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

The politicians’ 12-step program

It’s hard to forgive a public servant who betrays the public’s trust.  And for some of those public servants, it’s hard not to be forgiven.  But thousands of disgraced political figures in American history have gotten on with their lives, closing the book on whatever it was that made them political lepers and finding something else that restores value to their lives. 

They reconcile themselves to the fact that many of those who were or claimed to be their friends as long as they had something the “friends” wanted will never be part of their lives again; that the power they had will never be theirs to enjoy in the future; and things they once loved are gone forever.  And they move on. 

Two of the many Missouri political figures whose collapses the Missourinet has covered in our four decades are listed as co-authors of a new book–Senator Jeff Smith, who went to federal prison for eight months for lying to investigators about a campaign finance law violation, and former Speaker of the House Rod Jetton, whose one-night stand with an old friend led to an assault charge that ultimately led to a misdemeanor guilty plea and probation.

Jetton is now working for a civil engineering company in Poplar Bluff.  Earlier this year he founded a newspaper, The Missouri Times, that covers state government and politics.  It enables him to stay close to politics and government although he is unlikely to be a significant participant in the process for some time if ever. 

Smith is an Associate Professor of Urban Policy at the New School in New York City. He writes an advice column for politicians, former politicians, and politician wannabes.  He also has written for some national magazines and has political advice column.

Former two-time Kentucky State Treasurer Jonathan Miller, who has a blog called “The Recovering Politician,” has enlisted Jetton and Smith to write chapters for his book, “The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis.” They are the only ones on the list of twelve co-authors whose careers were ruined by accusations of criminal activity although another co-author, former New York Assemblyman Steve Levy,  ran unsuccessfully for the governorship and his subsequent campaign for the New York legislature included questions about campaign contributions that eventually led him to refund the money to donors and to withdraw.

Smith recently wrote in his column, “I think the key is to repair and reinvent yourself in a way that stays true to the best of who you are. For instance, if you lose your professional license, could you still offer counseling at a halfway house after you complete your sentence? Or perhaps at a shelter for the homeless or victims of domestic violence?Something that will be therapeutic for you and helpful for others. For me that’s taken many forms, from teaching about the legislative process and addressing elected officials about ethical dilemmas to advocating for educational opportunities inside prison.

“I won’t lie to you: Prison sucks. But it forced me to pause and reflect and thus gave me an advantage over the Sanfords and Weiners on the road to recovery…You must constantly remind yourself that failure is not falling down but staying down.”

Jetton told us it is important to own up to a mistake and to sincerely apologize for it, although “People, especially if you’re a politician, they have a tendency to really doubt if you’re serious about that. or whether you just got your hand caught in the cookie jar.  You’re sorry for getting caught but you  may not necessarily be sorry for your mistake.   It…just takes time. of people watching you, looking at you and wanting to decide whether you really did feel like you made a mistake and  you are sorry for it or whether you’re just trying to save your skin and get out of a tough spot. ” 

We included our interview with Jetton and a speech from Smith at a Missouri Association of Counties conference last November with our story about them on yesterday.

Ultimately, though, their world will not wait for forgiveness.  They move beyond seeking it  and build new lives apart from their past.  But politics for many is an addiction.  While they know they can never experience the highs and lows, the pressures and obligations of it, they seek ways to remain some part of the system.  Smith does it through his writing and teaching.  Jetton does it through the newspaper.  Some, who have been forced from office by defeat or by term limits, go back and become county officials. Some are found in the hallways outside the chambers in which they once served, lobbying former colleagues and others.  Perhaps the dozen stories in the book will help others who can never go back into the arena shorten their addiction recovery time and find new meaning in life.   Their writings, and the writings of the other ten co-authors could be guides for years to come because we know this: 

Somewhere, as you read this, a man or woman in whom the public has placed its trust as a public servant is breaking that trust.  It could be happening in any number of ways.  As long as the activity is a secret, things are fine. 

But they never know when a slip of the lip or a piece of gossip will reach the ear of a reporter.  They never know when an associate in trouble will cut a deal by talking to an investigator or a prosecutor. They never know when someone they abuse decides too much is enough.  

But then everybody knows.  And who they are and who they think they could be is destroyed.  Maybe a book co-authored by a couple of Missouri politicians whose careers ran aground in scandal can help them get beyond who and what they were



Beneath the amendment

It was late in 1980, as I recall.  The Missouri Bar was holding a seminar for newly-elected legislators and one of the sessions was intended to teach the incoming lawmakers how to deal with the media. Part of the seminar involved picking some of them and having a member of the Capitol press corps interview them so they knew that they would likely deal with a different animal than the local newspaper editor or the local radio or television reporter that didn’t know much about the kinds of things Capitol reporters pursue.  One of the newbies was Dennis Smith, a Representative-elect from Springfield.  I think he has forgiven me for what I did to him that day but he has never forgotten it.  

In the same election in which Smith and the other newbies were chosen, Missourians put a formula into the Missouri Constitution limiting the amount of taxes the state could collect.  It did some other things, too, but the tax limitation is what the Hancock Amendment is known for.

Representative-elect Smith supported the Hancock Amendment and since one of the things he and his colleagues are constitutionally-mandated to do is pass a state budget, he became fair game for a reporter who covers the budget process. 

In our pretend interview in front of the entire freshman legislative class, I asked him, as a Hancock Amendment supporter,  to use the formula to calculate how much the next state budget should be. 

He didn’t have a clue and the rest of his colleagues in the room enjoyed his discomfort no end.  

The memory of that event sauntered into my mind when reading a news release from State Auditor Tom Schweich, whose office periodically checks the formula and calculates how close state revenue is to exceeding the Hancock limit.  

A person who follows state government from a distance might be fooled by the legislature’s frantic push for tax cuts into thinking that the state is approaching the Hancock limit and must backpedal like crazy to avoid exceeding it.

Far from it, says Auditor Schweich.  Missouri is $3.9 billion below the limit established by Hancock. 

But that figure does not blunt our legislators’ enthusiasm to get us even more below Hancock and adding to the $3.9 billion dollars they’re already letting us keep and spend in ways that we know are better than the government knows.  

Why stop at 3.9?   To hear the Nixon administration argue in defense of the veto of HB253, the legislature wanted to make that figure more like $5.1 billion and the governor isn’t going to let them do it.  He seems to think funds are needed for programs and services that benefit six million Missourians, not just a few who are hoping for a veto override in September because they will benefit.  

It’s already a beautiful world, then, for those who favor letting taxpayers keep more of their own money, and the world will be absolutely gorgeous if the veto can be overridden in September. 

And Heaven knows we need to be able to keep more money that would go to state taxes in own pockets because student loans our children had to take out to get the higher education that has seen drastically reduced state support have to be paid off.  And that $650 per capita that we are allowed to keep this year will make a ding in that debt.  Not a dent.  Just a ding. And that $650 is helping us pay higher local elementary and secondary school tax rates because the state is $620 million dollars behind the in the school funding formula our elected representatives enacted almost a decade ago. And that $650 helps us pay penny after penny of sales taxes to finance things like the county sheriffs’ budgets that struggle each year because the state doesn’t pay all of the costs counties incur while they house state prisoners. And we might need that $650 in our pockets if the circuit breaker tax credit is eliminated so we can pay our rent. 

We have dragged you, reader friend, to this point in this post today and we’re darned if we know what the conclusion to this should be.   And that probably somewhat defines why the people on the third floor of the Capitol and the guy on the second floor aren’t together on a tax policy. 

Or maybe not.