Memorable meals with newsmakers

The 73 breakfasts and lunches hosted by the Monitor in 2004 offered new perspectives - and insight into character.

The nation and its capital saw some extraordinary news made during 2004 - much of it tied to an election campaign that brought a sprinkling of new faces to Washington even as President Bush held onto the Oval Office despite deep public divisions.

As part of our effort to help put it all in perspective, the Monitor hosted some 73 newsmaker breakfasts and lunches in Washington and at the political conventions.

On a good morning, our breakfast guest may offer a new perspective on some issue in the news. And in the process of nibbling at their eggs and bacon and chatting for an hour with 25 reporters, our guests often reveal something of their character. A window on the mental qualities that the newsmaker brings to his or her job helps reporters write

more insightful stories.

Some breakfasts are memorable just because they happen at all. After two years of sending invitations, in late

December Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed to be our guest for lunch. The session began almost too memorably when a cabdriver ignored Mr. Powell's security team and came within inches of backing into the secretary's armored Cadillac at the hotel entrance. Striding into the dining room, Powell was impeccably tailored in a dark blue suit, standing ramrod straight like the Army general he once was.

Powell offered a spirited defense of the administration's foreign policy and several flashes of humor. When asked to describe his relationship with the current president he quipped, "I only describe them after I've left."

The secretary is charming but maintains a reserve that perhaps is a remnant of the command presence a general develops - fraternizing neither with the troops nor the journalists.

The most emotionally unguarded moments of this year's breakfasts occurred in our late July session with John Kerry's daughters: 30-year-old, raven-haired Alexandra and 27-year-old, blond Vanessa. They had not yet retreated into the land of prepackaged, plastic responses that candidates and their families often adopt. Instead, at least for the hour they spent with us, they were gracious, articulate, intelligent, funny, and open about their fears.

"To be totally candid, I am scared. Definitely," Vanessa said. "There are things that you want to be sacred. You want your friends, your private jokes. You want those moments. You want to know you can walk down the street and not have someone just come up and just give you a kiss on the cheek because they think they can, which has happened."

While the Kerry daughters were reluctant politicians, Barack Obama is a natural, one of the most naturally gifted politicians I have met.

The rail thin, elegantly dressed candidate for the US Senate from Illinois was running 45 minutes late for lunch during the Democratic convention. The first impression of Mr. Obama is of grace, and it is an impression that persists after spending time with him.

He glided through the hotel lobby, stopping briefly to talk earnestly with the many supporters who spotted him and wanted to chat or get an autograph. He was handling the sudden adulation with apparent humility. "We spent 17 months as David, and have spent the last month as Goliath," he quipped.

The most memorable moments at the Republican convention centered around the contrast between the Bush team and their Democratic counterparts. Campaign manager Ken Mehlman is emblematic of the Bush team. The youthful Mr. Mehlman, a 1991 Harvard law graduate, is not one to blurt out inconvenient, soul-baring truths. "On message" is his middle name.

But he is remarkably agile in turning reporters' questions into an opportunity to deliver the president's message of the day. And he is obviously smart.

He brought along senior strategist Matt Dowd, who laced his observations with self-deprecating humor, but it is clear Mehlman is in charge.

Clarity of command is not as evident when, on the final day of the Republican convention, the Kerry campaign leadership asked to visit. It's the best-attended breakfast of the year - some 55 reporters turned out. What they saw were six Kerry campaign executives crowded around the table to speak with reporters.

Among the Kerry crew, there was palpable tension between the early Kerry workers and late arrivals from the Clinton presidency. Whatever the intended message, what reporters immediately noted was that the Kerry campaign was not well enough organized to decide what one or two officials should say that day.

Politicians often come to breakfast to offer their self-serving spin on developments. But sometimes candor breaks through. One notable example was Democratic strategist James Carville's obvious despair at a postelection breakfast. He bemoaned his party's inability to provide voters with a story of why Democrats should be elected, rather than just a litany of policy positions. "It is tough to beat a narrative with a litany, and that happens to us again and again and again," Mr. Carville said. The moment was especially poignant since Mr. Kerry's chief strategist and speechwriter, Bob Shrum, was in the room as Carville spoke.

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