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The Nation

Secrets Were Toast at Reporter's Breakfasts

January 06, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Reagan once called him the king of cholesterol, and it's true his breakfasts were larded with eggs, bacon, sausage and hash browns.

Health concerns, however, did little to stem the crowd's appetite for news.

For more than 35 years, journalist Godfrey "Budge" Sperling presided over Washington's premier power breakfast. Banning three ingredients that usually attract politicians--television reporters, photographers and wire services--Sperling managed to lure his guests with an hour of genteel questions asked as uniformed waiters served breakfast on fine china at cloth-draped tables.

In this era of sound bites, "gotcha" journalism and infotainment, the Sperling breakfasts seemed bound to become a thing of the past.

Though Sperling, 86, hosted his last--and 3,241th--breakfast in December, his newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor, plans to continue the tradition in the new year, starting later this month.

It started in 1966 when Sperling ("Budge" was a childhood nickname that stuck) invited Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) to lunch with a few other reporters. Next time out, when New York Mayor John V. Lindsay agreed to meet the group, the National Press Club was booked for lunch, so Sperling tried breakfast.

The rest is history--and quite a bit of it at that.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was a guest early in 1968. Pressed on whether he planned to run for president, he said it was "inconceivable" that he would challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson. Then, someone came in with a bulletin saying that the Viet Cong had launched the Tet offensive. By the end of breakfast, Kennedy sounded like a candidate, Sperling said.

In 1995, there was the Newt Gingrich fiasco. At one breakfast, House Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.) hinted that his refusal to compromise on the budget, and the resulting government shutdown, was inspired in part by his mistreatment aboard Air Force One. President Clinton had not talked to the speaker on Air Force One as they returned from the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Then, adding to the indignity, Gingrich said he was forced to exit the plane from the rear steps. Democrats pounced on Gingrich's breakfast pronouncement, and the New York Daily News ran a cartoon of a diaper-clad Gingrich under the headline, "Cry Baby."

The Gingrich flap buttressed the view some held that guests at Sperling breakfasts did not so much break news as commit indiscretions.

"The Sperling ambience could be entrapping for the guest," said Chuck Lewis, bureau chief for Hearst newspapers. No cameras. No reporters posturing for television. No shouted questions. "I don't think Gingrich had the slightest idea that he was making news," Lewis said.

Sometimes the setting's gentility also numbed the reporters. Political consultant Edward J. Rollins bragged in 1993 that he had won the New Jersey gubernatorial election for Christie Whitman by giving black ministers $500,000 to suppress the black vote. The Columbia Journalism Review later reported that at least nine of the 14 to 20 reporters in attendance did not file a first-day story on his remarks. There was plenty of coverage later, after Whitman denied the charge, a lawsuit was filed and Rollins recanted.

For many print journalists, especially regional reporters whose newspapers do not command the same cachet as large dailies, the breakfasts were a godsend--even at $30 a person--especially when Sperling delivered top-name guests.

"We wait a long time to see [National Security Advisor] Condoleezza Rice," said Sara Fritz, Washington bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times.

Fritz, once a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, had two other observations about the breakfasts.

First, the food. "If you get there early, you can get some cereal and fruit"--healthier options added in the 1980s, when cholesterol made the news.

Then, the crowd. "When I first went 30 years ago, I could not believe how old those people were," she said of the reporters. "Now I'm one of them. It's like the Veterans of Foreign Wars for journalists. It's people with a lot of experience and not much energy."

The breakfasts were also the last refuge for generalists in an age of specialized beats like science writing and defense coverage. (The latter has spawned its own breakfast, with less cutlery and fewer participants.)

Sperling was a veteran campaign reporter, so the guest list was heavy on politics. From Clinton, who came with his wife, Hillary, to douse rumors of marital problems, to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), candidates saw the breakfasts as a testing ground, a must-attend as critical as an appearance on the Sunday TV talk shows.

Washington Post columnist David Broder, one of 11 reporters who attended the first session, has "consumed my share of scrambled eggs" and taken stockpiled notes on thousands of public officials. Broder mused about the companionship that came in leisurely on-the-record sessions.

"They did a tremendous lot of work in lining up people," Broder said. "It involved knowing when the governor of California was coming into town so we could grab him. They got people who were good, at a timely moment."

Sperling said the breakfasts weren't so much designed as evolved. And, for the record, he never intended to bait guests with "softball" questions.

"I don't like the word 'softball,' " he said. "I do like civility, and I never liked the idea of angry encounters."

But, he added, referring to powerhouse reporters who asked the follow-up questions around his table, "we don't just sit back and let them eat us for breakfast, either."

Broder agreed. "Budge is a gentleman, no question about that. It's just that, like a lot of us, he needs to clear his throat a little before he gets to the point."

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