It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante, who caused a stir at Karl Rove's farewell press conference when he asked President Bush "If he's so smart, why did you lose Congress?"
Matthew Felling: Interesting week. Anything surprise you?
Bill Plante: Nothing much, actually. Anytime you challenge or appear to challenge the president – and I don't care if the president is a Republican or a Democrat – there are people who will take issue with it and tell you it's inappropriate. And you kind of expect that. I knew that what I did on Monday was smart-assed, but I think that that's beside the point.
Our asking questions should not be dependent on what the White House thinks the mood or the tone of an event should be. And the fact that they say 'no questions' or don't allow time for questions really has nothing to do with it. They don't have to answer, but I think we need to preserve and aggressively push our right to ask.
Matthew Felling: This week, you asked a question, it got uploaded on the web, it got broadcast everywhere. Did you see any increased polarization or partisanship in the responses you received?
Bill Plante: Yes, the response was instant because of the Internet. In this case, my question got put up on DCFishbowl and then on Drudge, so then it spread like wildfire. That's no surprise, since there are people that monitor those sites and others everyday.
When I did this 20 years ago in the Rose Garden, I yelled a question at Ronald Reagan at the 'Teacher of the Year' event as he was leaving and going inside. Several of the teachers complained and said I disrupted things and that it was inappropriate. In that case, I got a few phone calls but then had to wait for the angry letters to come in. Then after that, I wrote a Washington Post Outlook piece about questioning the president. It took more than a week to play out.
But in this case, it was instantaneous, of course. But I know that's how things happen these days.
Matthew Felling: In your response to Public Eye earlier this week, you mentioned a question that you asked President Clinton that got him quote red-faced. Do you remember what that question was?
Bill Plante: The Clinton White House had set up a Rose Garden event. There, I asked Clinton whether he was going to sign a bill going through Congress to pay the legal fees of Billy Dale, who had headed the White House Travel Office before Hillary had the travel office fired early in their first term.
Clinton got absolutely apoplectic. He started talking about the legal expenses his staff had to take on. This was before Monica, so those were the bills surrounding the Whitewater investigation. He said "Who's going to pay the expenses of my people?" And then Paul Bedard, who was then with the Washington Times, followed up with something that got him even angrier.
But because [then White House press secretary George] Stephanopolous pushed him, Clinton actually apologized to me. Stephanopolous came back to my work booth later and said "Do you have a minute?" So I walked with him out to the colonnade and Clinton popped up – and I had a pretty good idea of what was coming.
So I said "You don't have to apologize. You're the President." And he said "Well, I shouldn't have gotten angry." He did not, however, apologize to Bedard. (laughter)
To me, it's all part of the game. As far as I'm concerned, I have no vested interest in being 'liked' by the people in the White House. That would, admittedly, be different if CBS weren't the so-called mainstream media. If we were one of the smaller outfits that cover this place, we'd have to maintain relatively good relations to get anything. But they're going to deal with us – whether it's me or a colleague – in any case.
Matthew Felling: Do you think it's good for people to see the journalists go about their job or is it a "don't watch the sausage get made" sort of situation?
Bill Plante: I'm absolutely and totally in favor of openness, even if it makes us look bad. The public is entitled to see what we see – and, increasingly, they do because of live coverage. If that means they see me or hear me asking what they think is an impertinent question, that's fine. I've got no problem with it.