Editor's View: A couple of guys I knowAs a reporter and TV producer in Boston, News Tribune editor Robin Washington has met Barack Obama and Mitt Romney several times; some just fleeting encounters, some in-depth interviews.
By: Robin Washington, Duluth News Tribune
If the question, “Who would you rather have a beer with?” is frequently asked about presidential candidates, check off the Mitt Romney box for me. Already done that.
In fact, he bought the whole bar a round.
“Yeah, that’s right. He did,” Wayne Woodlief, a former colleague and political columnist for the Boston Herald, said last week of his 2004 retirement party, at which the Mormon governor anted-up but didn’t imbibe.
“We were looking very carefully,” Woodlief recalled by phone from Boston of the 70-odd journalists in the bar. “Nobody wrote anything that indicated they’d seen him have a pop (beer).”
My eyes were looking for just that when Romney pulled up a stool to chat with me one-on-one — cool, because I had something to say.
“Well, we did it!” I said, referring to a series of articles I’d just written that led to the cancellation of an extravagant, and expensive, partial opening party for the budget-busting Big Dig highway project, hosted by one of his political rivals. I’d said “we” because his staff generously fed me information to scuttle the event, and Romney figured prominently in the stories.
He shot me his winning grin and chit-chatted but didn’t talk about the issue.
Huh? I thought. It was a front-page story; didn’t he read the papers? Or maybe he was just being extra careful with a tricky transportation reporter who’d snagged him before — like at a dedication of new buses a few months earlier.
“This is a clean, green, brand-new machine,” he had said then. “I can’t wait to take a ride.”
Though nearly every other official there did board the bus, apparently Romney could wait, I wrote, because he headed straight for his SUV. (An aide said he had a meeting and would ride the bus later.) In another interview about buses, Romney told me he used to regularly ride the “T” — Boston’s transit system — though he was referring to the subway, not the bus.
In transportation circles, the adage goes: “You want to ride a train. You have to ride a bus.” Does that mean the multimillionaire candidate has trouble understanding the common man?
“He’s still got that touch. He respects people in the working class, but his policies would not help them a lot,” said Woodlief, citing an event in New Hampshire early this year where a woman showed up with her mother, an Alzheimer’s patient who had been Romney’s neighbor in suburban Boston.
“Mitt would come over and fix her dinner some nights and wash her dishes. She had trouble with her car, and he crawled under it and came out with oil splatters and had fixed whatever needed to be fixed,” Woodlief said.
“Mitt was coming to the row where she was sitting. He finally saw her and bent down and interrupted what he was saying to talk to her,” he continued, calling Romney “a pretty doggone good governor” but one who has since “revolved, rather than evolved,” changing his stances on “some really good values back then.”
Woodlief spent way more time with Romney than I did, so his recollections have more depth. But as a former Massachusetts journalist, I can offer one fact-check of Romney’s presidential nomination acceptance speech:
“As governor of Massachusetts, I chose a woman lieutenant governor,” he said in the GOP’s push to female voters.
True, but not exactly groundbreaking. Two other women held the job earlier, and one of them, Jane Swift, went on to become acting governor, giving birth to twins while in office. Can’t get more female than that.
A Republican, Swift intended to run for governor in her own right until Romney got the party to dump her, whereupon he sealed the nomination and beat a female Democratic candidate.
That doesn’t make him a bad guy. It just means don’t expect him to volunteer more information than he has to.
Especially in a bar to a sneaky transportation reporter.
If my Romney encounters were fleeting (and I doubt he could match my name with my face today), I’m pretty certain President Obama remembers me.
As far as I can tell, I was the first person to put Barack Obama on television, in 1990, when he was a law student and the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. The newspapers already had the story when I called to do it for Boston’s WBZ-TV, where I was a producer. We spent a good morning interviewing and, while we didn’t have a beer together, he did smoke a cigarette. The interview went long and he called a friend to take notes for a class so he could keep talking to us.
WBZ, alas, can’t find the tape, so I can’t tell you exactly what he said. But I remember connecting because of our shared biracial heritage and experiences in Chicago: me growing up there in the Civil Rights Movement and him having worked there as a community organizer. He also gave me props as a sort of big brother, a few years his senior; I was, after all, working and he was in school.
About a week later, the networks picked up the story and Black Entertainment Television wanted me to report it for them. But Obama declined, saying, “I have bigger fish than you now.” He didn’t mean offense and said it with a laugh, which was fine; I’d been turned down by, and had scored, way bigger fish than him.
I followed his career casually after he graduated and quoted him in an article about an all-class gathering of Harvard Law’s black alumni in 2000 (which I’d forgotten until I found it in the archives recently). He remembered me the next time I saw him, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, when I came upon him just before his keynote speech with his former law professor, Charles Ogletree, and Al Sharpton.
I mentioned that Obama had cut class to tape the WBZ show years before, and Ogletree joked: “Well, we’ll have to reexamine that grade!” Everyone had a good laugh.
I shared the joke again when I met him at a National Conference of Editorial Writers meeting a couple of months later but shelved it when he met with the Trotter Group, an organization of about three dozen black columnists, in August 2007. That’s where the picture on this page was taken. And if he looks serious it’s because, having met about a million people or so by then, he was trying to read my name badge to remember who the heck I was.
The next February, I wrote about those encounters in a column I thought was quite complimentary. In response to media reports portraying him as “distant” to journalists, I quoted others who knew him and found him to be genuine, saying if he didn’t recognize you right away he didn’t want to fake it.
His campaign staff didn’t see it that way, however, and complained that it was unfair to run the piece the day of the Minnesota caucuses. From their tone, I knew I had struck a nerve and was certain if they discussed it with him, he’d remember me from then on.
I got what felt like a confirmation of that in what was supposed to have been our next meeting, at the White House, just before the 2010 midterm elections. The Trotter Group was again invited to meet him and I initially made the cut (fifth on a first-come, first served list of 16) — only to be disinvited when the list was reshuffled. The softball pieces written by the columnists who did go (“As I watched Barack Obama walk alone across the south lawn of the White House to his waiting helicopter … I understood the campaign strategy Republicans have cleverly crafted,” wrote one) made it clear they weren’t looking to chat with someone with a penchant for asking critical questions.
All of which, in the encounters with both candidates, seems to indicate that Obama and Romney are skilled enough to know not to spend any more time than necessary with unpredictable journalists.
That, or I need a new deodorant.
Robin Washington is editor of the Duluth News Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.