the young southerners he had brought with him weren't the yahoos the columnists were saying they were. He would show them. And he would show the press, which, like so many of his predecessors, he had come to see as an army arrayed against him.
Night after night I got on the air with pieces that didn't have as much information as Sam's and Judy's. They seemed to have sources I could never find, insiders who provided them insights and trenchant quotes. Each day I made more and more phone calls -- sometimes as many as 30. But still I w asn't getting as close to officials in the loop as my competitors were. I thought I would never figure it out.
This all came to a head when Israeli Prime Minister Begin came to Washington in early March to discuss the collapsing Camp David Accords. On the last day of his visit, March 5, around lunchtime, NBC went on the air with a bulletin: "NBC News has learned" -- the dreaded words -- "that President Carter has decided to go himself to the Middle East." He was going to both Jerusalem and Cairo to try to save the accords. This was a huge story. My phone rang. "Lesley? Lane was yelling. "Can we go with it too?"
I said I'd get it confirmed and get right back to him. Jody Powell wouldn't take my call. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, had his own press team, which was usually accessible and helpful, but they too were unavailable. I couldn't reach a single high-level person. Five minutes went by, and ABC was on the air. I was in terror, and Bob Pierpoint was off. AP's bells began ringing and UPI's and still I couldn't get anyone to help me. I finally told my office to go on the air and say, "The Associated Press is reporting that."
Humiliation and ruin -- a fireable offense. I was sure CBS would yank me out of the White House. At least the story broke in the middle of the day. I was able to come back with a strong script for the Evening News, but the feeling of defeat was hard to shake.
I would later come to realize that Jody's harsh treatment of me was becoming a badge of honor -- at least within the halls of CBS. As long as he made it clear I was persona non grata at the White House, my job was secure because my bosses lived by a set of commandments, and number one was that no government official could interfere with the network's internal decisions, especially who covered what.
The next morning, Sam pulled me aside. There was something he wanted me to know. "Day after day," he said, "Jody Powell has Judy Woodruff and me up to his office for a private one-on-two background briefing. He's deliberately cutting you out."
How stupid I'd been. Of course! Jody, the only source.
"I'm telling you," said Sam, "because one day he'll get mad at me and have you and Judy in and cut me out. Now, if he were leaking great scoops to me alone, I'd never say a word. But this ganging up on one of us is wrong; I don't think it's fair." You don't get menschier than that.
"I know what you're doing, Jody," I said when I finally got a private appointment with him. "I know about your daily sessions with Sam and Judy." I thought he would try to deny it, but he just stared. "It doesn't make any sense," I said. "CBS reaches more people than either of the other two networks. All you're doing is depriving my audience of the message you're trying to put out. You're only spiting yourself. And besides, you told me you'd treat me fairly."
He said he would stop singling me out. And he did. As far as I know, Jody was evenhanded from that day on. That doesn't mean he did me any special favors. He didn't. Never. Not once.
Sam had an endearing way of gallivanting around the pressroom, flapping his script in the air and howling, "I& #39;m nailing him tonight!" or "There's blood in the water, we've got him now!" or "He'll never survive this one!" Sam describes these rantings as "mock ferocity." When we weren't busy trying to keep up with him, most of the reporters got a big kick out of Sam. To know him was (and is) to love him.
The year 1979 was the peak of network news power. Something like 120 million viewers tuned in to the three networks every night. There really wasn't much else to watch. We were so predominant and influential that our deadline at 6:30 Eastern Time became the deadline of the entire federal government. The daily rhythm at the White House was synchronized with our rhythm. And so even though Jody and the other officials were unhappy with me, they pampered me at the same time.
Along with the ABC and NBC correspondents, I was fussed over, no question about it. We had our own reserved seats in the front row of the pressroom for Jody's briefings and the president's news conferences. We always got first-class seats on the press plane, and choice positions were saved for our crews on the camera platforms. White House officials consulted our bureau chiefs regularly to see if their plans met with our approval.
Whenever the president wanted to deliver a speech on television, the press secretary had to request time with each network separately. If CBS thought the speech was too political or not important enough to relinquish airtime to, we'd turn it down, and the White House would go crackers -- ineffectually.
The political writer Richard Reeves believes that there's a fixed amount of power in the world, so that when a president is weak, for instanc e, the press is emboldened, which is what happened in 1979. Carter was weak, and CBS, with Walter Cronkite number one for 12 unbroken years, was at the crest. Cronkite was so much an institution (in Sweden a news anchor was called a "cronkiter") that he began not only influencing policy but making it. In 1977 The New York Times had called it "Cronkite Diplomacy" when Egypt's Anwar Sadat told Walter in a TV interview that he was willing to meet with Israel's Menachem Begin without any preconditions. Within hours Cronkite had Begin on the air, inviting Sadat to Jerusalem.
Carter left for Egypt on March 7 at 6:30 P.M., so the takeoff would lead the Evening News, live. I reported from Andrews Air Force Base that the president was aware the "mission is a gamble." I was one of the pool reporters on Air Force One, which sounded like a treat to me. I should have known better the minute Sam told me I would love it. As always, there were four pool reporters: this time Helen Thomas of UPI, Frank Cormier of AP, Bernie Gwertzman of The New York Times, and me. We sat cramped, in fact folded up, around a table for the entire 13 hours. The president had a cabin with a real bed, so he could sleep and get off the plane refreshed. For me sleeping was out of the question since Gwertzman, a portly man (I flew sitting backward), snored and kicked all night long.
We never saw Carter during the flight. The minute we landed in Cairo at 7 A.M. local time, I went right into a pool, following Carter to a meeting with Sadat at his residence. This would be a five-hour stakeout in the humidity of Cairo, during which we would communicate with our crews and produce rs by walkie-talkie. We were in a hive of electronic voices, spreading morsels of intelligence about Carter's facial expressions and asking questions such as "When the hell is lunch arriving?" Finally we were blessed with news: a short statement, Sadat explaining that Carter's proposals for peace "had too many problems." Unlike most presidential trips abroad, this one had been put together too quickly for the usual meticulous scripting. There was no prepackaged final communiqué and therefore no guarantee of a smiling final photo and handshake. Carter was taking a huge risk.
After a full day of pool assignments, the real work began. We went to private briefings at our hotel with "senior government officials" in "deep backgrounders," where the progress of the talks was explained as long as we agreed not to reveal the identity of the briefers. These sessions were usually held one hour before our "feed time," 1:30 A.M. local time, when our reports were sent to New York by satellite. The networks each fed three or four pieces a night in rotation, through one outlet in one small sliver of time. Just as you unwound from the deadline pressure, you were desperate for sleep, but what you did was shower and get ready for your first pool of the morning. Before long both we in the press and the staffers we dealt with were fatigued, irritable, and short-tempered.
On the third day we flew to Jerusalem, where Carter's motorcade from the airport was pelted with eggs. It dawned on me that presidents rarely visit open democracies such as this one. And so when Carter pleaded with the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, to "seize this precious opportunity" ; for peace, he got a cool reception. When Begin spoke, he was heckled.
That was the day we were supposed to leave for home. We had a baggage call for 10 A.M., so all the reporters and camera crews checked out of the hotel, dragging our suitcases down to the pressroom, where Billy Dale of the White House Travel Office made sure they were taken out to the airport and put onto the press plane. But the departure time kept slipping and we couldn't find out why, until finally at 10 P.M. Jody Powell announced that our baggage was being returned to the hotel; we would spend one more night, even though, he admitted, "I see very little possibility that these issues are going to be resolved."
It was decided that Pierpoint would do an analysis of how the talks had fallen apart and I would write a humorous piece about our wandering luggage.
It was close to midnight when Jody Powell's secretary, Carolyn Shields, invited me to Jody's room: "He wants to see you." I found this very peculiar. His room? I had begun to think I was suffering from "Stockholm Syndrome," in which you come to love your captor. That's what he was, and I was his prisoner, since clearly he had the power to make me look like either a genius or a fool. He was, after all, the only source. The invitation was a pleasant change, but there was no way I was going to allow anything untoward to happen in his room. As I made my way along the corridors of the King David Hotel, I rehearsed ways of letting him down gently.
Carolyn answered the door. Jody had a grand suite. When I turned a corner and entered the living room, I had to laugh at my vanity. There were Sam and Judy! This was one of Powell's bac kground sessions to make sure we got the story right.
He told us that Secretary of State Vance and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan were holding a late-night meeting to see if the peace plan could be salvaged but that he wasn't optimistic. In fact, he was pretty glum: "To say [the peace mission] is hanging by a thread is putting too optimistic an interpretation [on things]." He did add, though, "You never know."
We dashed off, I to give Pierpoint a fill for his story. We at CBS were pretty strong that night about the collapse of the talks. Walter led the show: "All indications now are that President Carter's high-stakes gamble in the Middle East has failed." And Pierpoint continued in the same vein, leaving himself an out along the lines of Jody's "You never know."
After our broadcast I was approached by an Israeli official, who told me that the Americans were painting a far too gloomy picture in an effort to apply pressure on Begin to make concessions. "It's psychological warfare," he accused.
Yeah, but it worked. The next morning the American briefers told us the peace process was back on track. As Carter and the rest of the White House press corps went back to Cairo to consummate the agreement, I stayed behind to report that the Israelis were furious at U.S. briefers, who had "deliberately overplayed the gloom and doom" and "distorted the facts."
Bob Pierpoint and several other reporters were steaming at Jody, believing that he had deliberately deceived us. But rather than apologize for leading us in the wrong direction, Powell attacked CBS for our "arrogant" coverage, singling out my piece as a way of e xpressing CBS's pique at him on the air.
No wonder Jody was put out with us. Jimmy Carter had pulled off a miracle. Through stubbornness and persistence, he engineered the first peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state by investing his personal capital in it. Some of my colleagues agreed with Jody that any kind of critical story that first night was off base. Carter deserved at least one news cycle of undiluted praise for his historic and personal accomplishment.
There's no explaining it, but even those news organizations that gave Carter his due that first day were soon focusing on how many billions of dollars the peace process would cost the U.S. taxpayer. Once again he got very little reward for his accomplishment and virtually no bounce in the polls.
Sadat and Begin came to Washington to sign the peace treaty in late March. I covered the event standing on a towering scaffolding set up on the North Lawn of the White House. The signing took place there because a giant tent covered the South Lawn, which was usually used for such ceremonies. That night 1,340 guests attended a sit-down state dinner (with 110 kosher meals) in the tent. Just about every reporter who had been on the Middle East shuttle trip was invited except guess who?
Well, that was all right. I told myself I didn't really care. I was embarked on a journey into self-control. It was something I had decided was absolutely necessary -- both for this job and for Taylor, who was now two. Whenever I walked in the door, she would run down the hall and hurl herself into my arms. There was never love like that. And yet I had chewed her little head off one day when I had come home and found huge red and green cra yon marks all over the walls. Aaron came out to see who Taylor had murdered. He told me coolly, "Either change or pretend to change, I don't care which." When I told Aaron he was right as usual and that I felt bad, he hugged me and calmed me. He seemed to love me in spite of it all.
I worked on mastering my temper and deadening that reflex of tearing up whenever I got particularly angry. Little did I realize that I would do such a good job of containing my emotions that one day I would have trouble finding them. Self-control can become an insidious habit. For some mysterious reason, the television camera is particularly sensitive to this bottling up. It doesn't like it; it registers as unauthentic.
Aaron was spending more and more time in Los Angeles and Houston working on Urban Cowboy. After he finished the screenplay, he glued himself to the director, Jim Bridges, managing to become his right hand during the making of the movie. I joined Aaron one weekend in Houston when John Travolta was in town to look over Gilley's honky-tonk. Paramount was wooing him as the lead. I met John at a dinner at the Palm and found him good-natured and surprisingly vulnerable. He told me that Amy Carter had invited him to have dinner with her at the White House on her birthday. He was her present.
After our dinner at the Palm, our party of close to 20 piled into a motorcade of limousines and drove off to Dew Westbrook's apartment. Dew was the real-life oil-worker, mechanical-bull cowboy Travolta would play if he agreed. Aaron, Jim Bridges, Irving Azoff, John Travolta, and three or four of John's "people," plus seven or eight folks from Paramount and I, all crammed into Dew's subcompact living room. Dew made no move to turn off or even turn down the TV, so we had our little visit with The Rockford Files on the whole time. We weren't there two minutes when Dew told Travolta, "You're disco. You'd never go over as a cowboy. Now, that's nothin' against you."
The Hollywood suits scattered, Jim looked like Munch's painting The Scream, and Aaron, who had suggested this encounter, was trying to dissolve into the wallpaper. Only Travolta seemed unfazed.
We left quickly and all went on to Gilley's, where John danced and Aaron rode the mechanical bull. As Travolta left, he gave every one a thumbs-up. The next day he expressed his only concern: "How bad will I get hurt riding the bull?"
There was then a search for Sissy, the female lead. I thought Sissy Spacek would be perfect, but Aaron said that when Debra Winger auditioned, he came face-to-face with the Sissy he had created and talked Bridges into hiring her.
There was nothing but headaches for Jimmy Carter from the intensifying energy squeeze brought on by the Arab oil embargo. "Peace in the Middle East," said a White House source, "doesn't help one damn bit with inflation," which was running in the double digits. To deal with the oil crisis, Garter presented a new set of energy proposals in a televised speech: new conservation measures and new taxes on oil companies to offset any windfall profits: But he hadn't laid the groundwork. Scoop, whom he had already alienated, and Tip and the rest were blindsided. Carter kept doing good things badly. He liked the exercise of making decisions, of examining, studying, analyzing until h e commanded even the most arcane intricacies of an issue. Then he'd come up with a well-conceived solution to a policy problem. He seemed to assume that was all there was to it, that once he presented his decision, everyone else would see the wisdom of his choices. He never caught on that selling and bargaining were necessities of his job.
Carter's preference for studying policy papers to thrashing things out with people was one of his cramping foibles. He disparaged the wheedling and arm-twisting that make Washington work. A White House official described an Oval Office meeting Carter had with a New York congressman to win his pivotal vote on the windfall profits tax. After the president made his pitch on the merits, the congressman replied, "They're closing the post office in my district." Everyone understood that if Carter came up with a mere $50,000 to keep the post office open, he'd win the crucial vote. But to his aides' horror, Carter came back with another dry speech on the oil tax. The congressman walked out and voted against the president.
The majority leader of the House, Jim Wright, said that Carter didn't think politics was a clean profession: "Jimmy Carter makes me dirty."
Carter was one of the most accessible presidents. He held 59 full-fledged news conferences, many more brief ones, and countless interviews. His aides will tell you today that this was a mistake, that he was overexposed and it hurt his image. While I generally disagree, there was an undisciplined air about his approachability. A photo opportunity in, say, the Oval Office was bedlam. We'd wait outside until the doors opened, at which time we'd all rush in together, jostling for position -- cameras, microphones, reporters -- as if someone were giving away free tickets to the Super Bowl. There was no guarantee that any of the networks would get a decent picture or clear sound, so everyone pushed and grunted their way to the front of the pack.
It was even worse when the president traveled. The problem was that Carter was so prone to answer questions thrown at him on the spot that it was risky to leave his side. So we all swarmed in and formed a writhing cocoon around him. He was accessible and we appreciated that, but on television it looked like mayhem and added to a sense that no one was in control.
On foreign trips there was more restraint. In June 1979 we went to Vienna for the president's first and only summit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, a meeting Carter had been seeking ever since taking office. Jody Powell wisecracked, "The Reds and the Rednecks were going to square off!" Actually, they were going to sign the SALT II arms control treaty.
The leaders met first in an anteroom of Vienna's gilded Hofburg decorated with flying putti. I was in the pool, standing in a forest of still photographers from around the world. President Carter arrived right on time. But Brezhnev didn't. As Carter cooled his heels, we in the international press gallery just stared in silence as POTUS -- President of the United States -- spent a long five minutes wilting. Brezhnev finally arrived, shuffling, halting, and unsteady. That his health was failing was obvious, and yet he held his substantial body proudly erect and towered over Carter, who was, by then, so ill at ease that he seemed to shrink before our eyes.
Embarrassing television pictures are like a time-release poison, since they are played over and over and in the repetition can come to be defining. One such picture was shot as the summit in Vienna was ending. After the two leaders signed the SALT II treaty Carter, on an apparent impulse, drew the enfeebled Brezhnev to him in an emotional embrace and then, to everyone's astonishment -- gasps rose in the gallery -- he kissed the Bolshevik on the left cheek.
As happened repeatedly with Carter, he was unable to profit from the successful summit. The buss on the cheek fed the notion that he was shrinking. Constriction was becoming an affair of state. The president was dwindling in size, partly from his vigorous jogging, mainly from an impression that he was overwhelmed by his job. Reporters took to calling him the Little Peanut; cartoonists drew him as a little kid in a big chair, then eventually as nothing more than a row of protruding teeth.
Then OPEC, the Arab oil cartel, announced another price hike, increasing oil prices tenfold over 1973. There could not have been worse news for Jimmy Carter. "Was God," asked Newsweek, "out to get his devoted servant?" On July 5 he canceled his planned television speech on the energy crisis. I reported that the president had given no explanation before disappearing to Camp David "very mysteriously." Thus began one of the odder episodes of the Carter presidency.
For several days the only people who saw him at Camp David were his wife and a few close aides. My producers in New York said I would have to deal with the spreading rumors that the president was sliding off the edge. So I went on the air: "In response to reporters' questions, the White House said the president is not suffering from nervous exhaustion." Jody was not pleased with me -- again. But from that night on we got reports of how physically and mentally fit the president was.
It was an intuition, but I felt it strongly, that Carter was collapsing from the frightening realization that he was failing. After a week of near solitude, he invited a select group of aides up to see him, a decision that wrought resentment among the staff members who were not invited. This produced agreeable repercussions for me as those left behind began returning my calls and giving me quotes -- unattributable, of course -- such as "A bunker mentality has set in up at Camp David." My 20 calls a day were paying off at last.
During the next week Carter invited a stream of governors, congressmen, and economists up to his retreat to solicit their ideas on solving the country's problems. Mrs. Carter took notes, and so did the president, each on a yellow pad. Still we had no pictures, no direct word from the president, who, it seemed, had vanished at the height of a national crisis, conveying an impression that the captain of the ship was at his wit's end.
Meanwhile, the grousing about who had been invited up to the mountain and who had not resulted in Cabinet officers and other appointees complaining, which was nothing short of delightful for a reporter. One night I said from the White House lawn that a top official was calling the Camp David retreat "a little drama produced out of desperation."
When Carter finally descended from the mountain, he went right on national television. His pollster Patrick Caddell had converted the Carters to his theory that the falter ing poll ratings were due not to a failure of leadership but to pessimism in the country, and he wrote a speech to reflect that. In a July 10 memo to the president, Carter's media adviser, Gerald Rafshoon, predicted that if Carter gave that speech it would be a "disaster." He wrote that people "don't want to hear you whine" about their problems. "We must look carefully," he advised, "at each negative comment about America. We'd hear them thrown back ad nauseam during a campaign." But the first lady disagreed.
As Carter flagged, Rosalynn became his anchor. There were those who took to calling her the "deputy president." On the margins of position papers and memos Carter would often scribble, "Ros. What think?" or "Have you shared this with Rosalynn? She needs to know this too." When asked about her influence at Camp David, she answered disingenuously, "I don't know that I had any. I sat in on the meetings, I listened with him and then we -- uh -- then he made the decisions."
I listened to Carter's July 15 speech in the CBS studio with Roger Mudd and Bruce Morton. The beginning was an extended self-criticism, Carter quoting one of his visitors at Camp David as saying, "Mr. President, you're not leading this nation." After his mea culpa, he went on to give a thoughtful analysis of the state of the nation, describing a "crisis of spirit" in the country.
The initial reaction was positive. "Really an extraordinary speech," said the usually skeptical Roger Mudd. "A very strong one, very upbeat." He turned to me and asked if I thought it would be a turning point.
"It certainly was an attempt at that," I said. "And I did hear a new voice, Roger. There was a little bit of a sermon to it, reaching for the moral tone he accomplished when he was winning primaries."
"A high point, wasn't it?" asked Roger.
I thought that the analysis of a gloomy national mood was right on the money. And instead of looking defeated, the president had managed to convey an air of confidence the public hadn't seen in him for months. His performance had been as important as the speech's content. Television imparts information in a way that creates a visceral response. Often we forget what a president says specifically about an issue, but the brain retains the visual signals and impressions. We absorb those TV blips as emotional imprints that last. Rafshoon said that people listen to presidential speeches the way they listen to rock music: "They may not know the words, but they receive the tone, the beat, the rhythm."
Carter jumped 11 points in the national polls.
The Deacon -- his Secret Service code name -- embarked on "a revivalist crusade," as I called it on the air, starting in Kansas City and Detroit. Things were going exceedingly well. Then, two days after the speech, he blew it.
On July 17 the White House announced that the president had asked for the resignations of his entire 12-member Cabinet. It was called "a slaughter," "a purge." I reported, "One source said one reason for all this is just so the president can fire [Secretary of Energy] Schlesinger in a pack." Others said the one he was really after was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano. The impres sion: he was too timid to fire them one-on-one. The call for resignations, like the nearly two weeks up on the mountain, was unsettling. The dollar plunged, and Europeans, with their parliamentary systems, assumed that the Carter government had fallen.
The glow from his speech flickered out within a few days, and Rafshoon's prophecy took root. Everyone began deriding his speech as a whiny attempt to shift the blame from his own shortcomings to others'. It became known as the "malaise" speech, though Carter had never uttered that word.
By now there was a detachment of officials and aides eager to spread disparaging stories about the president, and who better to leak to than me, the Georgia crowd's bête noire. I began to break stories and to hear inside accounts of the president's meanness. Time and again I was told about his brusqueness, his cold glance of disapproval, his judgmental aloofness. One aide said that before Carter would come in to the regular Tuesday leadership breakfast with congressional leaders, they would be carrying on the usual politicians' banter. Then the president would arrive. "Never hail fellow well met, never easy in the club," said the aide, "he'd act as if he'd had a bad night." He would cast his steely blues around the room and end the fun like a guillotine's blade. Carter, it was said, was like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip, who said, "I love Mankind; it's people I can't stand."
I thought Jody Powell was a good press secretary. He never lied to me (not all the reporters on that beat say this); he was completely plugged in as one of the president's closest confidants; he made sure the press corps was educated on the issues; and he was funny. Jody would defuse hostilities with a joke or a wisecrack before they got out of hand.
But the more I admired him, the more he spread accusations that I had an agenda. He called my bosses a few times with the "She's biased against us" complaint. I would be called by those same bosses and told to keep up the good work. Without it ever being said in so many words, there was an attitude in our newsroom that good journalists hold the feet of pols in power to the fire: "Look, we were strenuous and leathery toward Nixon; we should be 'fair' by being just as rigorous when it comes to a Democrat." It was an ethic one breathed in the CBS air. The tougher I was, the more Sandy Socolow and my other bosses praised me. In fact, my copy was often stiffened. I was asked to toughen it up.
Some of my problems had to do with gender. With all their support of women's issues, a simmering sexism pervaded the Carter White House. I was treated differently. Sam Donaldson told me that it was my aggressiveness, "because women simply aren't supposed to bull their way in." It was around that time that Bob Strauss urged me -- as a friend, he said -- to ease up. It simply wasn't becoming, he advised, for a woman to be so negative. Sam and I could make the same point in our reports. Jody was philosophical about what Sam said, because that was part of the inherent adversarial relationship between the press and the presidency; but in his view, I crossed the line. Still, Jody and I dealt with each other cordially every day. Washington is a place of great accommodations.
In the end, the resignations of hal f the Cabinet secretaries were accepted. And I began trying to find out who the new appointees would be. On the night of July 26, 1979, I broke the story -- "CBS News has learned" -- that Moon Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, was Carter's choice for secretary of housing and urban development. NBC's John Dancy told me I was wrong. I bolted for Jody's office. I had not run the story by him earlier, afraid he would tell Sam and deprive me of my exclusive. On the way, I passed the Rose Garden, peeked out, and saw the president walking along the colonnade with Moon, who had an overnight bag slung over his shoulder. A night in the Lincoln Bedroom? I concluded that I'd gotten the story right, which I had.
Judy Woodruff found out who the education secretary, a new post in the Cabinet, would be. Each evening Sam, Judy, and I stood near each other on the White House lawn to record our stand-ups in sequence. That night as I waited my turn, I overheard her. She saw me there; we even chatted. When I finished my report, I raced inside, made one phone call, and got her scoop confirmed by one of my new sources immediately -- even before our broadcast started. What I should have done was sit with the information until Judy's piece aired -- it was, after all, her story. But I called CBS, and Roger Mudd (substituting for Walter) was able to lead our show with the name of Shirley Hufstedler, actually beating Judy's report by a few seconds. She was livid. Soon everyone was mad at me for "stealing" her story.
I was surprised at the reaction. I told myself, "You didn't eavesdrop, you weren't being sneaky about it; Judy knew you were listening and never said , 'Please step away.'" I worried about losing Judy's friendship, but still my reaction was to tough it out and say I had done nothing wrong. And I believed that until I asked Pierpoint, whose judgment I had come to rely on. I knew Bob was a man of integrity and decency. So when he told me that what I had done was like cheating on an exam, I was stricken low. "You don't do that," he said like a father explaining, "I'm not mad at you, just disappointed." I never "overheard" anyone again, and if I did, I forgot what I heard. Fortunately, Judy and I are still friends.
In August Taylor and I went to visit Aaron in Houston to watch the filming of Urban Cowboy. I had never understood why Aaron hated CBS functions or coming with me to parties connected with my job. Now in Houston I got it. The cast and crew had their little inside jokes -- not very funny ones -- but at the drop of a punch line, Aaron and Debra Winger would make eye contact and break up laughing. Or Aaron and Jim Bridges would sink into shop-talk minutiae about the next day's shoot, leaving me with recovered memories of the wallflower I had been in seventh-grade dancing school.
In other words, Aaron and I had a huge fight. I returned home early and got ready for a trip down the Mississippi with the president in mid-August. Carter was taking a weeklong cruise on the Delta Queen, a four-deck, stern-paddle-wheel steamer, to gather support for his new energy conservation measures. We went 660 miles down the river from St. Paul to St. Louis. The boat was scheduled to make four stops, but Carter got it to stop 47 times, driving the press crazy with his "Hi, I love you 4;s at every dinky little lock along the route.
He also drove the 15 other passengers crazy from day one with his jogger's thumping 22 laps around the decks at 6:30 in the morning. I wrote that in my script one night, but I also showed the large crowds along the banks. The White House was so pleased at the reception and the coverage that Powell joshed, "From now on we're only going to campaign on navigable rivers."
The press corps followed the Carters from the shore, but every night a small pool of five got to sleep on the boat. When it was my turn, we were summoned at sunset to the bow, where lawn chairs were arranged in a circle so that we could have casual get-together with the president. He chatted with us for an hour until the sun went down, confiding that he dictated a diary -- "I do it every day. It's amazing how detailed mine is." He told us he read two or three books a week and particularly liked potboilers. He had just finished Gemini Contender by Robert Ludlum. Asked how he found time to read so much, he told us that he, Rosalynn, and Amy all read at the table during meals. "And" -- he flashed his famous smile -- "I read in the bathroom!"
Aaron and I made up. I figured out that I was jealous of the movie. I thought he was smitten with Debra Winger and that the Hollywood gestalt had turned his head. He confessed that he had fallen in love with the movie business, that he wanted to make screenwriting his career, but he also made it clear that Taylor and I were home base.
I did my best to avoid going to Plains but was rarely successful. "Town" in Plains was like down in Tobacco Road: one row of stores, many owned b y the Carters themselves. The largest industry after peanuts seemed to be worms. I got the impression that the Carters owned half of everything, including the land and the worms. Jimmy Carter was the scion of the most successful family in one of the country's smallest places, population 680. Plains mirrored a lot about the White House, which, it seemed, Carter had tried to mold into something familiar and manageable, an insular community with a closed circle of small-town boys.
Each time I was in Plains, Jimmy and Rosalynn walked down Main Street, going into and out of the shops, starting at the Plains Flower and Gift Shop, where Rosalynn's mother worked part-time, then continuing on to the Carter Peanut Warehouse and the Carter worm farm office. We in the national press would trail after them, scrawling down the "Howdy"s and "Howya doin'"s. On one such walk the president weighed himself at the Plains Primary Clinic: "I'm 151 with all my clothes on." He really was small! But in Plains he was king.
On Sunday, September 2, 1979, the Carters went to Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist, the 11 o'clock service at Plains Baptist, and lunch at Plains Methodist. I had never been to a Baptist Sunday school, and there I was, the pool reporter, when the president taught the class of a dozen adults. He chose a short passage from Exodus about Laws for Protecting the Male Hebrew Slave, "Thou shalt not raise a false report," which he analyzed for nearly 30 minutes. At the end he walked right up to me, pierced me with those cold blues, and said, "I hope you got something out of that."
Copyright © 1999 by Lesley R. Stahl
Table of Contents
Part One Nixon and Watergate
Part Two Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter
Part Three Ronald and Nancy Reagan
Part Four Nancy and Ronnie
Part Five George and Barbara Bush
What People are Saying About This
If you care about good journalism, or if you care about the choices made by working women today, you'll want to read this book. -- CBS News
Before the live bn chat, Lesley Stahl agreed to answer some of our questions:
Q: What was your biggest scoop?
A: Well, I had a few. I broke that Jimmy Carter was going to impose a grain embargo on the Soviet Union, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The story was a clean kill. I would call my interview with Reagan's secretary of state, George Schultz, on "Face the Nation" a scoop, because he admitted on national television that he had lost control of American foreign policy. But maybe my biggest scoop came when I got to tell the American people that Reagan was going to choose George Bush as his vice presidential running mate, which I reported from the floor of the Republican convention in 1980.
Q: An underlying theme in Reporting Live is whether a woman can blend her power with her sexuality. Tell us about your struggle with that issue.
A: I observed this struggle with women in authority all around me, even with the first ladies, as we tried to figure out a balance: how to remain feminine without being too sexy; how to be female without losing our sense of authority. In order to convey what the public would accept as authoritative in those days, women had to disguise their femaleness. We were twisting ourselves around to convey male qualities and abandoning some of the things that were more natural to us. We began suppressing ourselves. I worried that I was losing myself. The way I perceived it was that I had squeezed my sexuality down and down until all that was left were my toes poking out of my open-toed shoes, like eyes peeking out of a veil in Saudi Arabia.
Q: How much does television influence politics?
A: As I say in the book, James Carville may have thought "it's the economy, stupid," but it's also television, stupid. Because when you look at how we elect our officials, at how leaders today sell policies and programs, everything is done on television. Television is central to government, central to politics. What's distressing is that as late as 1984, even those of us who worked in television didn't quite understand how emotional a medium it is and how people make their judgments based on its emotional pictures. I remember discovering that as kind of a eureka moment and then trying to change the way I went about reporting because of what I had learned.