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.
A: Hey! And now it is no more, right? I grew up in Rogers Park. We lived for a time on Estes Avenue near Western and then, after a brief move to Bloomington, Illinois, for my father's job, we came back and my parents lived for 30 or more years on Hoyne Avenue near Howard. So all pretty much in the same neighborhood.
Q: (After high school at the old Loyola Academy), you basically stayed on there and went undergrad to Loyola. What did you think you wanted to do?
A: I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I was never particularly good at science, but I was always good at running my mouth. I started at Chicago-Kent Law, but dropped out pretty quickly because I wasnt really interested.
Q: So then what?
A: I didn't know what I was going to do. I had already then started working in broadcasting when I was about 17. I started work at a radio station in Evanston, which was then called WNMP, 1590 at the top of your radio dial. It was mostly classical music, and I did the classical music announcing. And later on I got another job introducing music on WNIB-FM.
Q: Were you more interested in broadcasting, or music? What was the attraction there?
A: Well, the attraction was just the whole package, the whole idea that I could sit and talk into a microphone and listen to music. I really didn't sort of get interested in news until I went to work in Milwaukee.
Q: So you were largely self taught as a reporter.
A: Yeah, I was. I never got to go to City News. It would have been fun, but I never did it.
Q: When did you transition to television and why?
A: A friend of mine told me about the job in Milwaukee, WISN-TV — I think it still is — I got that job, doing announcing and news.
So I was there for three and a half years exploring ways to move on, and I learned of something called the CBS Fellowship. It was a sabbatical year at Columbia University sort of modeled on the Nieman Fellowship (at Harvard), to study whatever you want or work on a project. I applied for it twice. The second year I got it. I was one of eight. And I went to New York the beginning of the fall of 1963. I was able to talk CBS into a job. I started the first day of June, 1964.
Q: Was there anything you remember that you did that you were able to make your mark with?
A: There were a lot of things I did that I was shocked came so quickly. Not that I was particularly impressive, but the luck of the draw in some ways. I'd been there three weeks, and I got sent down to Mississippi as part of a large team of CBS people to cover the disappearance of the three civil rights workers in the summer of '64. I had never been further south than St. Louis, and going to Mississippi to me was kind of like going to the other side of the moon. But you learn quickly, especially when the Klansmen are chasing you just for fun. They could always identify us. We had the new cars from the rental people at the airport.
Q: So you must have done something right, because you were posted to the Chicago bureau in '66?
A: I was, but let me tell you a story first. I'd been there a couple of months. In October, I think, I got called in by the national editor. He said, "How'd you like to go to Vietnam?" I said, "B-b-b-but I'm getting married in January." He looked at me without a trace of irony, and he said, "What the (expletive) would you want to do that for?" He wasn't kidding.
Q: He thought going to Vietnam was the better alternative.
A: For a reporter, yeah. So I went for two months. That was my first stint in Vietnam, November-December of '64. I came back, went back to the South, did more of the civil rights beat. I covered Martin Luther King in the days before the march from Selma to Montgomery. In October or November of 65, the same guy called me in and he said, "Listen, we're gonna send you to Chicago. And promote you to correspondent."
Q: What did you learn about Chicago as a reporter covering the problems and issues of the place that you didn't know as a kid growing up here?
A: I became very conscious as a rerpoter of something I was only vaguely conscious of as a kid, and that is the two-tier society that we had and in some ways still have in this town. You saw very vividly in those days how divided the city was and how the power structure didn't quite get it. In fact, most of them didn't get it at all. That was so vivid when King marched in Cicero and on the South Side. You saw the hatred that was there. You wondered why it had to be quite that bad. I think in many ways the city is much better today. The problems haven't gone away, but at least they're more openly addressed.
Q: I saw one other interesting situation you got yourself in. I think Karl Rove was resigning the Bush White House.
A: Oh, yeah. I shot my mouth off. He was leaving and Bush was departing the White House. It was on the South Lawn. They set up a lectern and he came to it to say goodbye to Rove and Bush talked about something to the effect of how smart Rove was and how much he'd miss him. And I think I said something to the effect of, "If he's so smart, how'd you lose Congress?" I mean, you know, it's a provocative question, and neither one of them responded. But, you know, why not? I mean, that's our role. Some people expect us to be in their face all the time. Some people are dismayed when we say anything that they think is disrespectful. I think a provocative question isn't disrespect. And at the same time, if all you do is act as a transmission cell for what they put out, you're not doing much of a job as a reporter.
Q: I've wondered this. I had a chance to cover politics for a while. Just wasn't for me. And I see the White House press thing, and I just wonder, what's the challenge you're getting out of that as a reporter? Because you're all getting roughly the same information, you're all going to roughly the same events.
A: That's a good question. It's challenging to understand what they're doing and the reasons why they're doing it, particularly if they're not very helpful. But it is a chance to see history up close, to be there as the important decisions are made and important events happen. And that's part of the draw, I think. It's always been regarded as a premiere beat. You don't get as much juice out of it, I suppose, as landing a good investigative piece, which you might do, if you're lucky, once a year. But it remains a fascination. For me, covering politics is about watching people and how they react and how they do things. Politics is all about personal interaction. It's people-watching, and I love that.