West Wing Story: The Characters Of The White House Press Corps

The president was pretty much acing his third press conference last Friday, making it almost to the end without a major gaffe or glitch, when he called upon an older gentleman standing to his left. "Yes sir," Bush said, nodding to Lester Kinsolving, a radio personality out of Baltimore. Bush's press aides cringed, bracing themselves. "Mr. President," Les, as he's known by all, began. "You would not equate the baby that was killed in retaliatory Israeli fire in the Gaza Strip with the 13- and 14-year old Jewish boys, one of them a U.S. citizen, who were tied up, beaten to death and mutilated near Tekoa would you?"

For the first time that afternoon, Bush was caught off guard. He smiled and let out an astonished little laugh when he heard the question. Then he tried to recover his composure. "I was kind of smiling," he explained, "it sounded kind of like an editorial." Then Bush got stern and launched into a general condemnation of violence in the Middle East. Kinsolving had done it again: he had ruffled another president of the United States.

There are a handful of true characters in the White House press corps. The best known, of course, is Helen Thomas, the diminutive firebrand who has had a front-row seat at press conferences for decades. But inside the briefing room it is Kinsolving who is often the most colorful. In fact, given some of the questions he has asked press secretary Ari Fleischer (on the president's views of bestiality, for example), Bush got off easy last week.

Kinsolving always stands on the sidelines, raising his hand insistently. He does not have an assigned seat with a little brass plaque on it like we do at NEWSWEEK. Sometimes when he reads a long-winded question off his clipboard other reporters groan. A reporter sitting behind me once shouted, "Get to the point, Les!" Fleischer often deflects Kinsolving's questions with humor. But in the controlled environs of the White House, Les is valuable not for the comic relief, but the unpredictability. He provokes unscripted moments.

There are more than 2,000 reporters who have "hard passes" to the White House. With a pass, a reporter gets unescorted access to the upper and lower press offices, the briefing room and the basement work area (a newsroom in miniature with tiny cubicles just big enough for a person and a phone.) Most pass holders rarely show up. There are only about 50 journalists who work out of the White House each day. But once you go through the FBI background check, it seems very hard for the White House to take your pass away.

Every new administration wrestles with whether or not to cut the number of pass holders or at least require that they visit the White House once a month. Occasionally, a new press secretary will even contemplate revising the qualifications for a pass. Should reporters for obscure newsletters get access? Most press secretaries decide not to open Pandora's box.

Besides, there are traditions passed from one press secretary to the next. Trude Feldman is one of them. Feldman is a freelancer for mostly Jewish publications. She has been covering the White House for about as long as Helen Thomas, but she may be even more legendary within the West Wing. She quickly earned here reputation with the Bushies when she escaped the confines of the press pool during an event and went off on her own in the White House. Somehow, she manages to talk her way into remarkable access. And she has a knack for finding the direct numbers to White House big wigs. I was sitting outside communication guru Margaret Tutwiler's office not long ago when the phone rang. It was Trude. Tutwiler, after trying to get her off the phone, finally said: "Trude, I'm not being rude, I can't talk to you right now. I have to go." Then she hung up and marvelled, "How did Trude get my direct number?"

The White House thinks it might have an inkling. According to security, Feldman was caught one night (the White House press area closes at 8:30 p.m.) rifling through a press aide's desk drawers a few months ago. Some staffers wanted to revoke her pass; instead the White House suspended it for 90 days. She'll be back the end of next month. Her methods may be questionable but her persistence is admirable.

The pioneering women of the White House press corps are dwindling. Sarah McClendon, who still comes to the occasional briefing in a wheel chair, is known for her aggressive style and her bright red hair. Bush Sr. once told her he wouldn't call on her unless she asked her question in a "dignified manner." She responded: "You won't answer my question if I ask it in a dignified manner, Mr. President."

She worked for The El Paso Times and usually asked about a local issue in which someone had been wronged, usually by the government. John Kennedy once famously responded to her by saying, "Life is not fair." Some presidents liked to call on Sarah because it broke up the pace of the press conference or got reporters off an uncomfortable line of questioning. It also didn't hurt that she could make the press corps look like "media jackals," to borrow a phrase from Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Veteran White House reporters pass these legends on to newcomers like me on long bus rides or over dinner in lonely towns. They are a kind of initiation ceremony into this peculiar club. They tell, for example, of how the women in the press corps during Ronald Reagan's years started wearing red during press conferences. It was Nancy Reagan's favorite color, and Ronnie seemed drawn to it. No one seems to know if Sam Donaldson's red ties were a similar ploy.

But the favorite story passed from generation to generation is of Naomi Nover in China. When her husband, Barnet, of The Denver Post, died, Naomi took over his White House pass. She was advanced in years, stood 4 foot 11 and had white curls. She didn't really do any reporting, but she went on every presidential trip abroad until she died in 1995. She paid for the trips in cash. And she always had her Instamatic camera ready.

When Reagan went to Xian, China, where they had excavated the terra cotta statues of Chinese warriors, Nover wanted some up-close snapshots. The Chinese guard on duty refused to let her enter the off-limits site. So Gary Shuster, who wrote for The Detroit News, whipped out a dollar bill and showed it to the guard. He pointed to the picture of George Washington and then to Naomi. "Very important person," Shuster explained. The guard took a look at Naomi and her head of white curls and back at the dollar bill. Then he stepped aside and Naomi scurried in and started snapping away.

Not even Les can top that. But Bush will no doubt remember him at the next press conference. And, if it serves his purpose, he may just call on him again. One thing is for sure, Les will be there raising his hand.