AT THE WHITE HOUSE: Assignment to Six Presidents by Robert Pierpoint

AT THE WHITE HOUSE: Assignment to Six Presidents

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Longtime CBS White House correspondent Pierpoint frankly confesses his nervousness when he took up his post in 1956--with no prior domestic reporting experience!--and his anxiety before each televised news conference. That sense of the difficulty of the job is a distinguishing feature of his generally unsurprising notes on the presidential/resident-press relationship. Overall, the book is somewhat wanting in focus. Pierpoint's long tenure yields the predictable complement of presidential anecdotes (he too was treated to LBJ in the buff, his wife was ogled by JFK) and the requisite rundown on presidential wives (interesting, however, for Pierpoint's comments on tense, ""drawn"" Pat Nixon--whom he'd known at Whittier High School as ""an independent, gregarious teacher""). We also have a fill-in on ""The White House Press"" over the years (from flasks and poker to women, ""crazies,"" and a horde of reporters); on physical changes in ""The Press Room"" (more comfort, less access); on the performance of successive ""Press Secretaries."" But those scrappy, dossier-like chapters do put across the consequences, pro and con, of constant press surveillance of the president--and why, with the ascendancy of TV, the surveillance increased: producers of the news shows can be sure, day in and day out, ""to have a story that will look like news, even if it is not""; ""The White House provides a continual showcase for media stars"" (like--not without some rue--CBS first-stringer Dan Rather). Most striking, however, are the mechanics and constraints of the ""instant-news trade"" (see Pierpoint painstakingly put together each three-minute piece on Carter's 1978, canal-transferring trip to Panama); the logistics of preparing questions and getting recognized at presidential press conferences; and, altogether, the infinitesimal shifts--the choices, accidents, gaffes--that may totally alter what millions see on TV (and, at any moment, destroy a reporter's career). Pierpoint concludes with an assessment of presidents (""the question I am most often asked""), some regret at the mushrooming of skepticism (if a Lincoln or FDR came along, would we recognize him?), and some concern about the resultant short-term presidencies. Nothing exciting, but it is educational.

Pub Date: Aug. 4th, 1981
Publisher: Putnam