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Lou Cannon: 2003 Devroy Forum Presenter

Cannon’s unmatched reporting and highly praised books on the career of Ronald Reagan made him a sought-after expert on the 40th president. He became friends with Devroy while both covered the White House — he for the second time — and encouraged her to join The Post. After returning to California for The Post, he wrote a book probing the L.A. police beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed the acquittal of the accused officers. On leaving The Post, he was a contributing editor and then chief executive officer of California Journal.


2003 Devroy Forum presentation

Places like Eau Claire generate ‘very, very fine’ journalists
One of the things in this reporting book I wrote many, many, many years ago is I wrote about how many people who are, who’ve been, successful journalists in Washington came out of small towns in the Midwest and the West and the South, and a lot of people think — this isn’t my speech — but a lot of people think all of the journalists (are from) Washington and New York or maybe Los Angeles and Chicago thrown in, but that isn’t the case. I watched these scholarship winners come up, and I’m real impressed at somebody like Mr. Haupt would be willing to fund these scholarships, and I was also impressed with six or seven of them. Ann would (have) been pleased that that were women. And ... I thought, ‘You know, I have done speeches and journalism things in Washington state and in Alaska and in my home state of Nevada and in Virginia and in New England, and there are lots of little centers in this country which are producing very, very fine journalists. Journalists like Kelly McBride, who I congratulate you, Kelly, and Jill Steinke, who I know is a finalist for this. ... You edit a very good paper. And Tim, who’s starting out in sports reporting. That’s how I started. And Tim Ruzek, I’m not surprised you ... got all these stories in The Washington Post. We always hated the hotshot young reporters who came in, you know, were sitting around, you know, wondering what’s going on. They’re going out and reporting — that’s what he did, and that’s the kind of people we need. So, congratulations to you all and to all the scholarship winners and to all of you here. You don’t ever have to apologize for being from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I think it’s great.

My claim to fame? Bringing Ann to The Post
Once, I (was) with Ronald Reagan when he was speaking in Massachusetts, and it was his first speech in Massachusetts, which was not Ronald Reagan’s base, and this was a conservative group, and the gentleman who was introducing him who was quite a bit older than I am now was so proud that he was introducing, he told the entire story of Ronald Reagan’s life, and he told it for about 25 minutes. And when (we were) going back in the car, I asked him, ‘Governor, what did you think of that?’ (He said), ‘I’m glad he left a few details for me.’ So the detail I wanted Mike to leave to me is that my real claim to fame is getting Ann Devroy to The Washington Post, which more in a minute, but let me again begin by saying it’s an honor to be here. And there’s two people I particularly want to mention — Mark Matthews, who is Ann Devroy’s husband, and Michael Ryan, who’s his brother, — who are here. You know, Mark is the quiet man; he was the good reporter who never got the acclaim because he never drew attention to himself. He was always one of the best reporters in Washington and still is, and it was a pleasure to see him tonight. 

Ann was fierce competition – but she wanted to win a fair fight
Let me talk to you about Ann. There probably weren’t any two people, by the way, who are married who (were) a team who were better reporters in Washington. As a reporter, Ann Devroy was utterly fearless. If you cover the White House, sometimes it’s a little like reporting a funnel, you know, with the White House chief of staff at the neck of that funnel, and if the White House chief of staff didn’t like you – and, by the way, all the White House chiefs of staff have been hes – you had a hard time getting your phone calls returned. I had a hard time when the White House chief of staff was a decent man named H.R. Halloman, who was devoted to a president named Richard Nixon. Halloman (was) a reliable source of information to me when he was in California, before he worked for Nixon. But Nixon hated the press. He really, really hated The Washington Post, and you have to say with good reason. So covering the White House is very difficult in the post-Watergate period. Now, I also covered the White House when Reagan was president and James Baker was chief of staff. That was easier for me, and it was easier for Ann, because both of us had a very good relationship with Baker and the people who worked for him. Ann Devroy’s Halloman was a self-important man named John Sununu, the White House chief of staff for President George Bush – the first president Bush. Ann and the president got along well, but Sununu didn’t like it that Ann kept reporting about his impaired use of government planes and helicopters for non-official business. So he denounced Devroy, and it in effect threatened to destroy her access. That’s a serious threat in the White House – funneled because pickling from a guy like Sununu, who was willing to use his power to retaliate against reporters. Dave Broder, a mentor to both of us, remembers asking Ann about it. Her attitude was, ‘Screw it; they can’t cut me off.’ That’s the right attitude for a reporter.

By this time in Devroy’s career, I had escaped the White House (and) furthered my second tour of duty as Western bureau chief of The Washington Post. During the Reagan years, when Ann and I were competitors in the White House beat, Ann was the designated BS detector in the White House press corps. Jim Baker and Marlon Fitzwater, (a) very good guy and a very excellent press secretary, (would) use Devroy as their test for the spin of the day. They’d call her with whatever story they were spreading. If it survived her skeptical questioning, they knew it might fly with lesser reporters. I said we were competitors, and so we were. We enjoyed the competition, which was sometimes fierce. I had more help than Ann, because my colleague ... is a diligent, wonderful reporter named David Hoffman, who went on to cover the decline and the fall of the Soviet Union and is now foreign editor of The Washington Post. Ann worked for USA Today. She gave us tips. I remember an editor who asked me to evaluate the competition from The New York Times. ’Forget The Times,’ I told him. ‘Devroy’s our competition.’ I don’t think the editor knew who she was. He read The New York Times. USA Today was sort of beneath him. Do any of you here in this room, besides Mike, share my love for baseball? Well, I did what a good general manager of a good baseball team does if he thinks the player ... is available. I tried to get that player on my team. And because my editors trusted me, and because Ann trusted me, I did it. It took awhile, but it was worth it. She was a star on her team, and that’s where she will always be in our hearts. 

A lot of people inspired us at The Washington Post. There was Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward and a great editor, now gone, named Dick Harwood, who had fought as a Marine in some of the most terrible ... battles with South Pacific during World War II, and who inspired me. ‘Have fun,’ Dick would say, ‘Have fun in this story,’ and we did. And best of all – and he’s still going strong – Dave Broder. I once said that Dave was the best political reporter in the entire world. Compared to the kind of human being (he was), he was a second-rate reporter. That was also true of Devroy. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was running for re-election as president. It was morning again in America; this was Ronald Reagan’s easiest campaign. But Reagan, who was magnificent as an underdog, could be his own worst enemy when running loose in the lead. Every Saturday, he gave a radio speech, which is starting a pattern that’s been emulated by both of the Bushes and by Bill Clinton. And Reagan liked to kid around during these speeches (and) the microphone checks before the speeches. On August 11, 1984, during a radio speech from his ranch in Northwest of Santa Barbara, Reagan said, ‘My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you that I signed legislation that would outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.’ Well, this sort of joke wasn’t supposed to be reported. But this time it was, really quite unfairly under the ground rules. The Soviets weren’t sensed; it became a big flap. The story came out on August 12th when I was in the emergency room at Santa Monica Hospital with enormous pain that turned out to be a kidney stone, and (Ann) was worried about me and worried that I would be beaten on a story because I was in a hospital. I think The Post already had the story from someone, but Ann didn’t know that. She called my editor to make sure we had the story, even though she worked with the competition and usually delighted of beating me. But if you’re out of commission, Ann was your friend. She only wanted to win in a fair fight. Well, dear Ann, this speech is for you, and it’s given by your friend and colleague and competitor who wrote a book about reporting many years ago and called himself the general-assigned reporter. I still am. And you were too, and as some of you may know, my old-fashioned definition of a general-assigned reporter is somebody who knows everything, something about everything and nothing about anything. A man named Gene Fowler was one of the great reporters in the early 20th century or, for that matter, any century. Some of you will know him. Fowler worked for a paper called the Denver Republican. He had committed a minor indiscretion to impress a young woman. His editor, a man named Josiah Ward, lectured power. He said, ‘I want to tell you what a newspaper means. It’s serious, sacred business. The least smell corruption, fear or favoritism, but not into its news column. Avoid even the appearance of evil. Never do anyone a favor who might compromise the newspaper you are connected with. To get the news, you may kill, steal, burn or lie, but never sell out your paper in thought or deed. A newspaper doesn’t belong to the men who run it, or (to) those who own the plant. The press belongs to the public, not the owner.’ Well, it’s important for reporters to disassociate themselves from Mr. Ward with due respect. It is not permissible to kill, steal, burn to get the news. Most of the time it’s also not permissible to lie, and the rest of Mr. Ward’s sermon alas also turned out to be displaced. ... The Denver Republican turned out to belong to the man who owned it, not the people. It soon went out of business, which I confess was no great loss. But as we would say today, Josiah Ward had the big picture, because reporting the news really is serious sacred business. 

Ann’s ideology was journalism
In a similar vein, my oldest son, Carl Cannon, who is a very marvelous reporter – and that’s an objective statement, even though he’s my son – often quotes a story related by the late Howard Taft, a communist, where much of you side. Taft recalled in his memoirs meeting the legendary H.L. Mincon in 1948 convention of the Independent Progressive Party, which nominated Henry Wallace for president and quite sadly wound up as a holy-owned subsidiary of the Communist party. Mincon asked him, ‘Taft, what in ... hell’s name are you doing with this gang?’ I tried to invent some clever reply, Taft recalled later. But all I could say was it was a better place to be than at the Republican or the Democratic convention ... I was tongue tied, and the thought of preaching to Mincon or haranguing him was inconceivable. ’There’s a better place to be than that,’ said Mincon. ‘With yourself.’ ‘I can’t put politics aside,’ said Taft. ‘Put it aside,’ said Mincon. ‘Hell no. Henry Lewis Mincon is a party of one, do you understand me? You’re a party of one, you don’t put politics aside. You taste it, smell it, listen to it, do it and write it. You don’t join it. If you do, these clowns will destroy you, as surely as the sun rises and sets.’

Well, I’m no party of one. And I know it’s not fashionable to speak of the two great political parties and their leaders as clowns, but there’s a certain pop to this utility to that attitude. Mincon was exaggerating, of course. That was part of his persona. But like Josiah Ward in his conversation with Fowler, he was exaggerating to make a valid point. I don’t have a clue what political party, if any, Ann Devroy belonged to. I don’t know what party Carl Cannon belongs to either. I also don’t care. Carl always says, ‘My own ideology is journalism.’ Ann was a reporter, that’s what Carl is, that’s what I am. That was a big deal to me when I was a kid in Reno, writing sports for the Nevada State Journal at the age of 17. It was a big deal to me when I covered the police beat in the courts, when I was a general-assignment reporter and an editor for three other California papers, when I covered the state legislature and Governor Reagan for The Santa Fe Mercury News, when I went to Vietnam – basically for Ritter Publications – and when I covered the White House and wrote politics and did other things and covered the West for The Washington Post. It’s an even bigger deal, frankly, now that I’m nearly 70. If this is a sermon, not a speech, the text would be from A.J. Liebling, who wrote so well for The New Yorker. Facts are precious, Liebling said. Facts are precious, and opinions are cheap. And all of us have opinions. None of us are plaster saints, and we all live in a world where our attitudes are shaped (by) our parents, our country, our school, our colleagues, our political and social alliances, and – if we have them – our military experiences. They’re shaped by our friends and our enemies, by religious belief, our race, our gender, our culture and our region. So, being the kind of reporter that Liebling and Josiah Ward had in mind is an act of faith. It is an affirmation in the value of reporting by those of us who believe in the preciousness of facts. It is an affirmation that we can achieve a professionalism and an independence that transcends our various biases and informs our readers and our viewers. This is sacred business, alright, and it’s damn rare. We’ve got no shortage of folks in this world who can argue the case for or against the war in Iraq, for or against the Bush rights, for or against the death penalty. We’re not lacking in opinions on the budget deficit, Medicare, campaign financing or the wisdom of putting parking meters in the village green. But the number of people who care enough about facts to become reporters, who want to inform the people, who want to give people information on which they can base their decision rather than telling them how to think – those people are few and rare. I was a syndicated columnist for many years. I’ve done my share of editing. I write books, but what means (the) most to me is that I’m a reporter who believes with Liebling in the persuasiveness of the facts. And, ladies and gentlemen, this is not just an idealism or a statement of faith. After all, one of my books on Ronald Reagan, which is full of facts and opinion and a lot else, (prompted) a letter from a woman who liked the book very much. She had one problem, she wrote. She couldn’t figure out from reading it whether I was a Democrat or a Republican or an independent, or if I liked Reagan or I didn’t like him. Bless you, I thought when I read that letter. I saved it for a very, very long time. And wished I hadn’t lost it in a move. 

Ann Devroy liked the first Bush, and Carl Cannon liked the second. You can’t tell that from her copy. I liked Reagan. When I took a brief leave to write my second on Reagan, Ben Bradlee insisted that I return in time to write an analysis of his first year in office as he began his second year. My immediate editor, a very wonderful reporter and writer named Bill Glider, said, ‘Write the story with a lot of altitude, and tell people (what) I had learned in writing the book.’ ‘OK,’ I said. I lead with something like this: The question about Ronald Reagan as he begins his second year as president is the same as when he took his oath of office. Is he up to the job? Mr. Reagan told Dan Rather that he was shocked and dismayed by what I had written. But Reagan treated me fairly just the same. In time, he proved he was up to the job, and I wrote that too. 

We write to find the truth
Finding the facts is hard work. It’s easy to write stories that confirm prejudices. Ronald Reagan was an amiable dunce who was upstaged by a chimpanzee, and bedtime for Bonzo. Clinton was a liar and a lecturer, Bush the second is a rich frat boy who doesn’t have a brain in his head. Such stories folks are worse than useless. They reinforce a prevailing public belief that the media is not to be trusted, that we write our biases, not what we find. Facts make the difference. It was the facts of what was happening on the ground in Vietnam resonating to the American political system that made it impossible for Lyndon Johnson to seek a third term in 1968. Richard Nixon was known as tricky Dick for much of his political career. He was forced to resign, not because of his reputation or even because he really was tricky, but because of the facts of Watergate that were uncovered first by Woodward and Bernstein and then by special prosecutors. More recently, viewers were entertained by the Iraqi interim formation minister who promised to take reporters to Baghdad airport to show that the stories of the U.S. military in Iraq was a lie. He couldn’t do that, because the airport was occupied by American troops. After Reagan left office in 1969, The Washington Post was kind enough to let me return to the West, which is what I wanted to do. I miss Carl and his family and Dave Broder and Ann Devroy and my other friends in Washington, but I loved the West. Our bureau in Los Angeles, which was the scene of terrible riots in ‘92, preoccupied me. I covered these riots, and I wrote a book about them. The books (were) called Official Negligence – that was the phrase used by an attorney at the second trial of the officers who beat Rodney King and were accused of violating his civil rights. The book was very difficult for me to report and write. It was worse to get published in the right way. I wrote it, because I believed that the powerful exists in Los Angeles. The politicians and the police and the courts and the media had let the people down. My book shows that the riots probably could avert the averted and certainly could have been contained with less destruction and loss of life if the police chief and the mayor had anticipated them. Why didn’t they? Well, the media –- all of us – consisted in this failure. The media – especially the reporter who covered trial of the officers for the Los Angeles Times and the local television reporters – knew ‘that the police officers accused of the King beating would be convicted.’ They knew this even though the trial had been faultlessly removed by a court that ignored its own prior rulings to one of the most ‘pro-police jurisdictions in America.’ The mayor and the police chief were nonetheless certain the officers or some of them would be convicted. They were not prepared for what happened when they were all acquitted, but they should have been aware, and we should have helped them with facts. I won’t at this hour bore you with the details except for one. To say that the televised case of the Rodney King beating that you all saw and America saw and the world saw: It was an edited tape. ... The editing of that tape and the suppression of that fact in much of the reporting was a factor in the acquittals and the subsequent lies in which 54 people lost their lives. Everyone had an opinion about the King case. What they needed were the facts. The title of this speech – which I chose – ‘Why We Write,’ it’s presumptuous. The ‘We’ is presumptuous. So, we write for many, many reasons. I was lucky enough to know the late Gary McWilliams, the great radical journalist of California who later was editor of The Nation. And Gary, who wrote wonderful books about farm labor and anti-Semitism and immigration, told me that every book that he had ever written in his life was an effort to understand more about a subject that he didn’t adequately understand. I thought that made sense, and that’s why I write. I wrote my first book, a dual biography of Ronald Reagan, his nemesis, that’s kind of a wonderful character named Jessie Unruh, a politician nicknamed bid daddy, the speaker of the assembly, because I couldn’t understand either of them. And writing the book did help. Many years later, Reagan said to me that he heard I was going to write another book about him, and I said, ‘I’m going to keep writing about you ‘til I get it right.’ Then we both laughed. But I always did it. I don’t know if I ever did get it right, but I’m trying again with the last book, Which One of These Governorship. Writing a book ... it’s humbling, I think, finding out things I never knew. A friend of mine, another Reagan writer, also does the same. Every good reporter knows that he or she never knows enough. You come out every day, Dick Carwood used to say at The Washington Post, they come out every day. Get everything in your story that you know about today, find out more tomorrow. Keep trying to learn the facts. H.L. Mincon had this advice for a reporter who was trying to draft a few stories and tie it in a bow with an elegant ending. When you’re done writing what you know, Mincon said, stop and think of an ending, and then before you write it, turn in your story, because you’re done.

I’m done now. I thank you for inviting me here and allowing me to recall some of these Ann Devroy moments in particular and to be here with you and this wonderful faculty and with Mark Matthews, and I’m happy to take your questions. Thank you.