The White House Press Corps – A Nixon Photo Op in 1971

I traveled during eight months of 1971 with the White House press corps for a possible book about reporters who cover the president.  When in Washington, D.C., often staying with my brother Bill when he was in law school, I’d arrive at the White House in the morning and go to the press room in the West Wing.  I’d take notes during the day, interviewing reporters when they had time and at lunch or dinner.

There were some wonderful people — off the top of my head, I count among them Helen Thomas of UPI, Robert Semple Jr. of the New York Times, Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News, Dan Rather of CBS, Herb Kaplow of ABC, Fay Wells (the pioneer aviator; see photo below) of Storer Broadcasting — these are just a few of the folks who were covering President Richard Nixon at the time.

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Dan Rather of CBS and White House Press Secretary Ron Zeigler (standing, right) in the early 1970's

Ron Zeigler was press secretary; Diane Sawyer was one of his assistants.   Here’s just one little incident that somehow always stands out for me:

One late morning in the press room, when things had been pretty uneventful so far, there was an announcement of a “photo op” in the Cabinet Room.  A couple of reporters got set to go with some photographers, along with Cleve Ryan, who held the light for them.  (He had been doing that job since the FDR days.)  On this occasion I asked to attend the photo op and was told it would be fine.  A few minutes later we were trooping up the hallway past some Secret Service agents into the Cabinet Room, where Nixon was meeting with Republican governors seated around the big table.

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President Nixon in the White House Press-Briefing Room - 1971

The reporters and photographers were on one side of the table and Nixon was across the way, looking good with a tan and wearing one of his favorite blue suits.  Cameras started flashing and clicking as the President spoke to the governors — making small talk — and he pointed across to Doug Cornell of the Associated Press, who was seated at the table with his pen and notepad in front of him.

“There’s Doug Cornell of the AP,” Nixon said.  “He’s covered five presidents.”

“Six,” Cornell shot back.

“Six,” Nixon said.  “He started when he was a Boy Scout.”

The governors around the table took their cue from the president and they all laughed.  Then one of Zeigler’s assistants shouted to us that it was over and
Cleve Ryan switched off his big round light.  On our way back down the hallway, I caught up with Cornell.

“Hey, Doug, that was something, hunh?  I mean, how’d it feel to be singled out by the president like that?”

Cornell laughed.  “Oh, God,” he said, “we’ve gone through that routine more times than I can count!  Nixon likes to do it because it loosens him up.  He says ‘five presidents,’ I say ‘six,’ and then he gives the Boy Scout line.  Works every time.”

As we walked back into the press room of the West Wing,  I realized how naive I’d been to assume that the little back-and-forth between Richard Nixon and Doug Cornell had been spontaneous!  A tiny matter, perhaps, but it taught me something nonetheless.

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Fay Wells (left-center) with Amelia Earhart (right-center)

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