Passing the baton on Monitor breakfasts

When I started what later became known as the Monitor breakfast, I had little expectation that it would be around very long. "These little groups of reporters that meet with public figures come and go," my colleague Richard L. Strout told me at the time. I thought he was right. I figured I'd be doing something else for the newspaper within a few years that would take me away from holding those morning sessions.

But now, after nearly 36 years and 3,241 of these breakfasts (including a few lunches), these gatherings have attained an appearance of permanence. Indeed, as I now turn over the leadership of this breakfast to the Monitor's new Washington bureau chief and former editor, David Cook, I can see clearly that a breakfast that originally had a short life expectancy now has, somehow, become a Washington fixture.

So over to you, David. I'm counting on you to run this show for another 36 years - before you hand it over to some younger, energetic Monitor bureau chief who is eager to pull himself or herself out of bed at 5 a.m. once or twice or sometimes more times a week so that he (or she) can arrive at the St. Regis Hotel early enough to make sure that all is ready for another grilling of high-level officials over a breakfast of bacon and eggs.

Now, as I say goodbye to a work that I have enjoyed so much, I think I will look back over the years and ask myself a few questions.

Why did the journalists keep coming, year after year?

Well, of course, we had to provide newsworthy guests. But the unique attraction was that this venue was for print reporters only - TV people were not invited.

Washington is a city where public officials cater to TV. They find it so easy just to step out of their offices and talk to the public via the TV camera. Thus they tend to talk to TV reporters first, give their first interviews to TV, and focus their press-related thoughts almost entirely on how they can get themselves and their messages on TV. In such a TV-tinted world, the print journalists have appreciated their exclusive haven at the Monitor breakfasts.

Why was so much news generated at these breakfasts?

I think it was because of the civility that marks the way reporters question our guests. I've long thought that public figures draw back and provide the minimum of information when they are being hammered by reporters. And I've long noted that when an official is being treated civilly by a journalist who isn't acting like a prosecutor, he lets down his resistance, becomes forthcoming, and is more likely to provide some news. Sometimes big news.

What gave this group a special status, right from the outset?

Here my own bias may enter into the answer. But I think that back there in the 1960s I had some of the heaviest hitters in American journalism sitting around our table in the Presidential Suite of the Press Club.

The Monitor itself provided some prestigious journalists: Dick Strout, Joseph Harsch, Roscoe Drummond, and Saville Davis. Then there was Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News, Robert Donovan of The Los Angeles Times, John Herbers of The New York Times, Alan Otten of The Wall Street Journal, Phillip Potter of The Baltimore Sun, David Broder of The Washington Post and columnists Joseph Kraft, Rovert Novak, and Rowland Evans.

And with Bobby Kennedy becoming a presidential candidate while being questioned, and with Henry Kissinger and other Washington notables making news.... Well, with all of this going on, the Monitor breakfast soon became a place where every political reporter in Washington wanted to be. I know this last statement for a fact. I was receiving letters and phone calls daily from journalists who wanted "in" - and who said they were being "disadvantaged" by not being a part of what they called an "elite" group.

As time went on, I gradually enlarged the group so that it now includes most major newspapers. So we may not be as "elite" as we perhaps once were - but we are of much more service to American journalism as a whole.

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