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David Maraniss: 1999 Devroy Forum Speaker

UW-Madison graduate Maraniss was a colleague of Devroy’s on The Washington Post’s national staff who shared her fascination with politics and politicians. While she was happiest as a White House correspondent, Maraniss took his reporting in a different direction. His series during the 1992 campaign exploring the life and career of Bill Clinton won a Pulitzer Prize and launched Maraniss as an acclaimed biographer and social historian. His books include “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton,” “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” and “They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America.” Now an associate editor, he edited The Post’s recent series on poor conditions for outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.


1999 Devroy Forum presentation

Thank you, Mark, and congratulations to Chris and Steve and all of the young journalists of Eau Claire. 

There’s another part of that story involving Ann writing – there were several parts – but one part that struck me the most was but I think Ann only had the book for a day or so, and she found exactly every bit of news in the book, like the laser, so I said, ‘Ann, I know you’re great at all this, but how did you do it so fast?’ She said, ‘Well, Marannis, you dummy, you left the page markers every time you had Betsy write.’ So I gave her a little help on that, but she would have found it anyway. 

When Milton Pearlman, the Deputy Manager Editor of The Post who helped establish this event, asked me if I would be interested in giving the Ann Devroy speech this year, it was by far the easiest decision I’ve had to make in a long time. I would do anything to honor my former colleague, Ann Devroy, as would anyone who worked for her at The Washington Post. She was truly a reporter’s reporter. She was fearless, fearsome, tireless, thorough, collegial, competitive, fair and skeptical, but not cynical. I often watched her with amazement and heard her from across the room and thought in the back of my mind what it would have been like if she worked for my dad, an old-fashioned crusty city editor at The Capital Times. I think they really shared the same values and sensibilities and would have enjoyed each greatly, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay her. 

When Dave Gordon asked me, told me, that I had to have a title for this speech, I hadn’t even really thought about what I wanted to say. But I’ve always tried to follow the policy of only talking about subjects about which I know, although I’ve violated that a few times on television, I’m sure, as has everybody, unfortunately. But I told Dave that I would talk about the two subjects I’ve studied the most over the last several years, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi – and Ann Devroy, of course. So the title became ‘Bill Clinton, Vince Lombardi, and Ann Devroy:  Which Doesn’t Belong and Why?’ There’s a certain snipness to that title that I don’t want to be misunderstood. I mean it totally as a compliment to Ann. She’s one of the few other people I know beside myself who could make this seemingly long journey connecting Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, two vastly different archetypes, the coach and the president, antipodes in the modern American culture. After spending four years rooting around in Bill Clinton’s messy and often frustrating life and times, I went looking for another biographical subject and was almost inevitably drawn to a man I saw in many ways as his opposite, Vince Lombardi.  Ann’s first connection to Lombardi ran much deeper. As Mark said, she grew up in Green Bay during the 1950s when the Packers were hapless and the 1960s during their pride and glory, the Lombardi years. I remember once her telling me about a family friend, Judge Robert J. Perenz, who was known as the one-armed bandit. He was on the Packers board of directors and he could play golf with one hand and beat Lombardi every time. Her connection to Bill Clinton was also really a matter of geography or territory.  She occupied the White House, literally and figuratively, as the number one presidential correspondent of the George Bush era. And then Clinton came along and seized the Oval Office from the Republicans, and she inherited him, and he inherited her, and it was an uneven match from the start.

Ann was really at the absolute height of her journalistic game when Bill Clinton arrived at the White House in January of 1993.

Ann reported better
During the Bush years, she had perfected the art of covering the White House, which is, depending on how you do it, either the absolute easiest job in Washington or the hardest, and either the most revealing or the least. It’s easy for lazy reporters who want everything to come to them without a sweat, all handouts and photo ops and daily briefings and handlers and conventional wisdom coming your way every hour on the hour. And there are a lot of reporters who grow accustomed to the controlled existence and make little effort to break out of it to find out what’s really going on. Ann found out better than any of her colleagues. Day after day while reporting the news, she pounded her way at the fortress of false impressions and concealment erected by the president and his men and somehow came away with more of the reality of the place than the fantasy concocted by the administration. And the offering cliché of the 1990s spin was really barely in use when Ann came along, but it never worked with her – not even close. She was sort of a one-person, anti-spin operation. It wasn’t that she had her own agenda – just that she had a solid perspective on the truth and high expectations on what the public, her readers, deserved to know. And that, over the course of several months and into years, I know, drove Bill Clinton crazy. 

No politician could go around Ann
Through my study of Bill Clinton, I realized that going back to his days in Arkansas, even though he was of the same generation and fully of the same outlook in many ways as most of the reporters who covered him, he always had an incredibly almost paranoid perspective on the press. It is not something that started in 1992 with the coverage of Gennifer Flowers. Back in his days as governor, even in his first term, when I would look back on the articles about him, after every weekly press conference, the lead would be ‘Governor Clinton Bristled When Asked About This or That.’ And really over the course of the 12 years that he was in Arkansas ruling the state, he developed what in my book I call ‘the permanent campaign,’ and that was not just an effort to sort of merge governing with campaigning, but also at every possible opportunity to find ways to get around the establishment press and present his case unfiltered to the voters. That is both good and bad, depending on the integrity of the person who is doing it. But as a journalist believing in the value of freedom of the press and in what journalists can do, I sensed from the beginning that it would lead to trouble for him, and it certainly did. But when he got to Washington, of course, he couldn’t go around the press, and especially, no politician could go around Ann Devroy. In private, I know, during that period when I was writing First in His Class and during his first two years as president, I would interview a lot of the people around him who had been part of his life, and some of them moved with him into the administration, and they would always tell me about how he had gone into some sort of black rage one night when they were there, talking about that Devroy at The Post.  

I … had known Mike McCurry back in New Jersey when I worked at The Trenton Times. My first assignment there was covering Princeton University, and Mike was the stringer for The Trenton Times, so he reported to me, and I hadn’t really seen him much for 20 years after that. The day before he became the press secretary, right at the time when Ann was writing the article about my book, President Clinton called Mike McCurry – this was actually a day before he was to take his job as press secretary – and said, ‘McCurry, find out why I never talked to Marannis for my book.’ This was after two years, which I had every month faxed the president and talked to Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers and everybody making requests to interview him, and he never literally rejected the request, but just sort of were stringing me along for two years. And so then, the book is about to come out, and he hears there might be some revelatory things in it, so he immediately thinks that someone else prevented him from talking to me for the book. 

So I said to Mike, ‘Well, really, when we get the answer to that question, you’ll understand everything you need to know about your new job and the president that you’re working for. He didn’t talk to me because he didn’t want to talk to me.’

Respect for Ann was high
And then in 1996 when Ann was already sick, I’ll never forget, I still had not talked to the President, nor he to me, and it was a year and a half after my book came out. I was trying to get more interviews with the president after his nomination for a second term, and McCurry was still press secretary, and he had learned some of the lessons that I had forewarned him about. But I remember one night we were out in Arizona, and McCurry came up to me, and he said he had never realized how much impact one reporter could have on an entire institution which was the White House press corps and that he missed Devroy terribly, even though every day the stories would hold the president to the highest standards of truth and accuracy and consistency. He missed it because it was so dependable, and he said things had not been the same since she had become sick, and he didn’t know what to do about it. I thought it was a very honest and revealing statement from McCurry and also again, coming from the other side, was probably the highest compliment that I could think of for Ann. I’m not sure that President Clinton ever felt that way. But it wasn’t just McCurry; as an earlier speaker had said, George Stephanopoulos certainly had the highest respect for Ann. I know that during the workdays, George and Ann talked probably 10 times more than Mark and Ann. It wasn’t Ann calling George; he would call her probably 10 times a day to find out what was going on. Not that she would tell him, but George was calling The Post newsroom all the time. And you know, I can only wonder what this last year would have been like had Ann still been covering the White House. I just don’t know. But I know that not only did The Post miss her, but the country did, and maybe something would have happened differently. 
Vince Lombardi, my latest subject, was certainly no prince with the press either. He hated anything that could get between him and his team and his goal, which was to win. I remember when I was reporting the book, I read a lot about Lombardi and the press, and a Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter named Art Daley told me he became so frustrated that one day, he bolted into Lombardi’s office and took a chair and said, ‘Coach, I’m sitting here until you tell me something, until I get a story out of you.’ And then Lombardi got up and left the room and never came back. In 1966, an AP reporter in Milwaukee named Ken Hartnett broke the story that Jimmy Taylor was playing out his options. That happens every day in football now, but then it was a huge story. And it was absolutely true. When Hartnett broke the story, Lombardi banned him from the Green Bay Packers’ offices in Green Bay and Milwaukee, at least for a couple of days. Lombardi was always trying to sneak players into the hospital when they would have minor injuries, to get their x-rays taken, so the press couldn’t find out about it. He actually was able to get away with it in the 1960s, in part because the journalism culture was different then, and in part because there was no reporter like Ann Devroy covering the Packers. He did get along with a few of the East Coast reporters. Lombardi was a New Yorker. He loved everything about New York, and even though he became famous and made his career and became a legend in Green Bay, he was never as comfortable there as he was in New York City. But some of the great sports writers like Red Smith and the other Art Daley of The New York Times and W.C. Hines, who wrote the famous memoir Run to Daylight, became pretty close to Lombardi. One time, Bill Hines was out in Green Bay and noticed the way Lombardi was treating the local press, especially the beat reporter for the Press-Gazette, Lee Remel.  He said to Lombardi, ‘You know, Lee Remel is a good writer, and he has a family, and this is his occupation, and you’re treating him like he is nothing. You’re diminishing him as a man, and he is as good as any of these coast reporters. You shouldn’t treat him that way.’ So Lombardi listened to Hines, and for the next couple of days, Remel was shocked as he walked into the practice, and Lombardi would say, ‘Hey, Lee, Lee, come over here, let me tell you something,’ and was just sharing things with him like he never had before. Then after three days, Hines and Lombardi are driving back to the house after a practice, and Lombardi said, ‘You and your Lee Remel, I’ve had enough of him.’ And Hines asked what was the matter. He said, ‘I’m getting an inferiority complex worrying about his inferiority complex.’ Lombardi is known for the saying, ‘Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.’ In my book, you’ll see that it wasn’t uttered by Lombardi, but by an 11-year-old girl in a John Wayne movie. But in any case, it really, in my mind, another weird connection, I think it applies more to Bill Clinton than to Vince Lombardi. Bill Clinton, at more crucial points of his life, has done just about anything to win. Lombardi was totally obsessed with winning, as was Clinton, but in reality, he was much harder on his players when they won but did not play up to their standards than when they lost but played as well as they could. 

Ann reported right every day
I think that Ann Devroy would have won Vince Lombardi’s respect.  She would have stood up to him, and he actually liked that. But she could have played for him in anything, because they both had so much in common. Lombardi would always say, ‘You don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time.’ And that as much as anything is probably the definition of Ann Devroy. Ann did it right every day. Every day that I came in, I would see her already at the paper, already working the phones and holding the administration to her highest standards. She probably had more front-page stories, I know she did, than anybody in the history of The Washington Post, and she did it every day, not once in a while. The other thing about Lombardi was there are a lot of leaders, or especially athletic coaches, who are tough. But what distinguished Lombardi was not that he was tough on his players, but that his players believed him. They believed that what he said would work, and he proved it time and time again. That was credibility, authenticity. Ann Devroy also had that incredible authenticity and credibility, so that no matter whom she was dealing with, whatever source of whatever etiology, they knew that she would do it right and be fair about it. And even if she was really tough on them, they did not hold it against her. There was a player named Henry Jordan, a tackle, who once said, ‘Lombardi treats us all alike, like dogs.’ And it’s a great quote, but it was completely untrue. Lombardi was a master psychologist. He knew exactly what it took to get something out of every player. And so that Bart Starr, the quarterback, who was sort of very sensitive and needed bucking up, Lombardi yelled at him once in 10 years and that’s it. From then on, he was always dealing with Bart Starr in a positive manner. And there are other guys like Max McGee and Paul Hornung that were sort of easygoing, and Lombardi knew they could take it, and he would just use them as examples for the rest of the team and chew them out. Then he would be fining Max McGee probably more than any other player every week for breaking curfew. But then at the end of the year, he would give it all back to McGee in his salary negotiations for the next year. Lombardi knew how to get the best out of each player.

Ann mastered serving her readers
I think that Ann Devroy sort of had that in the journalistic world and in the world she covered. She treats us all alike, like dogs, because she was so tough. In fact, I remember, when I would come in to work, sometimes I would hear ‘aw, get off it, we know what’s really going on.’ But more often it was Ann Devroy, sweet talking somebody. She was very good at that too. She did whatever it took to get the information out to the public, and she was a master at that in journalism, without being deceptive, but just knowing what it took to get it out of each person. 
And finally, the saddest comparison of Vince Lombardi and Ann Devroy is that they both died much too young.  Lombardi was 57, and Ann was 49, and they both were really legends in their own time.