Over the years one of the most frequently asked questions about the Monitor breakfast group goes something like this: "What do journalists who attend these breakfasts expect to get out of them, and how often are their expectations fulfilled?"
Well, to answer that I must go back to the beginning, back to the group's first meeting in 1966 at the Washington Press Club. It was there - before our guest, Sen. Charles H. Percy, then a hot presidential prospect, had arrived for a lunch, actually - that we addressed the question of "why" we were there.
"We have come for enlightenment," Monitor columnist Roscoe Drummond said.
"Yes," added Baltimore Sun bureau chief Philip Potter, "and this gives us a good opportunity to size up these public figures." There were nods of agreement around a table that held about a dozen newsmen.
Some years later, Jack Nelson, Los Angeles Times bureau chief, told Esquire Magazine, "I come to these breakfasts to save string."
By this he meant that he found the gatherings to be valuable forums for picking up information and quotations that were useful later on - perhaps after a guest made a bid for the White House, for example.
It's important to note that the early shapers of the breakfast group were not saying the objective was to find a news story there. They all agreed that if news developed, fine and good. But they came mainly to pick up fresh outlooks and new information and to get to know the guests better.
So it is clear that, in terms of the objectives set by the breakfasts' founders, the gatherings do fulfill their expectations. The best proof is that the journalists have been showing up for these get-togethers a little more than 2,900 times now over the last 31 years. Sometimes the turnout is small. But often we have more than 50 journalists at one time - far more than was ever envisioned when the group sat down together for the first time.
OH, yes, news often breaks at these breakfasts. But in my view, this is an added dessert to a bountiful feast. Indeed, Ed Rollins, Newt Gingrich, and Bobby Kennedy made nation-shaking political news at the breakfast. Additionally, smaller but important news has been made by hundreds of other guests. And hundreds of other invitees have "advanced the story" enough to provide ingredients for an article.
For example, just recently, Sen. Richard Lugar created some big headlines when he came to breakfast and told us that he would take some negative, arbitrary action against tobacco farmers if Sen. Jesse Helms did not call a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and permit a vote on William F. Weld's nomination to be ambassador to Mexico. Senator Helms, of course, represents North Carolina, a large tobacco-producing state. Senator Lugar is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which will soon be reviewing the recent settlement with Big Tobacco.
Lugar's threat was not something he conceived of at the breakfast. He was looking at notes when this mild-mannered fellow - widely regarded as one of the brainiest of the senators - put his challenge this way: "I must take the measures that would be uncharacteristic, at least of my normal mood and demeanor in these situations, and I'm prepared to do that."
Incidentally, Lugar was only saying he would make trouble for Helms if he blocked a committee hearing on Weld's appointment. Lugar did not say he himself would vote for Weld. (Helms is opposing Weld for the Mexico post because he asserts that the former Massachusetts governor is soft on drugs, which Weld heatedly denies.)
We will see soon how this all plays out at Senate hearings. In the meantime, this battle of Lugar versus Helms continues to make news in a city where very little else has been going on.