If The Digital Journalist is a week late this month, it's because this past three weeks of covering the White House for Time have been, well, unbelievable!!
I covered the long march toward impeachment with Richard Nixon in 1974, and although it gave me many covers, I hoped I would never have to witness something like it again.
Starting with the grand jury testimony by President Clinton, through a turbulent two-week vacation in Martha's Vineyard, to a fast-paced visit to Moscow (which was feeling it's own meltdown), to an emotional visit to Northern Ireland---this was a month to remember.
If my diary last month gave you an insight into the long hours and tedium of a normal domestic trip, this month's report will take us to the opposite extreme, that can only be encountered when covering the White House and the President---who this time is in Big Trouble.
Monday, August 17 (Washington, DC)
The White House press corps was supposed to be settling into a comfortable two-week stay in Martha's Vineyard. For those of us who have to endure the twenty hour days that the President puts us through on a routine basis, the annual Clinton vacation is a chance for us to relax a bit. In past years, the beat normally requires showing up at the golf course, and an occasional boat ride, as we peer at the first family though our long lenses. However, today we find ourselves standing in a torrential rainstorm outside the diplomatic entrance to the White House, waiting for Kenneth Starr to emerge after taking four hours of testimony from the President on the Lewinsky affair. When I say torrential, I'm not kidding---it was a full scale monsoon. No matter how we tried to stay under umbrellas, after half an hour of driving rain, we were all soaked to the skin. The light was dropping faster than an elevator in the World Trade Center.
A few hours later, after a change of clothes, we were herded into the tiny White House Map Room---where Clinton had given his testimony to Starr---to photograph his speech to the nation. This boiled down to about 30 seconds of photography, enough to expose 20 frames of film of the President sitting in his chair, looking stricken---by the weight of his problems and anger over his inquisitors' interrogation. Emerging from the room, I started to rewind my film, only to find the rewind wouldn't work. Thinking back to the afternoon's rain storm, I assumed some water had gotten into the electronics that control the rewind. So, I returned to my office, locked myself in a dark closet, and started to manually rewind the film into the cassette---THE FILM WAS WET! Somehow, a small amount of moisture had gotten in under what is normally a water-proof film pocket, and onto the roll on top. When I loaded the camera, there was no indication of a problem---the damage was out of sight. No matter how hard I tried to rewind the film, I could only get about ten frames back into the cassette. Finally, I realized I would have to sacrifice the rest of the roll, or risk further damaging the film already rewound. With a sinking heart, I shipped the film to New York. The next day, I heard the bad news. The film that had been rewound had scrapped off most of its emulsion. A picture that could have been historic now looked like Robert Capa's photographs from D-Day.
This was a very bad start to a big story.
Thursday, August 20 (Edgartown, MA.)
The three newsmagazine photographers (Wally McNamee of Newsweek, Chick Harrity of US News&World Report, and myself) have settled into our Martha's Vineyard house---command center, and gourmet restaurant. For four summers, whenever President Clinton has gone to the Vineyard, we have jointly rented a wonderful house on Katama Road in Edgartown, complete with private beach and canoe. The house is owned by a friend of mine, William Marks, the former editor and publisher of Martha's Vineyard magazine.
One thing that the three of us have in common is that we I love to cook, and for those summers, we have turned the house into one of the best restaurants on the Vineyard (he says modestly), feeding friends from both the White House and press corps. Hungry wire-service photographers particularly enjoy sitting down at our table. Our modus operandi for these trips---in which generally only the pool photographer of the day for the magazines gets to actually see the President---is that whomever is in the pool will call the other two photographers if anything happens. This plan, however, is complicated by the fact that cell phone and pager communication on the island is very spotty .
Time had come up with a plan to scoop the competition on the Lewinsky story. Following the President's grand jury testimony they "crashed" an early edition of the magazine, which appeared on the stands on Thursday of that week, rather than our normal Monday newsstand date. Nothing else was going to happen that week...right? WRONG!
At noon on Thursday, I received a call from Chick Harrity, who is in the pool (we had actually given our normal pool rotation to US News since we had already published, and they were still on deadline), screaming that Clinton is at the press center in the Edgartown school. Chick, with the rest of the pool, had been taken to the pool staging point, in an open meadow near the airport, and had no sooner been swept by the Secret Service, than they were told to "load up," and found themselves in a motorcade speeding back to the press room from which they had just come---this time, with the President at the head of the pack.
Out of nowhere, with no leaks, the President had decided to bomb terrorist targets in retaliation for the bombing of our embassies in Africa. I jumped into my car, still dripping from my morning run, and barreled into the press center. The President has already given a speech to the startled press corps, and I joined the motorcade to the airport, where I watched the President get on the plane to go back to Washington...leaving me and Wally behind in the Vineyard. This will set the pattern for the rest of the "vacation," as Clinton alternately secludes himself in his house on the island, or suddenly appears with no warning.
Sunday, August 30 (Aboard the Press Plane, somewhere over the Atlantic)
We had been scheduled to leave the Island at noon on Sunday. At 9am we get a call that the President has decided to return early. We are supposed to be at the airport at 10:30. The problem is that we had left our packing to do until Sunday morning. In the next hour, I frantically pack bags, not just to go back home, but instead, to place our bags into a pile at the press center tagged to go direct to Moscow. By midnight, I am at 33,000 feet heading for Moscow with the rest of the press corps aboard a British Airways charter.
Tuesday, September 1 (The Kremlin)
I am on the right flank of the gaggle of photographers as Yeltsin greets Clinton. The drill is that they are supposed to shake hands facing us, then move to a corner of the room for a presentation by Yeltsin to the President. They have no sooner embraced than Yeltsin spins Clinton around facing away from us. He is giggling "let the photographers accommodate US!" This of course immediately turns the room into chaos, as 20 photographers and cameramen try to hurdle the conference table and swirl around the principals, as security people go nuts. I wind up right in front of the two Presidents, three feet from them, as I try to push back against the KGB handlers who have an arm around my throat, just to get enough space between me and the leaders to squeeze them into a 20mm shot.
Wednesday, September 2 (The Kremlin)
It's the big press conference following the meetings between Yeltsin and the Clinton. Again, in a huge auditorium, in the same tones of white and pastel green, with the same weird light. It's back to 800 color negative as we record the surreal event. Yeltsin is totally out of it. Our President is pleading a mea culpa and begging forgiveness for his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky. Meanwhile, there is no government left in Russia. Yeltsin's choice for Prime Minister has been rejected by the Duma, and the Russian economy is heading south big time. Each leader is supposed to take four questions from both the Russian and U.S. press corps. Asked the third question by the press, Yeltsin, who has been rambling in his responses, goes totally off into a strange, disjointed reply, then abruptly declares that the press conference is over. A bewildered Clinton smiles with relief.
After the press conference, I, along with the other photographers, go scavenging for food. We have been staying at one of the best hotels in Moscow, the National, which normally has two fine restaurants. Unfortunately, the best of them, Maxim's, has closed for renovations. The White House, in its wisdom, has taken over the other dining room for the press center. By the time we photographers have gotten back to the hotel after our pools, the human locusts (aka the White House press) have consumed the food that has been put out for us, and there is no place to eat within easy walking distance. After two days we are getting hungry. We are also coming down with colds, from standing in the frigid rain with the clothes we had been wearing for the summer heat in Martha's Vineyard.
Thursday, September 3 (Omagh, Northern Ireland)
This is truly a day from hell. At 5am, Moscow time, we are on the buses enroute to the airport for the three-hour flight to Belfast. Actually, some people, including the new White House Press Secretary, Joe Lockhart, have missed their wake up calls, and will join us later in the day. By the time we are on the tarmac at Belfast, at 8am Irish time, my cold has turned into a full-blown case of the flu.
big picture of the day is supposed to take place in the town of
in August, a terrorist bomb killed scores of people, and was, unintentionally
by the bombers, the final straw that signaled the end
of years of bloody warfare in Northern Ireland. President Clinton
First Lady are to place a wreath in front of the building where the
bomb was detonated. As we stop, the photographers
leap from our minivans, which
are nearly half a mile behind the President's car. We race to the
head of the motorcade, but it is too late.
Clinton is already laying the wreath.
We are all screaming at the White House advance people: "How could
we miss this picture ?!!" Their eyes have
the kind of thousand-yard- stare
that we saw in Saving Private Ryan.
For the next hour, we are herded down a chute across the street, and several hundred feet ahead of the President, as he shakes hands in the crowd. Between us and the President is every cop, Secret Service Agent, Royal Ulster Constabulary, officials and hangers-on in the British Isles. It is amazing: here is an entire town turned out to meet the President, and we can't get a picture!
From Omagh, we go on to Armagh, for a huge twilight rally for Peace. Fortunately, I am able to get onto the press helicopter for the ride to Dublin, that will get me to bed by midnight Irish time, after a 23-hour day. Other members of the press are not so lucky. The press buses will not arrive in Dublin until the early morning hours.
Saturday, September 5 (Limerick, Republic of Ireland)
On Friday, we have swept through Northern Ireland, for a series of events and speeches. The most surreal moment comes when Clinton meets with the Taoiseach, in Dublin. The greeting turns into what will be the first of a series of apologies by the President for deceiving the American people. The bewildered Mr. Ahern can only stare at his guest. By now, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the crash of Swissair 111 have wiped out any coverage of whatever this trip was supposed to be about.
The defining moment, for me, comes on Saturday morning in Limerick. Twenty thousand people have been waiting in a pouring rain for hours to see the President. They are crying with gratitude and awe, in recognition of his work towards helping to secure a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. The President rises to the occasion as the love of the crowd sweeps over him. He is absolutely Kennedyesque as he delivers a moving speech celebrating the spirit of the Irish people. As we drive the 50 miles to Ballybunion, following the speech, people are lining the road, three and four deep, with signs and flags in support of the President.
I could only think, as our motorcade barrels down the narrow Irish roads, through the green hills: here, we have seen what the promise of Bill Clinton could have been. The ability to make a difference in the world, to be a power for peace and good---and how sad to see it all squandered for some adolescent gropings with a White House intern.
But then again, now that everyone has been
sated with more details about Bill
Clinton's private life than anyone would ever want
to know, he may yet again dodge the bullet, and have another chance.
As our columnist Jim Colburn said last month:
"Hey Monica, thanks for the
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