The sudden death of Jody Powell last week certainly brought home to me a sense of my own vulnerability. I suspect anyone who experiences the death of a friend, loved one, or someone around whom they had worked wrestles with the same thoughts at a time like this. I didn’t know Joseph Lester Powell, Jr. well but I did work around him during his years as press secretary to President Carter and we traveled to many overseas destinations together during Carter’s presidential trips.
He would have been 66 on September 30th, just three months after I reached that milestone myself. So, it surely brought into even sharper focus my own mortality just knowing the fellow who seemed so young when we were cavorting around Europe, the middle East and Asia not so many years ago was suddenly gone. We were a couple of thirty-something year olds who, it seemed, were all over the place, he as a wunderkind of the Carter administration and I as a White House correspondent.
It was a heady experience for us all, flying all over the world with the Leader of the free part of it with plenty of those moments of high drama but with short bursts of levity interspersed.
White House photo
Jody, described as the “wit and soul” of the Carter administration, had a bad habit of not wearing his lapel pin designating him as a member of the senior White House staff. In Warsaw, he had to be rescued from the clutches of the Polish equivalent of the Secret Service who were arresting him as he tried to enter a building for a meeting between President and First Secretary Gierek. As for the drama part, who can forget the night President George H.W. Bush threw up and slumped over at that state dinner in Tokyo, an event which threw a major scare into us all. Or the fire bomb-throwing protestors who menaced us while President Reagan placed a wreath at the tomb of Simon Bolivar in the heart of Bogota, Columbia. In 19 years of White House overseas missions that was the only time I witnessed our Secret Service detail display their Uzi-class automatic weapons.
Despite the machismo Reagan demonstrated in his dealings with the likes of Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping’s “new China,” watching him stand there at a Beijing welcoming ceremony with a bitterly cold stiff wind blowing through his hair as he reviewed a goose-stepping Chinese military honor guard emphasized dramatically how much that nation’s policies had changed post Mao and how much one man’s –Reagan’s- ideas can change in just a few years with him smiling and shaking hands with his Communist hosts.
When it came to reporters the man could give as well as he could take. When asked by ABC’s Sam Donaldson during an impromptu Q&A atop the Great Wall how Reagan felt about Chinese censors taking out portions of one of his speeches broadcast across the country Reagan skipped not a beat, “No big deal. You folks do it to me at home all the time.”
Despite critics among the press corps assigned to the Reagan White House, in the eight years I covered his overseas travels, I never knew him not to be outwardly congenial to any reporter.
It was a characteristic often observed in his press secretary, Larry Speakes. Asked in Beijing what the president thought about the endless line of giant pictures of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Engles which festooned light poles along his motorcade routes in Beijing, Speakes said, “he thought they were the Smith brothers (of cough drop fame).” Reagan felt he had to be Reagan.
None of my overseas travels with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and the first George Bush were without minor foul-ups but even with them, the American principals, their aides, and even their spouses kept their senses of humor about them. Oh, there was that cat-spat clash Nancy Reagan had with Raisa Gorbachev in the middle of the Moscow Summit. There they were together to look over some religious icons in an old Kremlin church. The one looking like an illustration in a fashion magazine and the other like a housewife, the kind of person for whom fashion magazines are illustrated in the first place.
One can only imagine how it must have been at the close of the day, when the two most powerful men on the planet went home at night and asked, “how did your day go, Dear?”
Screw-ups on these carefully-orchestrated trips were equal-opportunity snafus, however. The White House press corps often had its own peculiarly embarrassments as well and usually as a measure of its own actions although not always.
At literally the last moment before visa cancellations prior to departure from Poland I was informed by White House staff that the Polish government had somehow misplaced my passport but to “play it cool and we should be able to get you out.” Indeed, I climbed aboard the White House Pan Am charter with a hand-stamped Polish Airlines boarding pass. Fortunately, my errant passport was eventually found and ferried to me in Tehran. Please don’t ask how I got into Iran minus that single most essential travel document.
Network anchors, each trying to out position themselves for on-site coverage of these summits and state visits, appeared prone to shoot themselves in the foot in pursuit of advantage. Dan Rather was once stranded in the former Yugoslavia when we took off with his passport.
Ralph Harris of Reuters News Agency flagged down a passing ambulance to catch up to the presidential party after being left behind at one of the stops in Mexico City.
And then there were the language problems. Bob Scheiffer of CBS had to sign for 200 duck dinners because of a mis-translation when ordering from room service.
But in fairness, anyone could slip up when engaged in a string of 16 to 18 hour work days, flights lasting up to 13 hours or more, currency conversion charts, and filing schedules dictated by time zone changes which could take you into tomorrow or back into yesterday. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia dateline filings, for example, provided their own bizarre clock-watching experience since in Arabic time, daily, all watches are set to midnight precisely at sundown.
Don’t misunderstand. Traveling with the President of the United States into a foreign country is not without its perks such as a front and center seat at the Bolshoi or a champagne reception at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. However, all taken together, those years afforded a world class education in a long series of events that would surely leave an indelible mark on a country boy from Rayville, Louisiana.
No more so, I figured, than did Jody Powell from little Cordele, Georgia (but who grew up in nearby Vienna (pronounced Vy-anna) whom I choose to remember as the blue jean, T-shirt clad Georgia Jaycee political wiz with a deep Southern drawl also thrust upon a world stage and who, like I’m sure did I, often appeared in way over his head.
When news came about his heart attack, I pulled out some letters Jody had sent to me regarding various of White House trip arrangements during the Carter term and re-read them. They were written more than 30 years ago. It’s hard to believe.