Bill Plante's journey from his Rogers Park upbringing to his current and longstanding post as CBS News White House correspondent has been, in many senses, a conventional one for reporters of a certain age. Plante, now 76, got into radio young — at 17, he recalls, in Evanston and then with WNIB-FM in Chicago — transitioned to television and then to the network. While covering some of the major events of the last half-century, he's earned a reputation for humility, hard work and a certain old-fashioned sense of the role of, as he puts it, "an actual, everyday, working reporter."
Wednesday in Washington, the Radio Television Digital News Foundation will give Plante its lifetime achievement award. We used the occasion to talk with Plante about how access to the president has diminished while demands on correspondents have grown, his Chicago roots and much more. An edited transcript follows.
Q: You are getting a lifetime achievement award. I would imagine that maybe brings some mixed feelings.
A: Well, it's very generous of them, and I do appreciate it. But I often wonder, as I'm sure people must in this situation, whether they just needed to find somebody who's been around long enough, or whether I really measured up to it. You know, it is an honor and I do appreciate it, but I have to be slightly amused. I've emceed this dinner on other occasions, and now I'm on the receiving end.
Q: You've seen other people get these awards, then. What did you learn from watching some of your colleagues and peers?
A: Well, to be perfectly serious, I learned that they all had a body of work that demanded some respect. I hope I do, too.
Q: What have been the major changes in White House coverage from your first years covering the Reagan administration to now?
A: In the Reagan White House and to some extent in H.W. Bush's and in Clinton's there were enough internal divisions that you could easily find sources to talk about the other side. Clinton's was a free-for-all. There was no top-down discipline. Everybody advanced their own causes and interests. When W. got in, he was a top-down disciplinarian. He did not like that stuff. He was neither as stupid or as disconnected as people thought, not at all. If he saw somebody leaking he didn't like it. And this president doesn't like it any more than that. So there is a sense internally, these last two administrations, that you'd better not give anything up. People still do, but it's just a lot harder.
Q: You stirred up a little bit of controversy with a comment not too long about about the Obama administration and the lack of access that White House reporters are actually getting to the president. I think you used the phrase, "state-run media."
A: Right. Yeah, I did that on CNN. It was very deliberate. We have an issue, and we had it to a certain extent with the Bush administration. The roots of it — let me tell you a story. Mike Deaver, who was Reagan's image guy, told me at the beginning of the Reagan administration, he said, "You know, we're gonna go over your heads and speak directly to the public because the president is very good at that." I said, "O.K., fine. Go ahead." But in fact we — and the (Associated Press) — still controlled the news flow. The news was what we said it was.
But now, any administration, certainly beginning with W. Bush and now this one, has all the tools at their own disposal. I think what I was talking about that day, specifically, was something that took place just in the last year or so. The White House now posts photos taken by White House photographers on Flickr and makes them available to news outlets of events to which regular photographers are not invited. They also do video of events which are not eligible for covereage by those of us who cover the place, even the pool. These videos are released every Friday. Much of it is innocuous, but the point is, it's private. So that's how I got off into the state-run media rant — which was very deliberate. "It's the equivalent of," I think is what I said.
Q: How has Barack Obama surprised you?
A: This isn't an original thought, but his initial promise probably hasn't — how best to put it? He promised to change things, but he hasn't been able to do that, for whatever reason. I would suggest that the reason is, he doesn't like politics. He's not a comfortable politician so he hasn't been able to use the leverage available to most politicians to affect his program.
Q: He's no Lyndon Johnson.
A: He's no Lyndon Johnson. Of course, nobody is anymore. But I mean just the basics: trading favors for favors, in the best and most above-board sense.
Q: But the other side of that is, one would say, the environment now is so caustic that there are no deals to be made.
A: That's also true. But the president seems to believe that if he enunciates his principles, if he talks about them, there's a possibility that, even if he understands the Congress isn't going to act, that the public will understand and maybe push Congress to act. But the evidence suggests that's not happening.
Q: Let's go back in time a little bit and talk about your Chicago roots. You were born here, correct?
A: I was. Ravenswood Hospital.
Q: I was born in Ravenswood Hospital.