SINCE President Clinton met with the Monitor's press group over lunch recently, there have been a number of inquiries about this journalist organization. How did it get started? How often does it meet and where? Who gets invited?
Well, what usually is referred to as the Monitor breakfast group - because nearly all of these get-togethers of journalists with public figures since February 1966 have been held at breakfast - had its beginnings at a lunch in the National Press Club in Washington.
Our guest was Charles Percy, a new senator but someone every political writer in Washington wanted to get to know. The personable, articulate Chuck Percy was viewed at that time as one of the Republican Party's hottest properties - a very likely presidential nominee of the near future.
That get-together was meant to be a one-time thing. As the newsman who pulled the group together and has been sending out the invitations for nearly 30 years now, I can tell you there never was a plan to form a continuing organization of reporters who would meet regularly (averaging twice a week). But Senator Percy made a lot of news. So some invitees at the first get-together encouraged me to invite someone else. I asked New York Mayor John Lindsay to meet with us. He did. He made news. Then it was George Romney. More news.
Before long, it became clear that print journalism in Washington needed a forum of this kind. There was a void the Monitor group was filling. So the group kept going. We'll reach 30 years of these breakfasts (a few, again, are lunches) in February, and the total of these sessions is nearing 2,800.
The "breakfast" idea just happened. When I nabbed Mayor Lindsay as a guest, the Press Club had no rooms available for lunch. So I asked, "How about breakfast?" The club employee seemed amused. "No one ever has groups in for breakfast," she said. "Let's give it a try," I said. That was the accidental nature of "the invention of the power breakfast," as the Washington Post recently called it.
Almost all of what might be described as Washington's so-called power people have found their way to these breakfasts over the years - first because they were nudged with notes and phone calls and, as time went by, because they came to see that it was a good place to get their views presented in newspapers - plus three news magazines - from coast to coast. We got good stories; they got their messages and themselves into our publications. It seemed a fair exchange. For this opportunity each journalist paid for his or her meal.
The group, now meeting at the Sheraton Carlton Hotel, has grown with the years. The call list, to bureau chiefs and columnists, is usually in the mid-40s today. Actually, there were 50 journalists assembled in the State Dining Room of the White House the other day when we spent an hour questioning the president - over a splendid meal that neither the president nor I had time to touch - and another half-hour mixing with the president, vice president, and some of the top White House aides.
How many readers can a breakfast guest reach with his or her views? One reporter who was a regular attendee once looked over the circulation of the publications represented at our gathering and estimated it might be as high as 50 million. The bureau chiefs of most of the big-city newspapers are invited. The Gannett journalist at the table is, alone, writing for some 8 million readers. Indeed, it's arguable that just about every print news publication in the United States is serviced, through syndication and news services, by reporters and columnists who write out of the breakfast.
Several presidents have attended Monitor breakfasts, beginning with Gerald Ford, who helped us celebrate our 10th anniversary. President Reagan honored us with a breakfast on our 20th. For security reasons we go to the White House for such occasions. It's quite a sacrifice. But no one complains.