Brush With “Greatness”: Following in Helen Thomas’s Footsteps

(Home News photo by Dick Costello)

I have the (pick an adjective) distinction of being only the second journalist to interview Jimmy Carter after he left office in early 1981.  The first, Carter told me, was Helen Thomas, the long-time White House correspondent who resigned under pressure today after making astonishingly offensive comments to the effect that “the Jews” should get the hell out of “Palestine” and go “home” to Germany and Poland.

But enough about Helen Thomas. That handsome young fellow on the right in the photo is me, nearly 30 years (and 40 pounds) ago.  You’ll recognize Jimmy, and of course the other two guys are Secret Service.  I was frankly surprised that I got as close to the former President as I did without being frisked, or at least asked to open my coat.  This was before Reagan was shot, but after the unsuccessful attempts on President Ford.

I was a recently minted Princeton graduate working as a cub reporter at The Home News, a small (but high-quality!) daily newspaper in New Brunswick, NJ.  Carter was visiting Princeton to check out potential colleges for his daughter Amy, and we had heard that his habit was to go out for a run in the early morning hours.  Princeton bordered on towns in our circulation area — close enough to authorize mileage reimbursement for a long-shot assignment.  The assignment editor said he picked me because I knew the campus, but I suspect it had more to do with the 6 a.m. start time and my lack of seniority.

Carter stayed at one of the gated mansions the university owns just off campus (for Princeton buffs, it was either Palmer House or Lowrie House, I forget which).  There were two gates to the property, and I walked back and forth from one to the other, sometimes stamping my feet to stay warm.  I’m pretty sure it was in March.  Between my Princeton loans and my unprincely salary, generic white sneakers were the best I could do for footwear.

All of a sudden the gate swung open — the gate I wasn’t at, of course — and Carter walked out with his bodyguards.  I trotted over, told him my name and affiliation, and said I had recently graduated from Princeton.  He said something like, “good, you can give me a tour, then.” Turns out he had forgotten his running shoes, so we walked.  Much better for note-taking.

About that time Dick Costello arrived.  He was the paper’s senior photographer, and he took the photo.  These days he would upload it wirelessly to the paper’s FTP site, but on that day he grinned and waved and dashed for his car, hoping he had something in focus as he raced up Route 1 to swish smelly chemicals in a darkened room.

We crossed Nassau Street… strike that.

The former President and I crossed Nassau Street — probably at the light, although I certainly would have jaywalked if I were alone — and walked through the FitzRandolph Gates in front of Nassau Hall.  I can’t remember whether I had the presence of mind to tell him that Nassau Hall briefly was the seat of the fledgling United States government during the Revolutionary War.  I do remember telling him, in my role as tour guide, that “these are mostly dormitories” around us.  I think I said that twice.  (Holy crap, this guy was President just a few months ago!)

Despite the passage of time, I’m kind of astonished at how little I remember of our walk.  I had voted against the man twice (John Anderson in 1980 and… um… Eugene McCarthy in 1976).  The previous spring, after shedding the objectivity shackles of my work for the student newspaper, I had marched in demonstrations protesting Carter’s decision to reinstate registration for the draft.

All that was as if it had never been.  I was star-struck.  I was 22.

The Home News was one of the last afternoon papers in the country, and the front-page deadlines were in the early morning.  I found a pay phone and called in a few factoids in time for the One-Star Edition, then I headed for my own car.

As soon as I walked in to the newsroom I started hearing murmurs.  He didn’t ask this, he didn’t ask that.  He got nothing.  What a wasted opportunity.  My self-esteem meter was perpetually frozen in the “I suck” position, and it didn’t take much to deflate me.

I was asked to write a second-day, “I-interviewed-Jimmy-Carter” article, and I turned in a draft that focused on how much I suck.  I can still remember Tom Hester, the City Editor, holding the delete button while a couple of self-rebuking paragraphs scrolled off the screen.  “Listen, these guys didn’t get the story.  YOU got the story.”

I think the clips are up in the attic somewhere, but I’m not up for confronting whatever else lurks in those boxes.  (The photo has been hanging on my dining room wall since I rediscovered it a decade ago.)  I remember I asked Carter if he ever planned to run for office again, and I solemnly reported (for the first time!) that he said he would not.  If I’d thought about it, I could have fleshed out the story by saying that he also had no plans to join the Apollo space program or try out for the Mets.

Jimmy Carter went on to become either the best ex-president in history or the worst, depending on whom you ask.  Amy went to Brown University.  The Home News merged first with The News Tribune of Woodbridge and then with the Courier News of Somerville.  The combined operation sells fewer papers than The Home News alone sold in 1981 — although it still dwarfs my blog readership.  “Cos” retired a few years ago, and I got to catch up with old friends at his retirement party.  Hester graduated to the Star-Ledger of Newark, where he won a piece of a Pulitzer covering Gov. Jim McGreevey’s resignation in 2005.  I’ve made some progress with my self-esteem issues.

And Helen Thomas, whom Taranto has consistently described as “American journalism’s crazy old aunt in the attic,” is approximately four times as old as I was that day in 1981, although less than twice as old as I am now.  I have no idea what that signifies, but it seemed to make sense to close with something about her.