35 years, over easy

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As the Monitor breakfast group celebrated its 35th year of serving bacon and eggs and probing questions to more than 3,000 newsmakers, it seemed a fitting moment to look back and reflect on many, many press sessions with public figures that started back in 1966.

Charles H. Percy was our "first" guest. He really wasn't the first, because I had no thought of having any meals with the press other than this one with my old friend from Chicago, who had come to Washington as a new senator and who, in addition, was one of the hottest presidential prospects in America.

I had rather idly asked Percy after he arrived in Washington if he would like to sit down and get acquainted with a few of my journalistic colleagues. He thought it was a good idea.

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So I set up a lunch with Percy in the National Press Club. And when he came that noon and talked about his presidential aspirations and expressed his opinions on the issues of the day, young Percy, who had been the prominent president of a big corporation and a global trade adviser to President Eisenhower, made big news. It was, indeed, a most rewarding meeting for both the guest and the assembled group of 11 reporters.

So within hours, several of those who had attended that lunch were knocking on my door and saying in one way or another: "We need something like this in Washington. Let's do some more." And I did. Again and again and again.

Oh, yes, that was a Percy lunch. The thought of having a breakfast never crossed my mind. No one - absolutely no one in press or politics or business - had thought of having breakfasts back then. But when New York Mayor John Lindsay expressed an interest in coming to our next get-together - I had gotten to know Lindsay while covering his last mayoral race - I found that the Press Club's rooms were all in use on the day he said he could make the trip to Washington. Here the pleasant young woman I was dealing with at the club giggled and said something like this: "You could have a breakfast if you like." I know she thought I wouldn't take the silly offer. But I somehow decided to take the chance and said "yes," wondering whether any of the reporters would be willing to get up that early and whether Lindsay would agree to such a ridiculous thing as a breakfast meeting.

Well, everyone said "yes." And that's how these breakfasts were born. Public figures in Washington were readily available because they hadn't yet started their working day. And reporters learned to become early risers if it meant they would be able to pick up a good story.

So the years have flown by and the breakfasts have piled up. Not every breakfast has made news. But that really wasn't the main motive for us journalists coming in early to question these public figures. Noted Monitor columnist Roscoe Drummond looked around the table one morning back in 1966, just before the guest arrived and said: "We're here for enlightenment." The others nodded their heads in agreement. Then Phil Potter, Baltimore Sun bureau chief, added: "And we're here to size these people up."

But so very often our guests made news. I think public officials are forthcoming with us, often giving us newsworthy information, because of the civil way we treat them. We ask tough questions, but we do it in a collegial way, without sounding as though we were prosecuting attorneys. And at a session where good humor prevails, a public official is often emboldened to tell us what really is going on and what he really thinks.

It was in such an atmosphere that Bobby Kennedy came to breakfast in early 1968. Before the hour was over, he had let us know what the country (certainly the Democrats) was waiting to hear: He was going to run for president.

Indeed, as he talked with us, he seemed to be making up his mind on whether to run or not. First, he said it was "not conceivable" that he would become a candidate. Then - as we kept asking about his presidential aspirations - he said his candidacy was "not perceivable." And by the time Kennedy was walking out of our press club room that morning, he had clearly thrown his hat into the ring.

There have been other Kennedy-like breakfasts over the years, where big stories have developed from what the guest said. But the Kennedy story still is cited as the breakfast's biggest news scoop.

I think our group - meeting since 1972 at a hotel now called The St. Regis - did much more than flush out big news stories from time to time. The breakfasts, often two or three times a week, produced a valuable flow of information that moved from these reporters into their papers and then to their readers. Thus, I'd like to think that the group for 35 years has contributed helpfully to the enlightenment of the American people.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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