By Gina Duwe
2004 Ann Devroy Fellow
It was a March day in 1996 — nothing out of the ordinary for Ann Devroy. As she prepared to interview guests leaving the west entrance of the West Wing of the White House, a member of the uniformed division of the Secret Service confronted her.
By long-standing custom, reporters have the right to question White House guests as they walk up the driveway.
“The White House security guy was apparently new and did not quite know the customs,” said Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary to President Bill Clinton from 1995-98, “and he confronted Ann and tried to prevent her from doing her interviews.”
Determined as she always was, Devroy got in the Secret Serviceman’s face and screamed about the First Amendment, McCurry recalls. The heated conversation reached its peak when the guard tried to grab Devroy’s press pass.
Luckily, my deputy Evelyn Lieberman happened to look out her window and saw this happening, and she grabbed me,” he said, “and we went racing out to the driveway to calm things down.”
McCurry remembers a flurry of apology notes and formal reviews following the incident, as well as a promise to never get between Devroy and her subjects again.
For the reporter who loved to laugh and had a passion for politics, incidents like this were not surprising.
“Ann, who died yesterday at age 49, was the most dogged, determined, complete reporter any of us ever saw,” her former Washington Post colleague David Broder said, describing her at a memorial service Oct. 24, 1997.
The famous White House reporter, who never let anything keep her from getting the information she wanted, had only one thing stop her: a hard-fought battle with cancer. Her passion and dedication to journalism helped Devroy rise to the top — from graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to covering four presidents as the White House correspondent for Gannett News Service and The Washington Post.
Devroy’s resume includes an array of accomplishments, from covering 10 White House chiefs of staff to scrutinizing the presidential administrations of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
“She would perform one job well and then get offered another job,” said Mark Matthews, Devroy’s widower and the diplomatic correspondent in Washington for The Baltimore Sun. “Except for early on, she never had to apply for jobs — she just got offered better jobs.”
Devroy worked the White House beat for 15 years — from 1979-85 for Gannett newspapers and USA Today and then for The Washington Post from 1989 to her death.
The training ground
The fact that Devroy came from Wisconsin and graduated from a non-Ivy League university wasn’t a big deal to her colleagues. While it wasn’t a factor in The Post newsroom, David Hoffman, the assistant managing editor of foreign news, who covered the White House with Devroy, said he often talked about it with her.
“I think it had an impact on her in the sense that she had very uncomplicated and strong values,” he said. “She valued friends, honesty, consistency. She hated people who were artificial.”
Born on Oct. 9, 1948, in Green Bay, Devroy developed her “Midwestern characteristics” while working at several Wisconsin newspapers. She attended UW-Eau Claire and graduated with a journalism degree in 1970. During that time, she held several positions at The Spectator, the university’s student newspaper.
Even in college, Devroy influenced her peers, as one of her professors recalls. Elwood Karwand, the journalism department chair and faculty adviser to The Spectator from 1964-81, knew Devroy well.
“She had a good background at Green Bay when she came to Eau Claire,” he said of his first impressions of her. “She’d had a good high school journalism teacher, no doubt.”
Devroy attended college during the late 1960s when society was quite different, Karwand said.
“There was a lot of unhappiness with the (Vietnam) war,” he said. “Ann definitely spoke her mind, and it didn’t really seemingly matter to Ann the fact that they happened to be a professor or an editor. If she had something to say, she said it.”
Devroy completed an internship at the Milwaukee Journal and was a reporter at the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, the city’s daily newspaper, by the time she graduated.
Getting her foot in the door
After her college graduation, Devroy moved to Bridgewater, N.J., and began work as a reporter for the Courier News, a Gannett newspaper. She quickly advanced to cover Somerset County, which included courthouse coverage and the development of the growing suburb, Mark Matthews said.
“She knew everybody in Somerset County,” said Matthews, who also worked at the paper. “She managed to learn who the key people in New Jersey were, up and down the state.”
Matthews, who was from nearby Plainfield, N.J., didn’t meet Devroy until she moved to the night editor position. A year and a half later, she was promoted to the city editor position, which made her the most important person in the newsroom, aside from the editor, he said.
Sam Meddis, now deputy managing editor at USAToday.com, also began his journalism career at the Courier News in 1971.
“Being young and having Ann as a city editor was just a terrific way to start your career as a reporter,” Meddis said. “I wouldn’t trade that job as a young reporter in a local community getting the truth out and just having a great time.”
Devroy’s talents didn’t go unnoticed, especially when the Associated Press offered her a job. That proposal prompted Gannett to promote her to a job in Washington, Matthews said.
Beginning in 1977, Devroy covered Congress for Gannett News Service in its Washington bureau. That same year she also married Matthews. In 1979, she began the beat she is best known for — the White House.
Getting the competition on our side
White House correspondent Lou Cannon knew all about Devroy. He knew what a “hard-driving person” she was. He knew she was “a lot of fun to be around.” And, of course, he knew “she was a very, very tough competitor.”
Except Cannon didn’t get to know Devroy as a co-worker; instead, she was his main competitor. Cannon worked 26 years for The Washington Post — beginning in 1972 — as a political reporter, White House correspondent, columnist and Los Angeles bureau chief. As the senior White House correspondent for The Post, Cannon covered the Reagan presidency alongside Devroy, who worked for USA Today at the time.
“She was more likely to be tougher competition than The New York Times, and they had good reporters,” Cannon said. “We became friends when we were working on the opposite sides, and I did what I guess I always tried to do. If you see a player that is really good, you want to get them on your team.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Cannon lobbied with Bob Kaiser and other Post editors to get Devroy over to The Post, “so I didn’t have to compete against her anymore,” he said. “I wanted her on our side.”
Kaiser said her reputation with everyone was so good he didn’t have to be convinced. He decided to offer her the job as political editor of The
Washington Post “sight unseen,” he said. A lunch meeting between Kaiser, national editor Dan Balz and Devroy was arranged at a French restaurant on K Street in Washington.
Devroy came into the lunch thinking The Post was going to offer her the White House beat, Kaiser said. However, they had been warned she wanted time with her daughter, Sarah Matthews, because she was enjoying her role as a new mother, he said.
“She was eager to have a situation where she could be with her and not have to go on trips,” he said.
As she later admitted to Kaiser, Devroy was convinced she would not accept the offer. Having a deal worked out with Gannett that allowed her time at home, she said she had planned to say no.
Instead, Kaiser said, they surprised her by offering her the political editor position. The day job allowed her more control. She was immediately drawn to the idea, he said, and the rest of the transition went smoothly.
Finding a balance
As Devroy left the newsroom each night, Kaiser said, he knew he could look up at the clock and know what time it was. He said he always felt people at The Post — editors in particular, especially women — were abused by having to spend long hours away from their families. To combat this, he said he has had a long career of crusading to get people out of the newsroom in time for dinner with their families.
“I was always looking for allies to make this possible,” Kaiser said. “The thing I liked the most was, (Devroy) said to her reporters, ‘OK, here’s the deal. I’m leaving at 6:45 every day, so if you want your story in tomorrow’s paper, you better have it in on time.’ And by gosh, she did it. She stuck to it.”
As a devoted mother, Mathews, her widower, said, Devroy loved coming home and spending time with Sarah before she went to bed.
Born in January of 1985, her daughter was an infant when Devroy started at The Post later that year.
Her deep devotion to her family was evident to everyone she encountered, her colleagues say, even those from whom she demanded information.
“She called me one time and said, ‘I need this information in the next 10 minutes,’” McCurry said, “‘because I’m going to take my daughter on a camping trip.’”
Queen of the White House
McCurry first met and became friends with Devroy in the late 1970s, when she came to Washington to cover the New Jersey congressional delegation. At the time, McCurry was the press secretary to Sen. Harrison Williams Jr., D-N.J. While Devroy and McCurry were young professionals, he said, she taught him a lot.
During the “training,” he says he still highly respected her.
“She was very tough, she was very demanding and she wanted accountability,” he said, adding that if he didn’t give her reasonable answers, she wouldn’t take them.
“She would let you have it, but at the same time, she was fair,” he said. “If you made a good case as to why you were doing something, she would take that into account and report on it.”
Devroy’s co-workers witnessed her reporting tactics firsthand and said she was often seen as a role model in the newsroom. Maralee Schwartz, the current political editor at The Post, said she knew Devroy as a legend before she made the switch from USA Today. She said Devroy’s presence in the newsroom was unmatched.
As an editor, she would often give selflessly as much information as she could to her reporters, always looking out for them, said Hoffman, who began covering the White House for The Post in 1982.
“I like to think of it this way: She was the wind at your back,” said Hoffman, who was a reporter for Devroy for a while during her time as political editor.
At a time when women in the mass media often faced discrimination, Devroy’s colleagues say no one dared to give her a hard time. If they did, it only happened once.
“The idea that anyone could push her around is just laughable. She just exalted this strength and confidence that made that possible,” Kaiser said. “I think she was not typical of anything — she was not a typical Wisconsinite, not a typical female, not a typical journalist.”
While Devroy had an extraordinary amount of dedication to journalism — as Schwartz called her, a “workaholic” — she was a natural reporter, not a natural editor.
“She thought like an editor, but she hated the job,” Schwartz said.
“She could handle every kind of stress, except that. She never broke a sweat, but the desk really drove her nutty.”
She said Devroy hated all the managerial bureaucracy of the desk, so the minute the 1988 presidential campaign ended, she jumped to the White House beat as a reporter.
Despite Devroy’s strong personality, when doctors diagnosed her with an aggressive form of cancer, she was devastated, her husband says.
She dealt with the diagnosis very independently, her friends and co-workers say.
“She was very, very private about it,” Dan Balz, a political reporter who sat across from Devroy, said. “It bothered a lot of us. We wanted to reach out more, but Ann did not particularly want that, so it was painful all around.”
Painful fibroid tumors troubled Devroy, but she was told a hysterectomy would take care of them, Matthews said. However, the pathology report later showed that she had uterine cancer. A series of tests followed, which discovered the lyomyosarcoma — a rare
form of cancer meaning soft-tissue sarcoma — had spread, he said.
The fibroid tumors had nothing to do with the cancer, he said. When doctors removed her uterus, they discovered she had cancer.
While she remained private about it, Kaiser said she dealt with it in “a typical Ann way; she was very soon in maximum fight-back mode.”
While the cause of the cancer is unknown, he said he thought Devroy felt like her lifestyle had caught up to her. Because he cared so much about her, Kaiser said he often gave her a hard time about some of her lifestyle choices.
“As she became a middle-aged person, probably because of being harassed about her habits, she came to realize that she had lived a risky life — never doing any exercise, not being particularly concerned about her eating habits and having a glass of scotch every night,” he said, noting she often smoked at her desk in the newsroom.
“She was an old-fashioned, chain-smoking, cocktail-drinking, late-night-talking journalist of the old school,” he said.
Throughout this time, Matthews said, The Post and The Sun were incredibly accommodating to their family’s needs. During the spring and summer of 1997, she went into remission, and “came back with a vengeance,” Matthews said.
But by October, it was clear that defeating the cancer was impossible. After an 18-month battle, Devroy died on Oct. 23, 1997.
“It spread to the lungs, and she had very aggressive chemotherapy to try and stop it,” Matthews said, “but it didn’t work.”
Had Devroy been covering the 2004 presidential election and the current Bush administration, it’s possible history could have been different, Kaiser said.
“We don’t know it would, or how,” he said, “but what we do know is that this new Bush administration has been the most successful keeper of secrets of any White House that we’ve ever seen.”
Sources Devroy routinely questioned, such as George Stephanopoulos, who served as Clinton’s senior adviser, say the information she gathered was unmatched.
“By the time she asked a question at a press conference, she already had more information than most of her colleagues in the room — not to mention me,” he said. “Because she had worked the White House beat so long, she was at times more in tune with the rhythms of the decision-making process than those of us who were actually helping make the decisions.”
Since Devroy’s era, the journalism field has turned its focus into “gotcha journalism,” McCurry says, noting the constant deadline pressure because of the 24-hour news cycle. The press is rushing into stories, covering one thing and then moving on, he said. Devroy would have tried to decelerate the news cycle so people would get better and more detailed news, he said.
The current White House press corps also is missing a component that Devroy filled. “She was a very important filter through which other reporters could figure out what was important and not so important,” McCurry said. “There’s no one in that press corps right now that plays that sort of role — a ground zero that everybody watches.”
Politicians in Washington respected Devroy because of her thoroughness, Stephanopoulos said.
“She never stopped calling sources, and she didn’t stop at the top,” he said. “She knew the permanent White House staff, the bureaucrats in the bowels of Cabinet departments, the political operatives and the policy mavens. People were anxious about her influence but respected her because she never took cheap shots.”
Being an unbiased reporter also was important to Devroy. Margaret Tutwiler, one of her best friends, spoke at her funeral and said she still never knew whether Devroy voted Democrat or Republican.
Covering George H.W. Bush’s administration, Devroy saw the current president as “the president’s son,” and had an “interesting, teasing relationship” with him, Kaiser said. Often, the president’s son would reveal information to Devroy, which leads Kaiser to believe his hypothesis is reasonable.
“The question is, could Ann have broken through where others couldn’t?” he asked. “I think the answer is — yes.”
And while Devroy’s laughter in the newsroom and love of politics may be missing today, they’re not forgotten.
“Some of us who knew her often remark in the newsroom — what would Ann have done?” said Hoffman, who covered the first Bush White House with her. “Her legacy lives on.”