I was chasing Janet Reno through a school cafeteria when it hit me. Something’s gotta change. It was late 2000 and the outgoing Attorney General was in town hawking some government-sponsored reading program at a rural elementary school. But the reading program wasn’t why three live trucks were parked outside the gymnasium. No, the rest of the media jackals were there for the same reason I was; in hopes Reno would comment on just WHO should be President of the United States.
At the time the nation was engorged over hanging chads, senile voters and screwy network news predictions. In fact the whole world was watching as lawmakers and litigators played rock-scissor-paper to decide who would be the leader of the free world. Of course, we now know George W came out on top but at the time, the future was very much a mystery. As all eyes turned to Florida, the story became harder to advance on a local level.
And then came Reno. When word came down the jittery politico was scheduled to swoop through our region, news managers across the land marshaled their forces, gassed up their live trucks and sent out their probes.
“Ask Reno what she thinks about the election controversy!” came the order, even though everyone involved: the news managers, Reno‘s handlers, even the lunch ladies scooping fuzzy jell-o in the back knew that the soon-to-be Ex-Attorney General wasn’t gonna say diddly-squat about the state of the election. Everyone, that is, except the reporter I was assigned to that day.
New to our station and devoid of all humor, this fireball of a brunette sharpened her claws all the way to the outlying school. It was all I could do to keep her out of attack mode as we squeezed into the undersized tables and chairs for a sizzling roundtable on the fundamentals of reading. When the manly Floridian made her entrance, an entourage of assistants and Secret Service types trailed after her. Rolling tape, all I could think of was Will Ferrell bursting through a wall and twitching about on the dance floor.
But there’d be no disco balls dropping out of the acoustic ceiling today, merely a perfunctory photo op with Reno reading to school kids. After a half-dead rendition of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, the tall lady with the bus window glasses took a few questions from the assembled press.
Despite the best efforts of several heavily-lacquered correspondents, Reno snubbed every election query with the air of a disgruntled school-marm.
“I’m not here to talk to about what’s going on with the vote…”
It was enough for me, but not for my partner. After the press conference dissipated she insisted we camp out by the lunchroom exit and wait for Reno to finish a quick tour of the school grounds. Perhaps my on-air cohort thought the Attorney General might re-think her position after a whirlwind stroll through the very finest in first grade water colors. Whatever she thought, she was just being a hardnosed reporter, a quality I can respect but not always want to be around all day.
You see lately, I’d been having serious thoughts about my career. Burned out on years of repeating myself for deadlines that never changed, I desperately wanted out of the general assignment mix. Far happier working on stories that ended the newscast with humor and grace than the ones that shouted and preened at the top of the show, I was weary from battle and dizzy from a decade of grueling top-story pursuits.
While all this had been simmering in my brain-pan for quite some time, new career plans really crystallized as Janet Reno and her bodyguard dance party burst from the far hallway. Before I knew it, my reporter lurched toward them, spouting questions and waving her microphone like a beacon of truth. Being her cameraman, I fell into chase; for the next two minutes I backpedaled, zoomed and focused as my pit-bull of a partner asked the same damn question a dozen different ways.
We never got the response she’d hoped for, though I did come into contact with the beefy elbows of her security detail. All this seemed to genuinely shock the school principal leading the tour. As Reno finally shook us from her coattails, I pantomimed my apologies to the perturbed administrator:
'Sorry Ma’am, but we’re the media - its what we do.'
These days I do LOTS of feature stories. Butterfly farms, school bus rodeos, Easter egg hunts, the list reads like something out of a Willy Wonka script. I like it that way. My storytelling heroes don’t lead the newscast live from the White House; they craft portraits of America for CBS Sunday Morning and the like. And while I’m not to that level yet, I can put together a sentimental show-ender with the best of them. It beats stalking political zombies with silly questions that have no answers. Most days.