Friday, July 17, 2009

White House Intervention

I was saddened to read today that former White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes is suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. Larry is 69 years old and he is in an assisted living facility in his home state of Mississippi.

I have many memories of Larry, who served President Ronald Reagan and had the longest tenure of any presidential press secretary. I was a CBS News producer based in Washington and I was frequently assigned to cover the White House. We got to know each other very well over the course of the Reagan administration. While he could be wary and cautious when dealing with the press, he was a great friend to have.

In April 1982, I was the CBS News White House producer at the Economic Summit in Versailles, France. Without warning the Israeli's invaded Lebanon in an effort to put an end to terrorist attacks on their country. The Israeli's crushed the Syrian army and overran the Lebanese defenses. They would be in Beirut within hours.

I was contacted by the CBS News foreign editor and told I was to proceed immediately to Lebanon to coordinate CBS News coverage. I protested saying I was the "White House Producer" and, besides, I was scheduled to go on vacation with my wife in France in four days.

"No problem," said the foreign editor, "we'll get you back in time for your vacation."

"You have got to be kidding," I retorted, "That's is impossible."

The foreign editor revised his remarks slightly to, "we'll do our best." Nonetheless, I was to leave almost immediately.

Frustrated, I ran into the deputy press secretary, Mark Weinberg, and told him I would be leaving and someone else from CBS News would replace me. I mentioned my vacation conflict. He said he would tell Larry Speakes.

Not even an hour later Weinberg informed me that Larry had solved my problem. I asked, "How did you do that?"

"We told your boss that we like working with you," Weinberg said, "and that if you were to leave we could not promise that CBS News would get important information." I was horrified, but it was true!

Sure enough, a few moments later the lead CBS News producer called me to say I was staying in France. "Don't worry about Beirut," he said, "they have someone else."

Two weeks later, while staying in a beautiful villa in the south of France, I was awakened at four in the morning. We were scheduled to leave Nice airport for home in a matter of hours from our wonderful vacation. CBS Evening News senior producers Mark Harrington and Lane Venardos, in unison, shook me out of my slumber with the following greeting: "Guess who's going to Beirut in six hours?"

At ten o'clock that morning my wife boarded a plane for New York, and I boarded a plane for Tel Aviv. From there I would be driven north to Beirut where I would spend six unforgettable weeks coordinating CBS News coverage of the war between the Palestinians and Israel's formidable army.


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