Covering Obama: three presidents, three generations

Covering the president can mean drawing the newsroom short straw. It means an early morning and a late night, hours of standing, getting searched, getting credentialed … and more standing. The phrase “Hurry up and wait” was coined by journalists covering the Commander in Chief.

So this time around, I brought my teenage daughter to share in the joy.
We started our day at 6 a.m., tempering the blow with a stop at the coffee shop before hitting the road. I pulled over to do a couple of call-in advancers for our affiliate stations in Quincy, Ill., and Columbia.

We arrived in Warrensburg and parked in the press lot to check in our equipment around 9 a.m. so that Secret Service could do a bomb sweep. We weren’t allowed back in until several hours later.

obama preset

So we went downtown, which was a veritable ghost town. So much so that a reporter stopped me on the sidewalk and asked if I would do an interview about the presidential visit. In fact, when we got inside the bakery to get a muffin and use their wireless, we found that at least a dozen other reporters were doing the same thing. Monte Schisler from KRES in Moberly joined us. My coffee was served in a KCMO mug, which is coincidentally another one of our affiliate stations in Kansas City.

obama bakery web
We all got busy, meaning Monte and I interviewed locals, cut up soundbytes, sent in voicers. Claire killed time by surfing YouTube. Or something.
clurrtwitWe found a nearby restaurant, where we ran into Rep. Rory Ellinger from University City. I scheduled an interview with him for after the speech to get what we call “reax.” After that, onto the auditorium. I’ll let Claire tell you how the events unfolded from there.

“There were a lot of people there, but my mom and I went as Learfield press, so it didn’t take as long to get in. The security was really tight, and all around getting in and getting all the equipment set up took probably 40 minutes.”

obama press line

“I was really excited when we got to Warrensburg around 9 a.m., but he didn’t actually even get there until around 5 p.m. or so. He was supposed to get there at 4 p.m., and everyone was probably waiting in the auditorium since like 2 p.m. Three people even passed out from the heat,” Claire recounts.

Waiting for the pres

I asked her to write for me a paragraph about the speech. What was relevent, what stuck.
“Obama discussed issues about the economy,” she said. “And I think he made some very good points. About how the system of government we’ve been under for the past 15 years, and how under the Bush administration we’ve been so reliant on foreign oil, and foreign imports for so long that we have basically been in a downward spiral for a long time. Whenever Obama took office the country had basically hit rock bottom. And in the past five years since Obama has been president, we are less reliant on foreign oil then we’ve been in 15 years. The stock market is better than it’s been in a long time, and it will take maybe 10 years to get the economy not only on track, but better and stronger than ever.”

obama cam

Here’s the part of Obama’s speech she’s referring to.

“And then what happened was that engine began to stall. The bargain began to fray. So technology made some jobs obsolete — nobody goes to a bank teller anymore. You want to schedule a trip somewhere, you get online. Global competition sent some jobs overseas. When I was in Galesburg, we talked about the Maytag plant that used to make household brands there and people — thousands of people used to work in the plant and it went down to Mexico. Then Washington doled out bigger tax cuts to folks at the top income brackets, smaller minimum wage increases for people who were struggling. You combine all of this and the income of the top one percent quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family’s incomes barely budged.”

“So a lot of middle-class families began to feel that the odds were stacked against them — and they were right. And then for a while, this was kind of papered over because we had a housing bubble going on, and everybody was maxing out on their credit cards, everybody was highly leveraged, and there were a lot of financial deals going around. And so it looked like the economy was going to be doing OK, but then by the time I took office, the bottom had fallen out. And it cose, as we know, millions of Americans their jobs or their homes or their savings. And that long-term erosion of middle class security was evident for everybody to see.”

“Now, the good news is, five years later, five years after the crisis first hit, America has fought its way back…”

And for her, that’s what stuck. We watched and recorded, she manned the video camera on the risers, we packed up and went home. I felt smug and good as she complained about how exhausted she was. I reminded her she did not do the entire day in heels, nor did she have to process stories, photos and sound when we got back to Jefferson City.

“All in all it was an amazing experience and I will not forget it,” she would later write.

Flashback nearly 60 years, when my father got his first (and last) close-up look at the President of the United States. He was about the same age as Claire is now, a freshman at St. Peter High School adjacent to the Capitol. The year was 1952 and Harry Truman came through Capital City on a whistlestop tour across the U.S.

Truman on train 1948

These Truman photos are from a campaign stop in Jefferson City in 1948. Photos from his 1952 stop, which was at 10:10 p.m., are not available.

Truman’s speech in Jefferson City was not so different than Obama’s speech in Warrensburg:

“One of the most fundamental issues in this campaign is the great difference in outlook and approach between our two political parties,” Truman told the crowd. “The Democratic Party has always been the party with a heart for the people-concerned about their wants and their needs. With us, the people come first.”

Truman said, “With the Republicans, property and profits come first–ahead of the people. The Republican Party has a calculating machine where its heart ought to be. And the calculator only works for the big lobbies and the special interest organizations who pay the party’s bills and call the tune.”

Truman in Jefferson City 1948

He also talked about the need to bolster federal funds for education as classroom sizes were growing and teacher salaries remained stagnant. Sixty-one years later, Obama talked about the growing concern of student debt and our country’s responsibility to make education affordable for young people.

Truman, 1952: “The Republicans are always talking about freedom — but they take their stand on the side of ignorance, every time. And ignorance is freedom’s worst enemy, and always will be.”

Obama, 2013: “So we can either throw up our hands and resign ourselves to lower living standards, or we can do what America has always done — we can adapt, we can pull together, we can fight back, we can win. And if we don’t invest in American education, then we’re going to put our kids, our workers, our countries, our businesses at a competitive disadvantage. Because if you think education is expensive, you should see how much ignorance is going to cost in the 21st Century.”

But my dad, who would want me to mention that he was, is, and always will be a diehard Republican, doesn’t remember the political nuances of the time, or the in-fighting.

“President Harry Truman lost a lot of popularity because of several issues that confronted him prior to the 1952 presidential campaign,” he said. “Consequently, during that year he decided to bow out of the race for president and let Adlai Stevenson run against Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nevertheless, in 1952 President Truman made a trip through Jefferson City on the train, and as a member of the St. Peter’s band, I was privileged to play for and see President Truman give a speech.”

Dad played the trumpet, he said, and his sister Martha played the clarinet.

“He stood at the back of the last train car and addressed those assembled there,” he recalls. “It is a memory that is imprinted in my mind forever. I can still see President Truman talking to the group. He gestured with both arms up and down, up and down. The content of his speech escapes me, but as a freshman in high school in a local band, it was a memorable sight to behold. It was the first U.S. president I had ever seen in person, and to this day, the only president I have ever seen in real life.”

Not so this reporter. And to be honest, I had to think for a minute about which president I saw in person first, and where.

Bill Clinton, Paris, June of 1999.


It was sunny and there was a chill in the air for June. Coincidentally, he had spoken at Whiteman Air Force Base less than a week before.

I was on a studies abroad trip that took me all over France for a summer semester. It was a chance event. A moment that flashed by in a heartbeat. My classmates and I were waiting to cross the street near the Elysee Palace when we were stopped by security and told we could not cross. We were not told why. Soon we spotted the motorcade and I was able to pop off one blurry shot on my Pentax K-1000.

Later I would learn that he was meeting with Jacques Chirac prior to the G-8 summit in Cologne. At the center of global news and their talks were Kosovo, Bosnia, the Middle East peace process, the European economy, and NATO expansion.

Covering the president. Lessons for a kid that there’s a bigger world out there. Political philosophies that transcend generations. Much has changed over the decades, but much has stayed the same.

Namely, politics and teenagers.


obama badge

Reporters, Authors

We have had the pleasure through several decades as a member of the Capitol Press Corps of working with two or three (at least) generations of outstanding reporters.  And that tradition continues with a corps of dedicated professionals who often spend more hours at the Capitol than our elected representatives in the House and Senate do (somebody has to stick around after they go home and write the stories that tell you what they did with, for, and to us).

It is often said that reporters record the first draft of history.  And it’s true.  We don’t often ponder that  issue because the daily reporting of news becomes so consuming that there is little time to think of the value of our writings ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now.  But that’s as it should be.  We write of contemporary issues and actions for contemporary consumers.  The aggregate of what we write constitutes a historical narrative of our times, a record to which future scholars can apply context that is often not visible as events unfold.

Sometimes members of the press corps write later drafts of history.  Lew Larkin, who had reported for several years for the Kansas City Star when I came to the Capitol, wrote several books. Jerena East Giffen, who became the press corps’ first woman bureau chief when she headed the UPI bureau in the 50s, has written about First Ladies of Missouri and Jefferson City schools.  Terry Ganey, who headed the AP bureau before a long career as bureau chief for the the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has written of Anheuser-Busch and of a well-known murder case.  The PD’s Tim O’Neil has written of St.Louis mobs and crimes since leaving the Capitol press corps.  Daryl Levings, who was a Capitol reporter before he became an editor at the Star, brought out a Civil War novel a year or so ago. Former Missourinet reporter James Morris has penned several books including a ground-breaking biography of Joseph Pulitzer (once a Missouri state representative as he was becoming a controversial newspaper owner in St. Louis). Now, Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune is about to bring out his first book.

A century and a half ago journalists were writing about the Civil War, a terrible time for the badly divided state of Missouri.  We were an occupied state run by an interim government that had seized control when the Confederate-leaning elected Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and several other officers and legislators fled Jefferson City before the oncoming Union troops could capture them as they captured the Capital City.

Rudi has been mining the microfilmed newspapers at the State Historical Society of Missouri for the first-hand accounts compiled by our ancestor-reporters as well as personal accounts left behind in books, diaries, letters, and other records at the society, the Missouri State Archives, and other sources, to write daily columns for the Tribune about the intrusion of the war into the lives of people in mid-Missouri.  He’s digging out the human stories of people caught in that conflict, some of which he shares with me as we sit together at the Senate press table.

One of the joys of researching and writing history is the discovery of these forgotten accounts, these first drafts, and bringing them to new generations who will gain greater understanding of the humanity of the past and the way those times remain part of our culture.  The passage of time sucks real life out of historical periods and leaves us only with cold accounts of movements  and trends, presidents and conflicts.

But Rudi’s book, “Life During Wartime: 1861: The War Comes to Missouri,” pumps real life into the accounts that too often focus on the strategies of that war.  It is a compilation of his articles with additional material there wasn’t space for in the newspaper.  He hopes to have additional volumes for succeeding years.

Although his book will focus on mid-Missouri counties, it will record the fears and anxieties, the hopes and ideals, the triumphs and the sorrows, justices and injustices,  compassion and barbarism that were common to people throughout Missouri.

Jim Spainhower, who was a state Representative and later Missouri Treasurer, wrote a book in the 1970s about how he, a Christian Church (Disciiples of Christ) minister, could reconcile  pulpit and politics.  He once told me when my first book came out that authorship of a book is a form of immortality, a capturing of your words in a form that will exist long after the author departs.  There’s a certain satisfaction for authors in that, I suppose and it is driven home if the author has a chance to go the Library of Congress and give a librarian a call slip for one of your books.  A short time later, an attendant brings it to your desk.  And you sit there and you think to yourself that as long as the Library of Congress exists, you will exist, too.  And then you think of the company you will keep  through all those decades to come, centuries, in fact.

Writing history compounds that distinction because in writing of human beings whose lives have been long buried in the columns of old newspapers, and other records, the author provides some of that same immortality for them.

The ancient Egyptians had a saying, “To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.”  The reporter writing the first draft of history captures those names in contemporary times.  The historian in rediscovering their actions, thoughts, and words makes them live again.  We’ve ordered some copies of Rudi’s book (advance orders are being taken through the Tribune).  We look forward to those Civil War Missourians living again, telling of their lives during those terrible times that remain part of who we are.

There’s another lofty reward that comes to those whose published works appear between the covers of books.  Jim Spainhower mentioned it to me almost three decades ago.  And as a minister, he should know.  “You can begin your prayers now,” he said, “by starting out, ‘O Thou who also has written a book…'”

And that’s being in VERY special company.


Reporters in Capitols throughout the country, we suppose, have watched their legislatures get consciences.  More and more proposals are being made and passed excusing more and more people in occupations of broad public service  from serving that public.

Suppose you were to go into your local pharmacy with a prescription for, say, Lipitor, a popular anti-cholesterol medicine.  Suppose the pharmacist said, “I’m sorry. I have a moral objection to dealing with any medications that regulate cholesterol.”

“But I have a prescription from my doctor,” you say.  “Don’t you have to fill a prescription from a doctor who thinks this medication could reduce a life-threatening condition that I have?”

“No, I don’t, ” the pharmacist replies.  “State law says I do not have to stock any medications if I have a moral objection to them.”

There is no state law yet that allows a pharmacist to refuse to fill your prescription for Lipitor. Yet.  But one has been proposed.  Although the sponsor, Senator David Sater, who ran a pharmacy for 29 years, says it’s nothing more than free enterprise, a look at who has testified for it makes clear what it is.

His bill gives pharmacies the right to stock whatever medications they want to stock.  That means, of course, that they can refuse to stock whatever they don’t want to stock.  And if they have a moral objection to any medication, they can refuse to stock it and therefore don’t have to make any medication available that any doctor in his or her professional opinion believes is essential to the health and life of a patient.   “This is no different from a clothing store,” Sater has told a Senate Committee.  A clothing store, he argues, is under no obligation to stock clothing that is not stylish enough to sell or that the proprietor thinks is objectionable.  The decision of what to stock, he says, should be made on the business level.

Except the bill he proposes does not say “business level.”

Testifying for the bill were representatives of the Missouri Family Network, the Missouri Baptist Convention, Missouri Right to Life, the Missouri Pharmacy Association, and Campaign Life Missouri.  As often happens in the process of law-making, the list of people testifying in favor of a bill indicates what the true target of the legislation is even if the proposal is wrapped in seemingly innocuous wording.

There is nothing new in this.  Organizations of all kinds have written self-serving bills that sound like something a well-meaning favorite old uncle might write.

Today the word “conscience” is the word that is being used to try to impose through state law one moral system upon a general public that has a diversity of consciences on a diversity of subjects.

Imagine a civilization in which all people were free to deny rights and services to others because each wished to exercise his or her conscience.

Laws are created, among other reasons, to set the balance between conscience and organized society.  Reporters get to watch those who write the laws seek that balance, to determine whether in a pluralistic society one faith or moral system should be imposed on all, to determine if service to a free general public outweighs a personal standard that can limit that service.

In reporting these stories, we leave it to the public, to the voters, to the competing interests, to determine if it is really true that your personal space ends at the tip of my nose.  And what to do about it.